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Remember The Human Cost Of The Military's Anti-Gay Past

Every November 11, we honour those who risked or lost their lives defending their country. Rarely acknowledged in these annual commemorations are those who served honourably but were nevertheless dishonoured because of their sexuality.
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Imagine yourself embroiled in the following scenario:

Spies lurk in the shadows, ready to employ "any dirty trick" available. Their mission: "to trap and... guillotine" you by exposing your most damning secret. In an attempt to avoid detection, you communicate through letters labelled "very secret; burn after reading." You are nevertheless exposed, and now "bear the stain of a condemned heretic." Unable to bear the shame, you hold a gun to your head before yelling in defiance, "Fuck them, they're not going to kill me, the bastards!"

Reads like pulp fiction doesn't it? In fact, this sensational and cliché-addled passage is drawn from real-life accounts of men in the military who were hounded in the 1950s and 60s for being gay.

Every November 11, we honour those who risked or lost their lives defending their country. Rarely acknowledged in these annual commemorations -- known as Remembrance Day in Canada and Veteran's Day in the U.S. -- are those who served honourably but were nevertheless dishonoured because of their sexuality.

Prior to 1992 in Canada and 2011 in the U.S., gays and lesbians were not permitted to serve in the military. They were forced to resign from active duty if their sexuality was discovered. In the 1950s and early 1960s, in an era when fears of communism ran amok, Canada's RCMP was obsessed with ferreting out homosexuals in uniform.

According to The Canadian War on Queers, It was widely believed at the time that the Soviet Union recruited them as moles. This assumption was used to justify a witch hunt to uncover and dismiss gay men who had access to sensitive government information. Targets included members of the military.

Methods used to detect homosexuals included lurking around bars, public parks, private residences and other spots where gays gathered to identify off-duty military figures who were present. Targeting lesbians was unnecessary given that women were already barred from access to state secrets. They were considered to be intellectually weak and open to manipulation.

To get a sense of the pain and suffering inflicted on gays who guarded this country consider the story of one man named William Atkinson. His full account is available in the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. In 1959, he was forced to resign from his position as Lieutenant Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy after his private passions came to light. Two years before the state's spy apparatus was turned on him, a chance encounter foreshadowed his fate. He met a man who, unaware of Atkinson's sexuality, confided that he was a secret agent whose job it was to sniff out gays. He traveled to different naval bases where he would "employ any dirty trick" available "to trap and [...] guillotine homosexuals."

Detailed accounts of what befell individuals such as Atkinson once their secret was out are rare. Fortunately, his case is well-documented. His sense of injustice compelled him to not only record the circumstances of his ouster but to try, unsuccessfully, to have them published. Immediately after he was driven out of the navy, he penned a manuscript about his experiences.

In his account, Atkinson portrayed his RCMP interrogators as taking a "sadistic delight" in baiting him into admitting his true sexual orientation. He conveyed his predicament as a nightmare using the following quote he sourced from a fictional character's horrific encounter with injustice that stood in for his own:

"[N]o matter what bargain" he "struck with the Grand Inquisitor" he was "being destroyed. No one could recover from as terrible a humiliation as this man was now suffering [...] he would bear the stain of a condemned heretic" that society "would turn away from [...] with loathing."

Atkinson described how he could "never wholly erase from [his] consciousness an awful, massive sense of degradation." He was forced to give up the only career he ever knew and a pension that was soon due to him. He thus wrote, "My peace of mind, my finances and my future had received a stunning blow."

The despair Atkinson felt drove others in his situation to suicidal measures. Consider the following account provided by Herbert Sutcliffe within In the Interests of the State: The Anti-Gay, Anti-Lesbian National Security Campaign in Canada about his near-lethal reaction to being forced out of the military in 1962:

"The fatal day was the sixth of June [...] The director [of military intelligence] said, 'The RCMP has advised us that you are homosexual and you'll be out of the military in three days. [...]I'm in a daze. [...] I come back to my apartment. [...] I got [a gun] out and put the bullets in it. [...] "Then I tried the [gun] against the side of my head and I'm standing there, and then I say, 'Fuck them, they're not going to kill me, the bastards!'"

In 1961, Atkinson wrote the following to a friend explaining his motivation for trying to share his story publicly: "I'd like very much to publish something. If people like ourselves don't, how in hell can we expect to ever ease the more than unnecessary nonsense we have to suffer?" Ominously, he typed "Personal; Very Secret; Burn After Reading" at the top of the letter. While this sounds like it was lifted straight out of a James Bond script, it appears to be Atkinson's darkly humorous reference to the dangers of being outed at the time.

Later in life, Atkinson recalled what life was like for homosexuals of his era and the lasting wounds they left:

"[We lived] constantly in the shadow of disaster of some kind and [were] conditioned to try, at least, to roll with the punches." "Like so many of us," he said, "I maintained a facade for most of my life -- for viewing by non-gay society. It's extremely difficult for me to open up to anybody because I spent so many years suppressing what I wanted to do or be and acting in the presence of the world." He added, "time is a great healer [...] but I feel the RCMP et al. [were] more than sufficient [...] to have pierced my defences. After all these years, if I remember, I still hurt. You never get over that sort of thing, at least I don't."

The fact that people could be legally dismissed from any job, let alone one in the military, for being homosexual as late as 1996 in some Canadian jurisdictions is well-documented. Atkinson's and Sutcliffe's testimonials provide a gripping, visceral account that puts a human face on the destructive forces that intolerance wields. They serve as a compelling caution against ever marginalizing others for being different.

(Photo credit: Ron Levy)

Atkinson on the deck of his ship.

(Photo credit: Ron Levy)

Draft of the resignation letter Atkinson was forced to write.


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