4 min

Feds lagging behind

Public servants seek recognition and support on gay and lesbian issues

Bruce Bursey sees no reason not to have a picture of his partner Peter Lockwood in his office at Public Works. He has no compunction about including Peter in the social side of his office and doesn’t feel compelled to censor or self-edit when conversing at work.

Lockwood, who works at the Department of Defense, does not enjoy these comforts. “My co-workers all know that I’m gay, but they don’t ask and I don’t tell. I simply don’t talk about it or Bruce at work, which is uncomfortable to say the least.”

If Bursey, Lockwood and thousands of other public servants have their way, this kind of discrepancy, along with more overt examples of discrimination, will soon be a thing of the past. The mechanism for this change is the development of interconnected networks to promote visibility and address the common concerns and issues of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered federal government employees.

Bursey is the spokesperson for Pride at Work, the gay and lesbian network at Public Works and Government Services Canada. They launched in October of 2002, and manifest the dictionary definition of a network: “An extended group of people with similar interests or concerns who interact and remain in informal contact for mutual assistance or support.”

Similar networks exist throughout the federal public service and represent employees from many regions of Canada. Together, they are working to create a culture of acceptance from within government that crosses departmental and geographic lines.

Bursey points out that it wasn’t that long ago that government employees could be ruined if their homosexuality became known.

“Where we came from is a workplace that would fire us, that would deny us security clearances, that would prevent us from advancing, That alone was a phenomenal barrier. Scores of people were fired, some committed suicide, and some careers never developed because of the shame.”

The first network was started in 1995 at Canadian Heritage, and since then others have grown at Health Canada, Natural Resources, CCRA, Statscan, PWGSC and Treasury Board. Each network responds to the unique culture of its department. Some of the activities the networks have promoted include informal get-togethers, conference presentations, research and education initiatives, bulletins and e-mail lists, and the participation of federal public servants in Pride parades in Edmonton and Vancouver.

“This year, the customs officers want to march in uniform,” says Moffat Clarke, the spokesperson for Health Canada’s Qnetwork in Vancouver.

It would stand to reason that the federal government, which strives to be a model workplace in the promotion of equity and diversity, would be a leader in recognizing the hard-won human rights of its employees. Unfortunately, when it comes to the sexual orientation aspect of diversity, Canada’s largest employer is lagging far behind the private sector in providing recognition and support to gay and lesbian employees.

Part of the problem is that sexual orientation is not specifically identified in interpretations of the employment equity act.

Kay Sinclair, a spokesperson for the gay and lesbian network at Canada Customs and Revenue in Vancouver, thinks that one job of the networks is to ensure that sexual orientation is recognized as an equity issue. “It fits into our departmental equity and diversity policies and goals. It’s one of our departmental priorities.”

For Bursey, the connection is clear. “There are gay and lesbian people that are also members of visible minorities. I think it’s important to ask [those responsible for ensuring equity and diversity] the question: what are you doing to identify and answer to the needs of your constituents who are also lesbian and gays? It’s horizontal thinking rather than stove-piping people into groups.”

Moffat Clarke chooses not to mince words when it comes to Health Canada’s track record on diversity. “Health Canada is a homophobic department.” But he is also optimistic about the department’s progress. “A Canadian Rights Tribunal issued Health Canada an order to provide training in bias-free selection processes. Since then, we have become a model for visible diversity.”

Bursey agrees that inclusivity training is a priority for Pride at Work. “For a decade the private sector has had in place homophobia diversity training, workplace training and values that are inclusive of gays and lesbians. The public service does not have that yet. It’s in the process of doing that, but it does it like a bureaucracy does it. For those of us who have laid the groundwork in the networks, it took a bit of finessing to determine what was culturally appropriate within our own department. That’s why there are differences in each of the networks.”

Johann Tan is part of a flexible solution to a regional limitation. “There’s just not enough of us in one department to make a viable network here in Edmonton.” That’s why FIRN (Federal Interdepartmental Rainbow Network) was created. FIRN brings together gay and lesbian employees from many government departments to work towards the same changes in attitude and visibility. One success was marching in the Edmonton Pride parade last year. “Some people recognized us and joined in. That’s how you get visibility. Then you can be who you are.” A little solidarity can make room for a whole lot of changes.

The important thing to Tan is the ability to be who you are at work. “You waste your life and energy playing roles.”

According to Bursey, “The network is a living thing in some departments, it’s not so in some other departments.” Like Defense for example. “National Defense does have a gay and lesbian network, it’s just outside of the department. Having said that, it’s a macho environment.”

Lockwood agrees. “[Being out at work] is not that common. There are about 12 of us who are willing to accept an e-mail and meet for coffee somewhere outside the office.”

To Bursey, that qualifies as a network. But he says the history of Defense has made employees wary.

“If those employees wanted to formalize it, if they asked for it to be recognized, it would be,” says Bursey. “They’re just not there yet.”