In the 1950s, as the Cold War between Russia and America simmered and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy waged his campaign against communist sympathizers, the Canadian government was hatching up its own battle on subversion. Fearful that lesbian and gay civil servants were weak of character and vulnerable to blackmail by hostile foreign agents, hundreds of suspected homosexuals were purgedfrom the military and from public service jobs in Ottawa.
To sniff out these potential traitors, RCMP officers spied on local gay hangouts, like the basement bar at the Lord Elgin Hotel, and pressured openly gay civilians to “name names” of government-employed homosexuals. The ludicrous and cruel apex of this witch hunt was the invention of “the fruit machine” — a gay detection system, akin to a lie detector test, commissioned by the government and developed by a psychologist at Carleton University — which measured the biological responses (like the dilation of pupils) of subjects shown a series of photos of male and female pin-up models to determine whether they were straight or gay.
This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will formally apologize for this, and for other acts of persecution, against LGBT people at the hands of the Canadian government, including those people who were criminally charged and convicted of gross indecency for consensual sex. It’s also anticipated that Trudeau will announce financial compensation for those whose careers in civil service were destroyed due to discrimination. (Last year, a more-than-$600-million class-action lawsuit was filed against the government, involving former public servants and members of the military who lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation.)
For those who survived that era, this apology is a momentous acknowledgement of the routine surveillance and daily humiliations, the pathologizing and the criminalizing, and all the attendant terror of being caught or outed that marked queer life in the 1950s and 1960s. As John Ibbitson noted in the Globe and Mail on the weekend, “While a few other governments have apologized for criminally convicting people for same-sex acts, no government in the world has come anywhere close to what the prime minister will deliver.”
And for those who came after, it’s a powerful reminder of how far and how quickly we’ve come. The timing of Trudeau’s apology is significant. Read more via Chatelaine