Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from the Military

For much of its history, the Canadian military had a policy of punishing or purging LGBTQ members among their ranks. During the Cold War, the military increased its efforts to identify and remove suspected LGBTQ servicemen and women due to expressed concerns about blackmail and national security. In 1992, a court challenge led to the reversal of these discriminatory practices. The federal government officially apologized in 2017.

Michelle Douglas
(courtesy Historica Canada)


For much of Canadian history, servicemen—and more recently, servicewomen — faced severe penalties if authorities discovered they were LGBTQ. For example, the Naval Discipline Act, passed in Britain in 1866 and adopted as Canadian naval law until 1944, decreed that men found guilty of “sodomy” or “indecent assault” would be imprisoned or otherwise punished, including hard labour. Indecent assault was a vaguely defined charge often applied to sexual acts between men, even if consensual, that did not include sodomy.

Second World War Policy

During the Second World War, individuals had to pass a medical exam in order to enlist in the armed forces. The Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) used a classification system called PULHEMS — which stood for Physique, Upper body, Lower body and locomotion, Hearing, Eyesight, Mental status, and emotional Stability — to assess applicants. Each category was scaled from 1 to 5. The highest score was reserved for individuals considered completely unfit for service. The RCAMC classified gay men as “psychopathic personalities,” along with “chronic delinquents, chronic alcoholics, and drug addicts.” This automatically gave them an S5 rating. The medical corps also considered gay men to lack “truthfulness, decency, responsibility, and consideration.” Also considered a threat to military authority and general troop morale, they were regarded as “medically unfit for service anywhere in any capacity.”

The military also used the Naval Discipline Act and the Army and Air Force Act to target gay men already serving in the forces. Section 16 of the Army and Air Force Act applied to officers who were court-martialed and discharged in disgrace for behaving “in a scandalous manner.” They were also denied various rights of citizenship, including working for the Crown. The act also applied to lower ranks of soldiers who, if convicted of “disgraceful conduct of [an] unnatural kind,” faced a range of penalties, including discharge and imprisonment with hard labour. At the time, homosexual offences did not apply to women in the military.

When a soldier’s guilt was assessed, the “degree” of their homosexuality was taken into consideration. For example, a distinction was made between a “true homosexual,” a man who exclusively slept with other men, versus someone who only looked for an “outlet” when women were unavailable. During the war, knowledge of a soldier’s sexuality did not always lead to court-martial proceedings or removal from duty. Depending on the unit, gay men were sometimes accepted quite openly. It depended, in part, on the perceived threat posed by a serviceman’s sexuality, manpower needs, and the attitudes of individual commanding officers and military police.

Cold War Purge

Categorizing gay men as “psychopathic” helped lay the groundwork for their purge in the postwar period. By the late 1950s, the military intensified a policy of actively identifying and then removing all LGBTQ members from the military. This practice coincided with aggressive efforts to do so in the civil service. In both cases, the policy was linked to Cold War concerns about national security.

In 1959, Lieutenant Commander William Atkinson was forced to resign from the Royal Canadian Navy after his sexuality was revealed. He later recalled, “There was a witch hunt going on” where the army would spy on off-duty soldiers to identify LGBTQ members and “employ any dirty trick in the world to trap and sort of guillotine” them. As with Atkinson, exposed LGBTQ servicemen and women were pressured to reveal fellow gays or lesbians in the service and given the “choice” to resign with an honourable discharge, or face court-martial and a dishonourable discharge. These practices continued through the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

By the early 1970s, the military was guided by the Canadian Forces Administrative Order 19-20, which did not allow the “retention of sexual deviates in the Forces.” Officials intensified their purge, which now included lesbians, despite a 1969 amendment to federal law that partially decriminalized homosexual acts. In 1976, the reference to “sexual deviates” was replaced with “homosexual members.”

Regulations regarding “scandalous conduct by officers,” and “disgraceful conduct” by all military personnel continued to make homosexuality a punishable offence in the military. Military interrogations of suspected gays and lesbians were often humiliating and traumatic affairs. Described by one victim as “mental torture,” and another “degrading,” the process included personal questions about sexual practices.

As late as 1978, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau defended military policy, referring to concerns about security due to potential blackmail. In 1982, military policy was clarified: LGBTQ people were not allowed in the Canadian Forces as their presence could cause “interpersonal conflict,” affecting morale and potentially having a “detrimental effect on operational efficiency.” LGBTQ recruits could also be at risk of violence from their peers due to homophobia. These arguments ignored the fact that the military’s discriminatory policy condoned homophobia and created the potential for blackmail and coercion in the first place.

Reversal and Apology

In the mid-1980s, military policy towards LGBTQ members softened somewhat. People had to consent to being discharged because of their sexuality. Those who refused could remain but faced career limitations. Nevertheless, the military continued to purge LGBTQ members until the early 1990s. In 1990, Michelle Douglas launched a successful lawsuit against the military, which had discharged her for being lesbian. The case resulted in the ending of the long-standing discrimination and purging of gays and lesbians in 1992. After reversing its ban, the military reinstated positions and removed career restrictions. In October 2016, the House of Commons defence committee voted unanimously to amend the service records of LGBT ex-military members given dishonourable discharges because of their sexual orientation.

In 2015, a group calling itself the We Demand an Apology Network pressed the government to issue an apology for its purge in the public service, RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and military. In November 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized and the Canadian government agreed to a $145-million settlement. This included $110 million in compensation for civil servants affected by the purge and $15 million for historical reconciliation, education, and memorialization efforts.