4 min

Government staff play out in the open

Public Service Pride Network connects queers in Ottawa government

Credit: Shawn Scallen

What a difference four decades make. Today, gay civil servants have their own organization – the Public Service Pride Network. They have regular socials with guest speakers. And a website.

And while there are still whispers of a lavender ceiling keeping gays and lesbians from the top mandarin jobs and some ongoing harassment, most people are now focussing on the positive developments.

It wasn’t always so.

During the “red scare” years of the 1960s, the RCMP actively ferreted out closeted homosexual government employees – closeted being the only kind of homosexual employee at the time – the police insisting gay staff were a security threat.

History tells us “there is no documented case of any homosexual being blackmailed by foreign agents or agents of the Soviet Union,” says Gary Kinsman, a sociology professor at Laurentian University.

Kinsman has researched the “fruit machine” developed by Robert Wake, the former chair of the Carleton University psychology department, to help the RCMP identify gay employees. The Mounties did not want to waste their time following around suspected homosexuals. They wanted a scientific way to “prove” someone’s homosexuality.

Subjects were made to sit in a dimly-lit room directly facing a screen. This screen would flash both pictures of the male physique and artistic pictures. The machine would gauge the subject’s reaction to each picture.

If the subject’s pupils became dilated at the sight of a naked man, they were thought to be homosexual. The machine also gauged the subject’s sweat as the pictures were shown.

And while in today’s enlightened period the very idea of a fruit machine seems an obvious joke, for closeted government employees of the day it was no joke.

The fruit machine never advanced beyond the trial period. It lost its funding around 1968. By then, the official Security Panel – made up of RCMP officers along with staff from National Defence, External Affairs and the Privy Council – had investigated some 9,000 suspected gays and lesbians. At least 395 lost their jobs.

Attacks on some gay and lesbian employees – in the military and RCMP in particular – continued until around 1992.

It’s a different world for today’s government employees.

They party together, openly joining the Public Service Pride Network. And they’re out and open.

Like Doug Janoff. The HRSD employee heard about the network through word-of-mouth.

The network began with a core group of about 25 people a year and a half ago. To test the waters, they held a lunch and about 12 people showed up. The more lunches they held, the more people came.

They organized a pub night last May at the Lookout Bar. Turnout was great: 150 people showed up. “That’s when I think we realized that we weren’t shuffling in the dark,” says Janoff. “There was not only an interest but there was also a need for this kind of network.”

The network grew from there. In January, 2004, there were 25 people on the network’s mailing list. Now there are over 400. A couple of months back, the network launched a website.

But the core activity is the monthly get-together. With no independent funding source, organizers limit the size of events. They’ve held pub nights, gone skating on the canal and dined at a restaurant for Valentine’s Day. Turnout is usually about 60 to 70 men and women from a variety of workplaces. Everyone wears a nametag.

Janoff says he loves the feeling of camaraderie. “The most exciting thing is being able to go out and have a drink with people from all walks of life, from many different departments.

“The most exciting thing is it’s such a wonderful mix of people. Everyone from clerks to assistant deputy ministers all having a drink under one roof,” he explains. “The government is very hierarchical, so clerks don’t normally mix with assistant deputy ministers.”

Ian Matthews is the Pride contact within the Revenue Canada Agency. He was there from the network’s beginning.

Matthews says the group stemmed from a sense of gays and lesbians not being connected in the workplace. “Sometimes being gay and lesbian,” he says, “you have a sense of being a minority and not having a sense of belonging, and this can provide that.”

Matthews says he also enjoys the network because of the social aspect it creates, “I’m not a big pub-goer,” he says. “When I have gone to the bars here, they can be the loneliest place on the planet. But I find [at] the pub nights with the government Pride Network, it’s very easy to approach a group and engage in chat.”

Both Matthews and Janoff are quick to point out that the network is not affiliated with the government in any way, other than it is limited to those gays and lesbians working for the government.

And for now, members are shying away from mirroring the bureaucratic structure they work in all day. “It’s nice to be in an organization where it doesn’t have to be structured with bylaws,” says Janoff. “We’ve tried to keep it as open as possible.”

And fun. It’s all about the fun, they say.

But they also know that the discrimination faced by queer government employees hasn’t gone away completely.

Their website notes that the group wishes to tackle some concerns expressed by queer civil servants. These include workplace harassment due to sexual orientation or gender identity; fear of revealing sexual orientation due to personal, social or professional repercussions; little chance of career advancement due to sexual orientation; and a feeling of being isolated from other gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans employees.

According to the network’s website, education, support, advocacy and outreach committees may be on the way.

And then there’s the matter of accessibility. Some people are having trouble accessing the website, presumably because some servers may be blocking keywords like “gay” and “transsexual,” says Janoff. Employees with the problem are encouraged to contact their department helplines to have the block removed.

While those roadblocks are cleared, employees still have their Friday lunches and happy hours to go to.

“Maybe they get a chance to find that there’s people out there and maybe they’re in the cubicle right next to them and they didn’t know it,” chuckles Janoff.