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Canada to memorialize LGBT victims of Cold War-era ‘gay purge’

Todd Ross inside the operations room of the destroyer HMCS Saskatchewan on Canada’s Pacific coast in 1989. (Courtesy of Todd Ross)
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TORONTO — Todd Ross was a naval combat information operator on the HMCS Saskatchewan in 1989 when he was called out over the public address system, escorted off the destroyer by officers and told he was the subject of an espionage probe.

Over the next 18 months, Ross was given six polygraph tests and interrogated about his sexual orientation and loyalty to Canada.

Eventually, he broke down. Facing a two-way mirror, he admitted to a stranger what he had not yet told some close confidants.

“Yes,” Ross said. “I’m gay.”

The 21-year-old seaman was given an ultimatum: Accept an honorable discharge or lose his security clearance, effectively extinguishing any prospect of career advancement. He chose the discharge and returned home to New Brunswick, where only a few years earlier he’d been named the province’s top army cadet.

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Ross was one of thousands who lost careers in the armed forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other government agencies during the country’s notorious “gay purge” from the 1950s to the 1990s. A legal challenge brought the policy to an end in 1992. Now its victims are gaining greater recognition.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has formally apologized to Ross and others whose dreams of serving their country were destroyed by the “state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection.” Now, officials and advocates are building a national monument to memorialize them in Ottawa.

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“Monuments . . . can unite us in grief, help us learn about our past and bring us together as Canadians,” Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said this year. “This monument will invite Canadians to reflect on this shameful time in our history and allow us to move forward together toward a future where all Canadians are respected for who they are.”

The $5.6 million monument will be built with money from a $103 million government settlement to purge victims in 2017. Ross, a lead plaintiff in that class action, hopes it will be a “timeless” commemoration of the struggles faced by LGBT Canadians and a recognition of the work left to do to achieve equality — “a celebration and almost a call to action,” he said. An international design competition has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but builders still hope to complete it by 2024.

Ross returned to New Brunswick “emotionally distraught.” He was told he did not qualify for veterans’ benefits, which left him feeling shame. He felt he had “not lived up to the expectations of [his] country.” He says he attempted suicide.

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For many years, Ross believed his experience was an anomaly. It was not.

Carleton University historian Patrizia Gentile, co-author of “The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation,” traces the purge to the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War 1950s.

Officials in Canada and other Western countries believed that gay men and women had “character weaknesses [that] made them vulnerable and blackmailable” by the Soviet Union, Gentile said. There’s no evidence any foreign power blackmailed any LGBT Canadian into giving up government secrets.

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Officials set up special investigation units in the military police and the RCMP tasked with finding suspected LGBT government employees. The unit worked not only to get gay Canadians to “confess” their sexual orientations, but also to intimidate them into naming LGBT colleagues.

The investigators initially surveilled public spaces and bugged telephones, but they began to find those methods were too time- and resource-intensive. In the early 1960s, they commissioned a psychology professor to develop a machine to detect homosexuality. Suspected LGBT employees were seated in a reclining chair and exposed to erotic images while their blood pressure and pupil dilation were measured.

A group of RCMP officers who were asked to test it out as the “control group” dubbed it “the fruit machine.” The contraption failed and was shelved.

Canada partially decriminalized homosexuality in 1969. When the legislation was first tabled in Parliament in 1967, then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, declared there was “no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” But the program continued for nearly a quarter century, until 1992.

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That’s when Michelle Douglas, a military police officer who had been dismissed in 1989 for “being not advantageously employable due to homosexuality,” won a legal challenge, bringing the purge to an end.

Douglas’s boss had told her that she was to be flown from Toronto to Ottawa for a “serious matter.” It was a ruse. Instead, she was taken to a hotel in Toronto, where she spent two days being interrogated about her sexual orientation. She eventually relented and said she was gay. Then she was fired.

“I was so proud to serve my country, and I was good at it,” Douglas said. “They were degrading and dehumanizing in the way they interrogated, investigated and harassed us.”

She went on to have a long career in the Justice Department — “another irony,” she said. She’s now the executive director of the LGBT Purge Fund, a nonprofit that administers the portion of the 2017 settlement money set aside for reconciliation and memorialization.

The settlement obliged the government to provide historical records related to the purge, but Douglas said it has been a “disappointingly slow” process — even before the pandemic struck. Only 271 of some 11,000 pages of documents have been provided.

“I can’t say it’s acrimonious,” Douglas said. “It’s not. But we will be persistent and unbending in our pursuit of getting access to those records.”

She retained Douglas Elliott, the lead lawyer on the class action, to help.

As an undergraduate student and a young gay activist, Elliott had heard of the case of a woman who had been kicked out of the army for being gay. But until he learned of Douglas’s experience, he hadn’t realized it was an organized government program.

“It was a lot more systematic, a lot more far-reaching, a lot more idiotic, a lot more harmful than I had realized,” he said.

Elliott was in the House of Commons for Trudeau’s apology in 2017. He described it as a “proud” moment.

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Also present for the apology was Martine Roy. She joined the military in 1981 as a 19-year-old. One day during her field training, a car approached. She thought its occupants were lost, but they identified themselves as part of the special investigations unit and told her she was under arrest.

Like Ross and Douglas, she was interrogated about her sexual history. She told them she was “confused” and was released. She continued working and was eventually offered a role requiring top-secret clearance. On the day she signed her contract, she bought a Hyundai Pony, her first car.

Two months later, Roy was summoned to meet with a colonel, who told her she was a deviant and was being dishonorably discharged for homosexuality. She had nine days to gather her belongings and clear out.

“The floor opened,” Roy said.

Trudeau’s apology, Roy said, was “one of the most amazing moments” of her life. She’s now looking forward to the design competition for the monument. She said watching countries such as the United States, Brazil and Russia threaten LGBT rights is a reminder “we can go back so fast.”

For years after her discharge, Roy said, she struggled with addiction and had difficulty maintaining relationships. Today, she’s happily married with two children.

“We live in a nice little house,” Roy said. “We live like everybody else. Because we are like everybody else.”

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