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2SLGBTQ+ History in the CAF

Anyone who has received Defense Team and higher CAF leadership emails the last three years can testify to the consistent messaging of improving our organization’s inclusivity and diversity; a new member having grown up in this atmosphere may be shocked to learn that this wasn’t always a tenet upheld with such conviction, but messaging that was necessary due to a hard look at the past mistakes that had been made. This article will focus on the 2SLGBTQ+ community within the CAF, outlining the hardships they endured to serve their country, as well as reparations offered for such treatment, and the positive change seen within the institution to date.


The Canadian Armed Forces attends Pride Parade, at Winnipeg Manitoba, on June 6, 2022. Photo: Sailor 2nd Class (S2) Megan Sterritt, 17 Operations Support Squadron Imaging, Winnipeg.

The Ugly: A long and storied tale

As far back as 1866, Britain passed the Naval Discipline Act, which Canada adopted as Canadian naval law – this law made it possible to convict a man of “indecency”, leading to punishment or imprisonment; the vague definition of “indecency” allowed it to be applied to sexually active gay men, effectively outlawing homosexuality within the RCN.

In 1940, the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps instituted the PULHEMS classification system (physical, upper body, lower body, locomotion, hearing, sight, mental state, emotional stability) to evaluate candidates for the military, with a “5”, the highest score, reserved for people considered unfit for service; homosexual men who attempted to join were classified as a 5 due to having “psychopathic personalities”, likened to other conditions that warranted the high score, such as chronic offenders, alcoholics and drug addicts. It was well documented that homosexual men were considered to lack “honesty, decency, responsibility, and consideration,” were considered to be a threat to authority and morale, and deemed “medically unfit” to serve. This opinion was strengthened by policy that allowed for discrimination based on sexual orientation, with the Naval Discipline Act, and section 16 of the Army and Air Force Act, being used to discharge homosexual men who were already serving in the CAF.

Stories such as that of Lieutenant-Commander William Atkinson, who was forced to resign from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1959 after his sexual orientation was revealed, were tragically common; in an interview he described an atmosphere of off-duty soldiers being watched if suspicions of homosexuality were present, as well as exposed 2SLGBTQ+ members being pressured to reveal other members. The choice was given to the exposed members to either voluntarily release with an honourable discharge, or face a court martial leading to dishonourable release.

This was a terrible and accepted truth for queer CAF members, who were forced to hide their personal lives lest they be exposed, and enforced by high level policy. At the pinnacle of this injustice, in 1967 the CAF issued a Canadian Forces Administrative Order (CFAO 19-20, Sexual Deviation – Investigation, Medical Investigation, and Elimination) requiring the investigation and release of suspected homosexual members; this was the inception of the now infamous “Fruit Machine”, a device created to “identify perceived and actual homosexuals in the Canadian military.” This CFAO resulted in what is now referred to as “the Purge,” a shameful moment in our institution’s history that resulted in full searches of suspected 2SLGBTQ+ members’ homes being conducted in an effort to root out “offenders” for release, including female members.

The Bad: A short-lived effort to continue status quo

In 1982, the CAF policies were clarified, indicating that 2SLGBTQ+ individuals were not allowed in the CAF because their presence could cause “interpersonal conflict,” affect morale, and potentially have a “detrimental effect on operational effectiveness,” closely mirroring the opinions of 1940 that were used to reject potential applicants that identified as 2SLGBTQ+.

The light began to shine on the discriminatory roots of the CAF policies in 1990, when Michelle Douglas initiated a lawsuit against the Canadian Army, which had discharged her due to being a lesbian. The case was found in favor of Michelle, and resulted in a revision to policy, with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge ending the official discrimination and purge of gays and lesbians in 1992, and decreeing that all 2SLGBTQ+ Canadians will be allowed to serve openly in our institution.

