News
4 min

Gay people and national security

How does security clearance work for queer politicians and civil servants?

Foreign affairs minister John Baird. Credit: Andrew Rusk
After the appointment of Conservative MP John Baird to the post of minister of foreign affairs, a number of questions circulated about security clearances. After all, it was not so very long ago that gay people were purged from government and civil service roles for having what was described as a “character flaw” that could lead to breaches of security. Even today, gay people applying for top-secret security clearance have to disclose their sexualities and their partners’ names. They have to assure security screeners that they are out so their sexuality can’t be used as fodder for blackmail. But where does a minister like Baird fit in?
 
Baird, who is gay but media-shy about his sexuality, is likely to have little problem getting past security screenings for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, being gay no longer carries the same social stigma it once did. On top of that, politicians are not subject to the same security constraints that are public servants.
 
Up until the late 1950s, the government and the security regime considered homosexuals to be national security risks.
 
“They cited in particular our supposed vulnerability to blackmail. We supposedly suffered from a character weakness that made us susceptible to blackmail and influence from, for lack of a better expression and to be somewhat facetious, ‘evil Soviet agents,’” says Gary Kinsman, a professor at Laurentian University who co-wrote The Canadian War on Queers, a book that details the security campaign against the queer community in Canada.
 
“Everyone in the public service who was identified as being a homosexual, initially in that period – from the late ’50s, early 1960s and into the late ’60s, would automatically lose their position,” Kinsman says.
 
There was a bit of a relaxation into the early ’70s, when some gay public servants were transferred to lower-level positions rather than simply fired outright, but it was made clear that they never would advance into positions where they would require a higher level of security clearance.
 
“You also have to understand that the security clearance system in the public service is tied up with the possibility of promotion, so that the higher you go up, even if you’re not directly relating to security information, usually there’s a security clearance provision that’s applied to that,” Kinsman says.
 
These rules didn’t relax until the late ’80s, according to Kinsman, though discrimination still existed within agencies like the RCMP, CSIS and the military.
 
“By the late 1990s, there’s a certain understanding that if you’re actually out and visible and you couldn’t possibly be blackmail-able, that you’re no longer a type of security risk,” Kinsman says. “There’s a certain shift in that context for those people who might not be out for whatever the reason, and people oftentimes have very good reasons to not want to be out; there’s often a shift in that type of direction.
 
“It’s interesting that if you actually have closeted members in the cabinet who have access to national security information, it would be interesting to know right now how security police are dealing with that.”
 
The difference between public servants and cabinet ministers becomes apparent in the process. According to a former senior Privy Council Office (PCO) official, who spoke to Xtra on background, the security process with regard to cabinet ministers is based on voluntary disclosure of information. Potential cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries, while never directly asked about their sexualities, are asked open-ended questions about whether they might be vulnerable or could bring themselves or the party into disrepute.
 
It was not always the case that politicians were shielded from security sweeps because of their positions. In The Canadian War on Queers, Kinsman recounts one tale in which an MP lost his position on an international affairs committee in the early 1960s after his name came up during a security sweep of gay people.
 
But in post-Charter Canada, things are different.  
 
Scott Brison, the country’s first openly gay cabinet minister, says he doesn’t recall any particular discussion about his sexuality when he was first vetted by PCO.
 
“Any questions that were asked, I answered honestly,” Brison says. “But there were certainly no questions asked relative to sexual orientation, but they would have known because Canadians knew.”
 
That isn’t to say national security isn’t a valid concern. A closeted minister seeking to stay closeted could theoretically be vulnerable, though this becomes more of a stretch the more that society becomes comfortable with gay people. But that isn’t peculiar to gay people. A straight cabinet minister’s partner could also be a concern, whether that partner is a suspect individual with underworld connections, à la Maxime Bernier and his then-girlfriend Julie Couillard, or if there is a question of national origin.
 
“Do they come from somewhere where they might be under pressure from a regime, like Iran or Syria, or one of those places where the regime might still try to exert influence over their expats?” asks Reg Whitaker, professor emeritus at York University. “That might be an issue from a security viewpoint.”
 
“It was always a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of being a security risk,” says Whitaker. “It was only a security risk if being gay or lesbian was considered to be such a shameful and horrible thing that somebody, if uncovered, they would have their career destroyed, they would be subject to public humiliation, etcetera.”
 
In the case of someone like Baird, in or out, both Whitaker and the former PCO official are adamant about one ultimate factor, however.
 
“At the end of the day, the way that our system operates is that it’s never the police or never CSIS who actually makes the decision,” Whitaker says. “It is a political decision in the end – a ministerial decision, and in this case a prime ministerial decision, so if there were suggestions that somebody was a higher risk than others that meant that they would not get appointed, or removed if they were already there.”
 
“There’s a lot of filters here that could strain out any lingering prejudice on the part of people who are actually carrying out these investigations – unlike what happened in the late ’50s and early ’60s – [when] the RCMP almost got a kind of carte blanche to go out and carry out this purge, this witch-hunt, and with the ugly consequences that we know about, but those circumstances are not going to recur now.”