6 min

Don’t ask; do tell

A ban on discrimination in the military still leaves cadets vulnerable

Credit: Chris Hamilton

Tall and lean, William arrives at our first encounter in tight black pants with a razor crease, Jean-Luc Picard jacket buttoned to the neck, and a crimson sash. He’s just come from class at the Royal Military College, across the river.

We’re meeting in downtown Kingston, at a house shared by Paul Jackson, the first openly gay man to teach at RMC, and two historian colleagues. For the young cadet it feels safer to talk here than at the college. He doesn’t want me to use his real name.

“It’s a terrible place for rumours and gossip,” he says. “You start a rumour about someone at breakfast, and by lunch everyone has heard it.”

There is something about a man in uniform, as the saying goes, even a uniform like William’s with a design that dates from the late 1800s. To some of us the image is hot food for fantasy. But the trappings of male power tend to make me uneasy. In 20th century wars alone, men have killed more than 100 million people. Our own Canadian Forces, though famous as peace-keepers and flood-fighters, also bomb Iraqi civilians and torture Somalians. This provokes my opening question: given a choice, why would any sensible young homo go down this particular path?

William didn’t come to RMC for a fight, he says, and when he signed on, he didn’t know he was gay. In his early teens a fascination for ships drew him to join the sea cadets. Fresh from high school in the mid-’90s, he enrolled as an officer-cadet at Canada’s only military college; it offered leadership skills, a chance to be a peace-keeper, and, most important, a career. Through first and second years he struggled with courses, sports and the challenge of adapting to a strict military regime.

Finally in third year a straight female cadet who was dating his best friend got the reluctant cadet to check out some gay magazines and took him to a boy bar in Montreal; only then did William’s sexuality begin to awaken. Until then he had no idea that he would end up testing one of the most spectacular policy shifts in Canadian military history.

Less than a decade ago we were still barred from the forces; when we did manage to get in we’ve been subject to threats, interrogation, rape, beatings, imprisonment and discharge “with ignominy.” Then in October 1992, after lesbian officer Michelle Douglas fought her expulsion, an impending hearing at the Federal Court Of Canada pressured the government to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Canadian Forces.

The Royal Military College’s current mission statement declares that all officers must “treat everybody justly, equitably and without prejudice, allow no discrimination, ill treatment or cruelty, and welcome the strength that diversity brings.”

On paper it’s a remarkably progressive stand, far ahead of the notorious “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the US military, where queer soldiers are still discharged by the thousands, or as in one recent case, clubbed to death with a baseball bat. In contrast, the Canadian Forces just became the first in the world to pay the costs of sex-change surgery for a male-to-female transgendered officer, Sgt Sylvie Durand.

Still, this most ancient of men’s clubs has a long, dark tradition of hatred for homos, and such old habits die hard.

Coming out, at least to himself, William began to register incidents and remarks that previously he’d managed to ignore.

“Watching cadets pile up on the obstacle course, I overheard [one staff member] say they’re just like faggots. Another officer, this majorly macho guy, is incredibly intolerant, he talks about cadets getting kicked in the cunt. Every time I see these guys I feel like vomiting.”

Newer staff get better reviews from William and other cadets. But William still suffers anxiety attacks that can take his breath away. It’s not just the remarks, he says.

“If you come out, it can put your whole career at stake. Your commanding officers decide who gets promoted and who doesn’t. With the new policy they have to be more careful about it, but they really do hold your future in their hands.”

To grapple with his own future as a homo in the forces, William decided to rummage in the past. Having heard through the grapevine last fall that a history professor new to the college was an authority on homosexuality in the Canadian military, he asked Paul Jackson to design a directed reading course for him. They would keep its focus confidential, between them and the department head: the cadet would explore how several military cultures, past and present, have accommodated homosexuality. The approach of the Sambians, a south Pacific island people, stands out for William.

