5 min

Gay in the army

Despite years of inclusion, Canadian military still not a friendly space for gays and lesbians

A recent report of homophobia and harassment of a gay Canadian soldier in Afghanistan has one military observer warning the incident is just the tip of the iceberg.

On Jan 30, Warrant Officer Andrew McLean told the CBC he found a note on his workstation at Kandahar Airfield that threatened his life because he is gay.

The note said, “You are gay. Because of this minus 2,” the metric equivalent of “six feet under,” McLean told the CBC.

He reported the threat to officials and was relocated. A full investigation into the incident couldn’t be launched because it is not known who wrote the note, officials told the CBC.

Former soldier Carl Bouchard says that while it’s disappointing to hear of homophobic threats being made in the military, he isn’t surprised.

Bouchard was in the infantry from 1994 to 2000. He says he didn’t see any overt gaybashing, but his colleagues would use homophobic slurs against weaker soldiers.

“In a platoon of 30 to 120 [soldiers], there’s always one or two guys that don’t fit in for some reason,” he says, noting he witnessed harassment based on race and physical weakness, though not sexuality.

Bouchard attributes much of the harassment he saw to the hyper-masculine culture of the military.

“It’s pretty much a guys’ world,” he says.

Most of the soldiers are tough young men, and the first phase of training, basic training and battle school, strives to make you tougher, he says. “That’s where they have these courses to weed out the weak.

“If somebody is the weak link in the family or the chain, well, after a while you’re sick of doing pushups with this guy,” he says. “The first thing is you try to help him, then after a while, you turn negative on the guy.”

It’s a macho environment to begin with, and when battle stress, mental fatigue and paranoia are factored in, things can get out of control, Bouchard says.

“Not to disgust you, but I’ve seen things where guys throw urine and feces and semen,” he says. “It’s crazy what 30 guys together for six months will do.”

Laurentian University professor Gary Kinsman says basic military principles and structure are at the root of heterosexist attitudes.

The military has historically been a male-dominated, hierarchical and “masculinist” institution, he says. One product of a masculinist attitude is the association of male sexuality with extreme hostility, especially toward those men and women who don’t fit in, including lesbians and gays, he says.

“We’re actually talking about very dangerous situations for women in general, but also for anyone who’s openly identified as being queer, whether they are or not,” he says.

McLean found the threatening note in September, right around the time the United States government overturned Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), the policy that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military.

The end of DADT was big news in the US, but Canada has allowed gays and lesbians in the military for almost 20 years.

In 1989, Michelle Douglas was discharged from the Canadian military for being a lesbian. She challenged her dismissal, claiming her Charter rights were violated. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in her favour, overturning the ban on lesbians and gays in the military.

Kinsman wrote a legal affidavit at the time arguing that the military wouldn’t crumble if gays and lesbians were allowed to join, he says.

A study conducted in 2000 at the University of California found that the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Canadian military did not, in fact, affect military performance. It further found that none of the 905 assault cases reported between 1992 and 1995 involved gaybashing or could be linked to sexual orientation.

On Feb 12 the Canadian Forces (CF) implemented guidelines for commanders and supervisors on preventing discrimination and harassment toward transgender soldiers in the workplace and meeting the special requirements of those who are transitioning, according to online documents.

“CF transsexual members are a valued and integral part of the CF and have the same rights as any other person to work in a harassment-free workplace,” the document states.

“I truly believe it’s not as bad as it was when I was there, and it’s getting better year by year,” Bouchard says.

He says soldiers have access to more support now than they did 10 years ago. “There’s more channels than there were if [soldiers] need to speak to somebody,” he says.

A gay member of the Canadian Forces says harassment can be dealt with on a few different levels.

The member, who asked to remain anonymous because of CF rules that prohibit active personnel from speaking to media, says that depending on the group’s dynamic, the issue can sometimes be resolved between colleagues. If the issue persists or is more serious, the victim of harassment can go to a superior to seek his or her intervention or can ask for neutral third-party mediation.

If the issue is very serious, there is a formal complaint process. An investigation could result in corrective remedies, such as the harasser being charged or assigned to more sensitivity training, or the victim of harassment might be relocated.

The military source says that in every unit, soldiers can seek support from a harassment advisor, the chaplain or any person in a position of responsibility. Full-time soldiers can access free counselling through military health services, and all soldiers and their families have access to a short-term confidential support service called the Member Assistance Program.

Despite these procedures, the military source says most people don’t report homophobia unless it creates a toxic environment or is a serious threat, as in McLean’s case.

This can be attributed to the “tough-guy” attitude Bouchard refers to, but often it’s just easier to try to brush it off, the source says. For example, if a soldier is on a short-term assignment and faces a discriminatory colleague, it may not be worthwhile to complain.

The source has witnessed only a few incidents of harassment but says colleagues often use homophobic language: “You’ve got to let some things slide.”

Though there have been significant reforms to the military, including the acceptance of lesbians and gays, Kinsman says nothing has been done to change the character of the military.

“Rather than doing any popular education or talking to people in the military about lesbians and gays, they basically decided to simply deal with [harassment against gays and lesbians] as a disciplinary measure,” he says.

Formal disciplinary measures are one way of responding to harassment, but they do little to address informal discrimination or change attitudes, he says.

Harassment is treated as an individual problem. In McLean’s case, the remedy was to relocate the victim of harassment, rather than address the issue on a larger scale.

Formal equality measures have allowed gays and lesbians to enter the military, but they must still assimilate into the male-dominated culture, Kinsman says.

As a result, gay and lesbian soldiers aren’t always comfortable being open about their sexuality.

“Probably at least two guys came out when I was there,” says Bouchard. “The thing is, for these guys it takes a long time to be comfortable. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Kinsman says that even after the military officially recognized spousal rights in the 1990s, many gays and lesbians refused to identify their partners.

“They feared the military would now have a list, and therefore if they ever decided to take action or there was a regression in policy, they would know who to come after,” he says.

In some ways, cases like McLean’s show the limitations of the strategies of the gay rights movement, Kinsman says. Seeking inclusion in major institutions like marriage or the military without transforming them doesn’t create queer-friendly spaces, he says. “We need to go a lot further than that.”

Kinsman says McLean’s story is one of the first occasions where someone has come forward and confirmed what has long been said to be the reality for gays and lesbians in the military.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface there’s a lot more instances of violence and harassment,” he says.