In a Canadian military interrogation room in 1990, strapped to a polygraph machine and sensing unseen observers behind a two-way mirror, 21-year-old Canadian sailor Todd Ross finally broke down in tears and said out loud what he'd been unable to say even to himself: He was gay.
The military gave Ross an ultimatum: accept an honorable discharge or perform "general duties"—grunt work—for the rest of his career. He left feeling too ashamed to tell friends and family and worried the military police would turn its sights on his colleagues if he spoke out. He felt "he had somehow betrayed his country," entered a deep depression, and considered suicide. But Ross survived, and has now filed a $600 million [$445 million USD] class action lawsuit against the federal government in an Ontario courtroom, which is still awaiting certification. A second lawsuit has been filed in Quebec. Both are seeking compensation and an apology for the victims of a decades-long witch hunt to purge gays and lesbians from the Canadian military and public service. The Trudeau government has said it intends to apologize to LGBTQ Canadians for past discrimination, but has offered no details beyond that. "The victims are not happy with the lack of an explanation for why the government wasn't moving on this except that it isn't as important as other things on their agenda," Douglas Elliott, a gay rights activist and lawyer in the case, told VICE News. "That's not good enough." Elliott's clients are asking the courts to weigh in on behalf of all current and former public servants and military members "investigated, targeted, sanctioned, or who were discharged or terminated by the [Government of Canada] because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression." Many have already died, Elliott said, and the survivors are growing old waiting for Canada to acknowledge they were wronged—hounded, harassed, persecuted, and robbed of their livelihood, security, and dignity. The campaign to identify and purge gays and lesbians from the military and public service emerged out of the paranoia of the Cold War starting in the 1950s, according to files obtained by researchers in the past two decades. According to government records, the RCMP spent decades following World War II investigating, surveilling, and questioning suspected gay and lesbian public servants, including members of the military, about their sexual orientation. At one point, the RCMP amassed a list of 9,000 people deemed suspect and subject to investigation. The Canadian government would often employ a device that would measure sweat and sexual reaction to certain words, phrases, and images—dubbed internally as the 'fruit machine'—to vet suspected LGBTQ government employees. The project was created through a government grant at the Carleton University Psychology Department. LGBTQ Canadians were dismissed, sanctioned, or demoted. Even after Pierre Trudeau famously decriminalized homosexuality—"there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation"—the government deemed LGBTQ Canadians unfit to serve in the military, at the RCMP, and even at arms-length branches like the National Film Board, the CBC, and Canada Post. The stated purpose of the ban was Ottawa's fear that the Soviets could blackmail closeted gay and lesbian public servants for sensitive government information, even if that fear ultimately proved unfounded. The campaign continued in one way or another until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The ban on LGBTQ service in the military itself wasn't overturned until 1992 after the courts ruled the ban violated the Charter. Last month, the House of Commons defense committee voted to suggest the feds amend the service records of ex-military dishonorably discharged for their sexual orientation. If approved, up to 1,200 service members would be affected, according to an estimate from the military ombudsman. Martine Roy is one of them. She was targeted in the mid-1980s and is the plaintiff named in the lawsuit filed in Quebec Superior Court on Monday. Roy was 20-years-old in 1984 when she was dishonorably discharged from the military after hours of interrogation and being labeled a "sexual deviant" for being a lesbian. According to her statement of claim, Roy "experienced severe emotional trauma, which continues to this day. She struggled for years with drug addiction, underwent intensive therapy, had difficulty maintaining relationships, and lived with the constant fear and anxiety that she could not be her authentic self, lest the same thing would happen again." The case is expected to be assigned to a judge and a schedule announced in the next few weeks. Follow Steven Goetz on Twitter.