“They believe that when boys swallow the semen of men,” he says, “they absorb the substance of masculinity, and that’s how they become men themselves. In Sambian eyes if you don’t do that, there’s something wrong with you! It’s amazing what you can find once you start looking outside the box of your own culture.”

Due to enter RMC graduate school in the fall, William remains cautious about coming out.

“I know the new policy says no discrimination, but if people are determined to resist change,” he argues, “It’s not hard to find ways to undermine orders, it happens all the time. On the other hand, at some point I have to wonder if I’m really fooling anyone, and maybe I should just cut my losses, come out and get it over with. I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

William’s friend and fellow cadet Jesse has already crossed it. He joined the air cadets at age 12 in Ladysmith, British Columbia. In grade 12 he applied to RMC. The college offered him adventure, a free education and a career as a pilot. As Jesse says, “What a great opportunity to get paid for what you really like doing.”

Like William, when Jesse started coming out to himself in second year, he also began to feel the sting of homophobia.

“Every time I heard a comment about fags,” he says, “I’d be afraid they were talking about me. That’s how it works, you’re terrified of being outed.”

Increasingly annoyed, finally in December 1998 he published an article in the school paper, The Arch, attacking homophobia among his fellow cadets. They wouldn’t dare speak of niggers, he argued, so why was it okay to talk about fags? But he stopped short of signing it (and he would only be interviewed for this story under a pseudonym).

“If I’d put my name to it I might have been lynched,” says Jesse. “Some people were very pissed off. They didn’t like their ignorance to be exposed like that.”

Over the next few months he came out to a few selected friends; the college grapevine did the rest. By now Jesse is more out than any other cadet at the college, and by his own account, so far it doesn’t seem to have cost him greatly.

“Even the people who don’t like it,” he says, “they’ll still say hi and treat me with the minimum of human decency.”

Other cadets have stopped telling him there are no gays at RMC.

This spring Jesse and his partner Rob further tested the no-discrimination policy. They met two years ago in a coming-out discussion group led by Rob at Queen’s University. In due course, Jesse was spending most of his nights in Rob’s room at Queen’s; they decided it was time they tried living together.

While Jesse can’t live off-base until he graduates, qualifying couples can rent an apartment in married quarters for only $190 a month. So the two of them submitted RMC’s first same-sex application for common-law status. Friends wrote letters testifying they’d been together for the required full year, and Jesse’s squadron commander, a woman, steered the application through the bureaucracy, without much hassle.

Their basement apartment in a block of military housing is small, but room enough for the two of them and Priscilla (as in the Queen Of The Desert), their five-month old Jack Russell terrier, who chews at my equipment bag until she’s lured away by dog biscuits. Rob, a supply teacher, is now on Jesse’s health plan, and his beneficiary.

“Not that I’d ever let anything happen to him,” Jesse says. Jesse will train as a helicopter pilot to work in search and rescue, and Rob plans to be a medical officer, his education also to be financed by the Canadian Forces. In exchange they will both owe the forces several years of service. Jesse is 21, Rob 26; they plan to retire by their mid-forties.

In the meantime, Jesse hasn’t finished pressing for change. Now he and a few friends, women and men, are organizing a gay-straight alliance at the college.

“More and more people in the military are coming out,” he says. “As an officer, a leader in the Canadian Forces, one day you might have to deal with a soldier who tells you they’re gay, maybe they’re being harassed, they need help, and what are you going to do? I had to go to Queen’s to find people to talk to. Why not provide that here?”

The cadets have assured commanding officers that this will not be a political group. Says Jesse, with a laugh, “I’ve got enough parades at RMC, thank you, without adding another one.” The group’s functions will be social, support, watching movies, talking, comparing notes. It will also provide speakers for classes at the college.

“It’s important to get people thinking about the issues,” says Jesse, “and to let them know that resources are available.”

“How will people react?” he wonders. “Only time will tell. The official policy of the forces now is inclusion. Our job is to follow orders, and the order now is not to harass people who are gay or lesbian. Really, it’s only a matter of time.”