The world since 9/11 has indeed become a very different place — but not in the way that George Bush meant when he made that prediction. And while the most visible manifestations may be the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most concrete changes for those in North America may be the deterioration of civil liberties.
Everyone’s heard about the increased power that governments and security agencies have assumed to listen to phone calls, monitor internet usage, track bank and credit card activity. And while the avowed purpose of all this surveillance may be to track terrorist activity, there’s a growing fear among civil libertarians and ordinary people that governments, police and security agencies are pursuing their own agendas by accumulating secret information and observing the private lives of ordinary citizens.
While gays and lesbians are certainly not normally thought of as being among the leading suspects when it comes to terrorist activities, they do have a history in North America — including government-sponsored anti-gay witchhunts in Canada — that should lead the community to worry about the power that governments, and private businesses, are assuming over all our lives. Especially when those governments are distinctly unfriendly to the queers they govern.
“In the national security state in Canada, although there’s not the same overt campaign, queer people are still seen as suspicious,” says Gary Kinsman, a sociology professor at Sudbury’s Laurentian University. Kinsman has written extensively about state harassment of Canadian gays and lesbians in the name of national security in the 1950s and ’60s. “We’re still in a social and political context in which gay and lesbian people are not fully recognized. There are still ways in which people are still considered security risks.”
Kinsman says that in the ’50s and ’60s, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police used the supposed possibility of gays and lesbians being blackmailed by the Soviets as a pretext to hound queer government employees. He says he doesn’t see a return to those days, but adds that those who are still in the closet, or who perhaps have a family and engage in occasional homo sex, may still be at risk.
“A much more public gay and lesbian movement has undermined much of that reasoning. And even if the Harper government is elected with a huge majority, I don’t think there’s a danger of returning to the ’50s or ’60s.
“But the Harper government still conceives of us as being some sort of moral danger. So it’s possible for somebody who’s queer but has something to hide to be considered as a risk.”
Kinsman says the increased surveillance powers being handed to police and security agencies could very well end up being used to target queers. He points to the plan now being considered by Toronto police to mount surveillance cameras throughout the city as an example, one that could remind many of previous police abuses.
“Video surveillance is used to police private or intimate acts that may take place in these state-defined public places. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, and continuing in some places, the police used video surveillance to charge men for having consensual sex in washrooms. In some of these situations these men were not out. In at least a couple of cases, when their name was published in the newspapers, they took their own lives.”
Kinsman also says the targeting of bathhouses by police could leave queers vulnerable to surveillance.
“The police can still use criminal code sections like ‘indecent act’ and ‘bawdyhouse’ charges against us for the consensual sex we engage in. Queer sex is still constructed as more indecent or obscene than similar hetero sex. In these situations video surveillance can still very much be used against us. Since some people are not out, such evidence can also still be used to out people against their will.”
Kinsman also says the renewed focus on age of consent laws by the government and police could lead to queers being persecuted, especially with increased internet surveillance powers. He points to Project Guardian, a London, Ontario child porn investigation in the ’90s led by then-chief Julian Fantino, who would go on to be chief in Toronto and is now Ontario’s Commissioner Of Emergency Management. Project Guardian was widely criticized for being a witchhunt of gay men, with police and media alleging the existence of a gay child porn ring. In the end, although 45 gay men were arrested, only two ever faced pornography charges. The rest, in the cases that actually proceeded, involved consensual paid sex with gay teenage street hustlers.
“Just imagine how these new forms of surveillance could be used to entrap young queer people or slightly older people.”
And according to Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair In Internet And E-commerce Law at the University Of Ottawa’s Faculty Of Law, Kinsman’s fears about internet surveillance are justified.
Geist says the government is set to reintroduce a bill originally proposed by the Liberal government. That bill would require internet service providers to update their technology to allow security forces access to their clients’ activities. The original bill died when the Liberal government fell.
“ISPs will be required to retain info for long periods of time. There will be requirements to hand over customer info, in some cases without judicial oversight. We’ve seen exactly that happen in the US, with the National Security Agency requiring telecommunications companies to hand over information. The kind of surveillance that is being contemplated has the potential to be truly ubiquitous.”
Geist says that under the original bill, security forces would only have been required to report once a year on their use of internet surveillance.
“There’s an annual reporting mechanism of the use, which is not oversight at all.”
And according to Micheal Vonn, the policy director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, gays and lesbians could be especially vulnerable to that kind of surveillance as they may use technology more than other groups.
“It’s certainly fair to say that people who are particularly high-frequency users of technology might find themselves disproportionately targeted.”
But Vonn’s primary fear is less about direct security issues and more about the ongoing debate about computerizing and centralizing the health records of Canadian citizens.
