This special investigations unit hunted down LGBTQ people in Canada’s military

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Todd Ross sat still in a chair with wires on his fingers and another across his chest as military officials pressed play on a clunky tape recorder. It wasn’t the naval operator’s first interrogation in this office with a two-way mirrored window, but it was his first polygraph. The year was 1989.

Ross, who wasn’t out about his sexuality yet, knew the question was coming.

“Are you gay?” the investigators asked the 19-year old.

“No,” he answered, his heart pounding.

Ross is one of thousands of people who were forced out of Canada’s public service for being gay. Today, Ross is part of a class action lawsuit accusing the Canadian government of waging a “prolonged and widespread campaign to identify and expel thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members of the Canadian Armed Forces.” On Tuesday, Justin Trudeau will offer an apology to Ross and thousands of other LGBTQ Canadians who were kicked out of the public service, as well as those who were criminally convicted for gay sex.

‘Fruit machine’

In a last-minute deal Monday night, the federal government agreed to offer $145 million in compensation for those purged from public duty for being gay, according to the Globe and Mail. About 3,000 people will be eligible for compensation, the Globe reports.

In the military, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was responsible for rooting out LGBTQ people. It wasn’t the unit’s only purpose, but it was a big part of its job, according to Lynne Gouliquer, an academic and former military member who is also gay.

The SIU investigated LGBTQ members on the faulty premise that they could be blackmailed and turned against Canada. They were interrogated about their sex lives, spied on, and subjected to tests by a so-called “fruit machine” designed to determine if they were gay. As a result, many public servants committed suicide, although the exact number of deaths is unclear. The Canadian military banned LGBTQ people from 1967 to 1992, and only ended its policy when a court ordered it to do so.

“You think, well why would I be under investigation? Did I do something wrong?”

‘Something out of a movie’

Serving in the military was a calling for Ross, he told VICE News. His brother was in the Canadian Armed Forces and his sister was a police officer. He was the top army cadet in New Brunswick, and signed up for the CAF in 1987 at age 18, almost as soon as he graduated high school. He excelled during his first year, winning awards, and was posted on HMCS Saskatchewan, a destroyer vessel operating on the west coast. When he returned to the ship after New Year’s Eve in January 1989, three different people approached him to say they were questioned about him, and he was under investigation.

“You feel like it’s something out of a movie,” Ross, now 48, remembered. “You think, well why would I be under investigation? Did I do something wrong?”

“Probably in the back of my mind, I was wondering: is this about the gay thing?”

The military investigated him for a year and a half. His name would boom out over the PA system, and men in suits would whisk him off the destroyer. They drove him to a military police office near CFB Esquimalt, where he was interrogated about his sexuality and his loyalty to Canada. When he was off duty, he sometimes spotted a light blue Chrysler K-car, the vehicle of choice for undercover military police, following him.

After months of interrogations and polygraph tests, they finally broke him. At the time, he was only out to a few close friends, but pressure from SIU investigators forced him to finally disclose, in tears and hooked up to a polygraph machine, that he was gay.

They gave him two options, according to the class action lawsuit’s statement of claim: spend the remainder of his time in the Navy performing “general duties” with no possibility for career advancement, or an honourable discharge. He chose the latter.

‘Humiliating questions’

Pushed out of the military at age 21, Ross lost his chance at a promising career, the lawsuit states. He felt he couldn’t tell his family or friends what happened, fearing they would reject him. He couldn’t talk to his colleagues because the SIU might investigate them, too. Isolated and traumatized, he became suicidal.

This is a common narrative, explains Gouliquer, who served in the military from 1976 to 1995, and has since researched the purge of gay people as an academic at Laurentian University.

She has interviewed more than 100 LGBTQ former Canadian military personnel; their stories were strikingly similar.

“They would bring you in and investigate you, ask you all kinds of humiliating questions, try to blackmail you by saying, ‘we’re going to tell your family, we’re going to tell your friends … if you don’t divulge to us who else is an LGBT person in the military,’” Gouliquer told VICE News.

“If your girlfriend’s name was Sarah, you’d change it to George.”

“Imagine losing your job, all of your friends, and be told day in and day out that you were no good, that you were a threat to your country, just because of your sexuality. But the day before it started you were probably one of the best soldiers they ever had.”

While serving in the forces, she hid the fact that she was gay.

“You couldn’t be out,” says Gouliquer. “You would commit career suicide.”

“If your girlfriend’s name was Sarah, you’d change it to George,” she said.

If they were under investigation, some lesbian members would start dating men to try to show they were straight.

You had to keep your blinds drawn at all times so people couldn’t look in, or be spied on by the Special Investigations Unit,” she said.

‘Never again’

If you were under investigation, and your partner was also in the military, you could implicate them, she said. “You became a danger to the partner who you loved.”

“It’s an acknowledgement that this went on. Canadians need to know this.”

Throughout her career, she developed a sixth sense for which hetero people she could trust — she was trusting them with her career, her health, and her life.

She sees Trudeau’s apology Tuesday as a positive step to finally recognize the deep pain the Canadian government caused. She was in Ottawa Tuesday to hear his apology.

“It’s an acknowledgement that this went on,” she said. “Canadians need to know this.”

The Canadian Armed Forces told VICE News it planned to participate in the apology, and today it’s committed to equality among its personnel.

“We don’t want this to happen ever again,” Gouliquer said.

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