For the first time, a wreath to honour LGBT service members was laid at Queen’s Park on Nov 11.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and Ruben Avila, of Egale Canada, acted as the wreath-bearers for the Remembrance Day ceremony.
“This year is the first year we’ve been invited by the province to lay a wreath, so we seized the opportunity,” says Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale.
Egale is also working with the city to construct a monument in honour of LGBT service members, a project that will take shape in the next year or two, she says.
“It’s important that it’s brought to people’s attention that there are queer people in the military, and there always have been,” Avila says.
“They’re never talked about as making a contribution,” Kennedy adds. “A number were serving while in the closet, and their service was terminated when it was discovered that they were, in fact, queer. We need to call on the government to recognize their service.”
The Supreme Court of Canada overturned the ban on lesbians and gays in the military in 1992 after Michelle Douglas, discharged for being a lesbian, challenged her dismissal on the grounds that her Charter rights had been violated.
Despite the inclusion of gays and lesbians, homophobia and harassment are still common in the Canadian Forces. Some members of the military choose to stay in the closet for different reasons.
A gay infantry officer in Toronto, who did not want to be identified, says he keeps his sexuality from his unit after more than 20 years of service because it would be like “dropping a bomb” on them.
“I don’t want to put it out there. I do my job,” he says. “A gay black person in the military — that’s a shock.”
He doesn’t fear harassment because he knows several out queer people in his unit who are treated well.
The distinction isn’t necessarily important to him when honouring veterans: “No matter what their sexuality is, they served as Canadians,” he says.
Avila, the projects coordinator of Egale Canada, is a Canadian Forces veteran. He says there is a lack of acknowledgment that there are LGBT people in the military — often soldiers are assumed to be straight.
As an infantry officer, Avila experienced and witnessed homophobia, and he is critical of the harassment policy meant to protect against it.
“Homophobia hasn’t quite been solved yet,” he says. “Yes, we are laying the wreath at Queen’s Park and that does show progress, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”