“As a former AIDS advocate, my concern is about electronic medical records, which I think will have a huge effect. The sensitivity around those issues is red-hot. What server is going to be the repository? Is it across the border? Who will have access under what laws?
“The implications are, will it be part of this system for the government to have access for, let’s say, epidemiology, for the government to have access to medical records in a way that is unprecedented? Imagine if such a system had existed at a time when AIDS panic had swept North America in the ’80s.”
Kinsman agrees, pointing to changes last year to Ontario’s welfare payments. Before then, welfare recipients were entitled to up to $250 per month for dietary supplements on the recommendation of a doctor. The changes require a doctor to provide the welfare administrators with precise details on the recipient’s medical conditions that required the supplements.
“There’s a whole range of people having access to confidential medical info.”
But Vonn says the problem of access to information goes well beyond government and security agencies. She points to the growing ability of companies and the private sector to track credit card use and financial transactions.
“I would suggest at this point all bets are off. The extent of Canadian privacy laws appears to end at the border. Is the company actually in Canada? Where does the IT come in? Is your data being serviced in the US? We get a little bit of a sense when we think we’re talking to the bank down the street and we’re being routed through India.
“There are aggregate data brokers in the US who do nothing but buy and sell data on individuals. A Maclean’s magazine reporter used such a broker to find out who had been calling the federal privacy commissioner’s cell phone.”
Vonn says the concern for gays and lesbians is that there’s nothing to stop potentially homophobic employers, landlords or insurance brokers from using such brokers to find out about your sexuality or health status.
“The kinds of profiles that could be put together on you by potential employers is stunning. The commercial value of this data is out of this world. The combination of technological advances and the unspeakable commercial value has really fuelled the advances. And imagine if you have the collection of an unspeakable amount of data being collected by someone with a malevolent purpose.”
While most of the implications of new security laws and technologies for Canada’s queer community have nothing directly to do with terrorism, gays and lesbians are not immune from being caught up in the war on terror, especially if they are also Muslims.
Given that queer Muslims can face hostility from parts of their religious community, Kinsman says they are especially vulnerable to investigation by security agencies.
“Let’s say they’re not out at their mosque. This information becomes known to the security agency. One danger is they might out this person. It’s standard to do a lot of interviews or they have informants. They could be outed in the context of the mosque, which could have devastating consequences.”
Kinsman says that while he hasn’t heard of any such cases in Canada, it’s possible that if security forces found out a Muslim was gay they could force him into becoming an informant by threatening to out him.
In fact, a 2003 report from the British Broadcasting Corporation says that Israeli security forces have used such tactics to recruit informants among Palestinians and coerce them into working undercover. In Palestine, collaborators have been known to be executed, as have gay men, sometimes by their own families in honour killings.
Kinsman says the result of gay collaborators being exposed is to provide justification for homophobia.
“You can really see the kinds of dangers this would present. It provides full justification for hatred of gay people if they’re working for the state.”
When it comes to new surveillance techniques and information-gathering by government agencies, the United States is obviously at the vanguard. But while much of the US population has been willing to go along with such measures in the wake of 9/11, the American Civil Liberties Union suggests that the country’s strong libertarian streak may yet save queers from some of the concerns expressed by Vonn and Kinsman.
Matt Coles, the director of the ACLU’s Lesbian And Gay Rights Project, says gays and lesbians have faced some specific difficulties as a result of new security measures. He says that gay couples with children and transsexuals have had particular problems with new ID requirements.
But Coles says the ACLU is not worried about attempts to computerize or centralize health information. He says such proposals have not been well received in the past.
“Attempts have not gone very far. I don’t think it’s coming back.”
Coles also says he doesn’t think the public will stand for insurance companies discriminating against gays and lesbians, if for no other reason than that it would leave so many other groups potentially vulnerable.
“Once you’re able to target gays and lesbians, you can target any other group. And there are much stronger correlations between illnesses and other groups like African-Americans or Jews.”
But Coles says he is concerned that worries about the links between the internet and terrorism will make it easier for the government to control internet content when it comes to gays and lesbians, especially youth.
“The federal government, since the Clinton administration, has been trying to regulate the internet in a way that would impair what is suitable for children, which would have the effect of shutting down access where young gays go, and info on HIV.
“I think the main things people should worry about is censorship in high school and attempts to keep gay kids from coming out, from finding each other.”
And Coles says that the Bush government is also taking advantage of the wars on terrorism and in Iraq to implement its own religious agenda – one that targets gays and lesbians.
“The government that got us into Iraq is the same government that has been trying to promote a kind of religious orthodoxy. Terrorism and Iraq will be used as an excuse to centralize power and use it in part to advance a religious agenda.”