4 min

Who’d want to tell?

Policies can't make it all easy for gay soldiers

Credit: Dean Tomlinson

Ten years after Michelle Douglas emerged triumphant from an effort to oust her from the Canadian Forces because she is a lesbian, officials would like us to believe that our military is hip to gay. But despite earnest policy changes that resulted from Douglas’s case, the Canadian military remains a daunting place for lesbians and gay men.

“Any time you can end discrimination as a matter of policy it is a huge victory,” says Douglas.

Historically, openly gay men and lesbians had not been allowed to serve in the Canadian Forces. In an attempt to become consistent with Canadian human rights laws, that policy was altered in 1988.

Instead of an outright ban, the new policy imposed career-ruining restrictions and barriers. Known homosexuals could serve, but were no longer eligible for promotions, training, security clearances or transfers.

Two years after that change Douglas was promoted to the elite Special Investigations Unit (SIU). Now disbanded, the SIU was an internal policing agency that dealt with treason, sabotage and homosexuality in the military. Inevitably, details of Douglas’ own homosexuality came to the attention of her department.

She was taken to an airport-strip hotel and interrogated about her homosexuality. Initially denying all charges, she finally confessed that she was, indeed, a lesbian. Douglas was labelled, “Not advantageously employable due to homosexuality,” and dismissed from the Canadian Forces.

The pretence for this hysteria was, “the unacceptability in general society of being homosexual and therefore the fear that homosexuals could be blackmailed into committing sabotage for fear of being exposed,” says Lt-Col Mary Romanow, director of human rights and employment equity for the forces.

Douglas began legal proceedings to fight her wrongful dismissal and in October 1992, moments before the case was to appear in court, the military relented. The Canadian Forces acknowledged that its policy trampled fundamental human rights, prompting swift change.

“In late 1992, partially as a result of the Michelle Douglas court challenge, and also because of extensive societal research trying to keep up or ahead with what Canadian society expects for Canadians, a Canadian Forces policy change statement came out and repealed any orders or directives that had related to homosexuals,” says Romanow.

The decision was, by most accounts, a success.

“People aren’t getting fired because they’re gay and there’s no way that’s not a good thing,” says Douglas, who by choice left the forces around the time of the policy change; she now works with the federal government. “The military was dead wrong to have the kind of policy that it had. It treated gays and lesbians in an utterly shameful and miserable way. And it was called to account for that.”

Military leaders at the time feared discontent. They imagined disgruntled servicemen protesting the official inclusion of gay men and lesbians into their ranks.

“We thought there would be a huge backlash but it was, in fact, a total non-event. Obviously the troops were ready to go there,” says Romanow.

Paul Jackson, who has taught military history at the Royal Military College Of Canada in Kingston, is less optimistic. He paints a much darker portrait of the military in which members are forced to choose between a gay identity and their identity as military men and woman.

“The fact that the military would protect them as gay is irrelevant, since they have no intention of exposing their ‘weakness’ to their comrades,” says Jackson.

It’s not necessarily overt homophobia that is the major hurdle, he says, but raw locker-room heterosexism. Male soldiers, like many professional athletes, aspire to an ideal masculinity that does not have room for sexual diversity.

This may help to explain why so few military personnel report instances of homophobia.

“Since the inception of the ombudsman’s office in 1998, we have had three complaints that deal with the issue of sexual orientation in the Canadian Forces,” says Barbara Theobalds, communications director for the Department Of National Defence/Canadian Forces Ombudsman.

Capt Marcel Forget, a communications and electronics engineer at National Defence headquarters, has been openly gay in the military since 1994.

“I am comfortable with being who I am at work. I do not hide who I am at work. I speak of my partner, Jordan, with those I work with and for. No one discourages me or implies that they do not want to hear it,” says Forget.

“Our best tool for change is being out and proud. Hiding from family, friends and colleagues only hinders our acceptance by the implication that we have something to hide.”

Jackson worries that Forget’s openness stands out because it is the exception rather than the rule.

“The military is sometimes an especially difficult environment in which to come out. I have spoken to people who are used to hearing homophobic comments from their superior officers. These comments are usually below the official radar, though not always,” says Jackson.

However you slice it, Capt Forget’s position as an out and proud captain stands in stark contrast to the US military, which still routinely dismisses thousands of people each year due to homosexuality. The reasons the forces used to fire Michelle Douglas 10 years ago, “are the same reasons that are used today by the American military,” she says.

Under half-baked Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, US military personnel who are found to be gay are fired immediately. In early November, details surfaced of nine US army linguists who had been discharged because they were discovered to be homosexual. The US military came under particularly heavy fire because seven of these translators were much sought-after Arabic specialists.

Back in Canada, the Canadian Forces continues to be a world leader in an arena where gay rights are a hard sell. Obviously the forces are no gay Mecca, but there is little doubt that stopping the official bigotry has been an important step.

“In my view, ending the formal policy that requires this discrimination is the single most important step to be taken in an institution like the military,” says Douglas.

Today, lesbians and gay men in the forces have same-sex spousal benefits and freedom from institutionalized discrimination. But even Douglas, a hero in the gay military movement, remains cautious.

“We cannot be blind to the very real situations that exist for members of the military who still feel some more subtle forms of discrimination. Policy change is no panacea,” she says.