The Good: A continuing journey

From this successful case, there was dramatic improvement in the attitude of the CAF towards 2SLGBTQ+ people; in addition to rescinding the ban on serving members, the CAF removed restrictions to its recruiting policies that prevented 2SLGBTQ+ persons from being recruited. In 2016, a nation-wide class action lawsuit was launched by survivors of the Purge against the Federal government; in 2017, Prime Minister Trudeau issued a formal apology to those people affected by the Fruit Machine, the Purge, and the overall discrimination towards CAF members for their sexual identity. In 2018, the lawsuit was settled in favor of the survivors, a monumental victory and step forward in reparations for the harrowing toll this event took on the lives of many CAF members and their families. The settlement provided monetary compensation to the survivors, as well as enabling the creation of the LGBT Purge Fund, a non-profit organization, with Michelle Douglas as the Executive Director, that continues to assist with reconciliation and memorialization measures. It is estimated that between 1950 and 1992, 9,000 CAF members experienced abuse, harassment, intimidation, and forced release from the CAF because they were gay or lesbian, a number that seems unfathomable in today’s climate and messaging of inclusivity.

While the settlement was a step forward in reconciling with those who experienced this treatment in the past, the victory goes hand-in-hand with the tangible actions of the CAF geared toward ensuring military ethos, including respect the dignity of all persons, was being equally applied to our currently serving 2SLGBTQ+ members.

On 07 Jun 2013, for instance, CFB Edmonton was the first base to fly the Pride flag proudly! The request was made by MWO McDougall, who was surprised that it was granted so quickly and without objection from the chain of command. MWO McDougal commented in a CBC article covering the event, “This is a huge turnaround from what used to be. When I first joined, I would never even consider telling anyone that I was gay. It just wasn’t macho.” Following suit, in 2016, the first Pride flags were flown at three 2nd Canadian Division garrisons. The Defence Team Pride Advisory Organization executive, who worked to have recognition of the Pride Network recognized as the fifth advisory group within the Defence Team, also contributed to the now common sight of having the Pride flag flown at various DND establishments and HMC ships across Canada during local Pride weeks. As well, while in 2006 it was decreed that while military members could participate in official Pride parades, they were not authorized to don their uniform for the event. This changed in 2017, when a directive was released authorizing all members of the CAF to attend and participate in Pride events in uniform.

Today, we continue to see several ways that our organization looks to illuminate their blind spots and give a voice to our minority groups: the stand up of minority advisory groups, including the Defence Team Pride Advisory Organizations, across the nation allows a “for us, by us” advisory role to be undertaken by members and allies of the groups; the implementation, although not yet ubiquitous, of the Positive Space Ambassador program ensures CAF members are educated in how to build and foster safe spaces for all members. The most recent, and perhaps most controversial, change is to the long-standing dress regulations; formerly, the regulations were written to strictly define all aspects of a persons appearance, with differing policies for males and females. The new dress regulations have been revised to recognize the requirement for diversity, and its positive impact on operational effectiveness within our ranks. No longer will members be restricted to the uniform that is designated as fitting the binary genders of “male” and “female;” now CAF members are free to wear the uniform that is most comfortable for them regardless of gender identity, and the dress regulations apply equally to all CAF members.

While Canada has long been hoisted as a leader in progressive thinking and human rights advocation, our governing bodies are made up of humans, and thus, are fallible and capable of mistakes. The Canadian Armed Forces has long been intended to reflect Canadian society as a whole – with its policies, conduct, and membership; the unfortunate reality is that the historically discriminate policies that were acceptable by societal standards in the past also influenced the treatment of minority groups within the CAF, and discrimination of 2SLGTBQ+ members was not unique to the CAF or DND. The progress that has been made is due to a willingness of our organization to re-evaluate once held opinions, transparently communicate their mistakes, and hear the voices of our CAF members in how to do better. Progress comes on the back of pioneers such as Michelle Douglas that were brave enough to reject intolerance and discrimination, hold our institution accountable, and thus, shaping the enforcement of our CAF Ethos and commitment to inclusivity.


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