Commemorating the Victims of Canada’s ‘Gay Purge’

A national memorial will soon rise to the thousands of people whose careers were ruined because of their sexual orientation.

One of the most extraordinary things about the “gay purge” of Canada’s public servants, members of the military and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is that it continued until 1992. That was a quarter-century after Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then the justice minister, declared that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” as he introduced the legislation that repealed the nation’s laws banning homosexuality.

This week the National Capital Commission, the federal agency responsible for parks, monuments and public spaces in the Ottawa area, agreed to turn over a large plot of land west of Parliament Hill for the National LGBTQ2+ Monument.

It follows an apology made just over two years ago by Justin Trudeau, the current prime minister and a son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, to an estimated 9,000 people who lost their jobs and who, in some cases, were imprisoned because of their sexual orientation. Several of them are believed to have committed suicide.

The memorial is being financed with money from a fund of up to 25 million Canadian dollars that the government established in 2018 as it settled class-action lawsuits brought by members of the military and the Mounties as well as other public servants who were harassed, discriminated against or fired because of their sexual orientation.

The program was almost as bizarre as it was hurtful. It emerged in the 1950s out of general Cold War paranoia. The Mounties set up a special unit on the theory that gay men and lesbians might be blackmailed by the Soviet Union into turning over government secrets. Officers conducted surveillance of gay bars across Canada and used threats and intimidation to get the names of gay men and lesbians in government. The police force even worked with a psychologist in a failed, almost farcical attempt to build a homosexuality detector known as “the fruit machine.”

There is no recorded case of any government employees, Mounties or military members having turned over anything to the Soviets out of fear that their sexual orientation would be exposed.

I went to the future site of the memorial with Michelle Douglas. She is now the executive director of the LGBT Purge Fund, but she is perhaps better known as the woman who fought back and ended the purge.

After studying law at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ms. Douglas decided to go into law enforcement. The military police service was the first organization to accept her application, and she was soon in officer training.

Eventually Ms. Douglas was assigned to the special investigations unit of the military police and based in Toronto. Its duties included running the gay purge for the armed forces.

One day her boss bundled her into an unmarked police car and took her to a motel near Toronto Pearson International Airport. For two days she was interrogated and given polygraph tests.

“Many of the military police that interrogated me were just cruel. Some expressed a bizarre, prurient interest in the sex lives of homosexuals as well,” she told me on Friday. “The people I encountered were absolutely zealous about it. They seemed to not only embrace the policy, but they wanted to demonize, mock and humiliate anyone who they suspected of being homosexual.”

In 1989 she was fired for “being not advantageously employable due to homosexuality” and swiftly filed a lawsuit. Her court victory three years later brought the purge to a close.

Many steps remain before the international design competition for the monument begins as well as the public consultations that will follow any proposal. But Ms. Douglas said that the 8 million Canadian dollar project will be completed in 2024.

Whatever its form, Ms. Douglas’s vision is that the monument will be as much a place for gatherings — whether celebratory or in protest — as a commemoration site.

Despite her treatment by the military, Ms. Douglas went on to have a successful 30-year career in the public service and recently retired as the director of international relations at the Department of Justice.

But she said that the purge ruined many people’s lives and that men were disproportionately among the victims.

“There’s far fewer men than we had hoped to see as part of this class action,” she said. “Many committed suicide. Some were lost to H.I.V. or AIDS, and some just went back into the closet in shame. And so it’s a disproportionate number of women who are survivors today of the purge.”

by Ian Austen
Source – The New York Times