Gay in the army

FEATURE / Despite years of inclusion, Canadian military still not a
friendly space for gays and lesbians
Andi Schwartz / Toronto / Thursday, February 23, 2012

A recent report of homophobia and harassment of a gay Canadian soldier
in Afghanistan has one military observer warning the incident is just
the tip of the iceberg.

On Jan 30, Warrant Officer Andrew McLean told the CBC he found a note on
his workstation at Kandahar Airfield that threatened his life because he
is gay.

The note said, “You are gay. Because of this minus 2,” the metric
equivalent of “six feet under,” McLean told the CBC.

He reported the threat to officials and was relocated. A full
investigation into the incident couldn’t be launched because it is not
known who wrote the note, officials told the CBC.

Former soldier Carl Bouchard says that while it’s disappointing to hear
of homophobic threats being made in the military, he isn’t surprised.

Bouchard was in the infantry from 1994 to 2000. He says he didn’t see
any overt gaybashing, but his colleagues would use homophobic slurs
against weaker soldiers.

“In a platoon of 30 to 120 [soldiers], there’s always one or two guys
that don’t fit in for some reason,” he says, noting he witnessed
harassment based on race and physical weakness, though not sexuality.

Bouchard attributes much of the harassment he saw to the hyper-masculine
culture of the military.

“It’s pretty much a guys’ world,” he says.

Most of the soldiers are tough young men, and the first phase of
training, basic training and battle school, strives to make you tougher,
he says. “That’s where they have these courses to weed out the weak.

“If somebody is the weak link in the family or the chain, well, after a
while you’re sick of doing pushups with this guy,” he says. “The first
thing is you try to help him, then after a while, you turn negative on
the guy.”

It’s a macho environment to begin with, and when battle stress, mental
fatigue and paranoia are factored in, things can get out of control,
Bouchard says.

“Not to disgust you, but I’ve seen things where guys throw urine and
feces and semen,” he says. “It’s crazy what 30 guys together for six
months will do.”

Laurentian University professor Gary Kinsman says basic military
principles and structure are at the root of heterosexist attitudes.

The military has historically been a male-dominated, hierarchical and
“masculinist” institution, he says. One product of a masculinist
attitude is the association of male sexuality with extreme hostility,
especially toward those men and women who don’t fit in, including
lesbians and gays, he says.

“We’re actually talking about very dangerous situations for women in
general, but also for anyone who’s openly identified as being queer,
whether they are or not,” he says.

McLean found the threatening note in September, right around the time
the United States government overturned Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT),
the policy that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US

The end of DADT was big news in the US, but Canada has allowed gays and
lesbians in the military for almost 20 years.

In 1989, Michelle Douglas was discharged from the Canadian military for
being a lesbian. She challenged her dismissal, claiming her Charter
rights were violated. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in her favour,
overturning the ban on lesbians and gays in the military.

Kinsman wrote a legal affidavit at the time arguing that the military
wouldn’t crumble if gays and lesbians were allowed to join, he says.

A study conducted in 2000 at the University of California found that the
inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Canadian military did not, in
fact, affect military performance. It further found that none of the 905
assault cases reported between 1992 and 1995 involved gaybashing or
could be linked to sexual orientation.

On Feb 12 the Canadian Forces (CF) implemented guidelines for commanders
and supervisors on preventing discrimination and harassment toward
transgender soldiers in the workplace and meeting the special
requirements of those who are transitioning, according to online documents.

“CF transsexual members are a valued and integral part of the CF and
have the same rights as any other person to work in a harassment-free
workplace,” the document states.

“I truly believe it’s not as bad as it was when I was there, and it’s
getting better year by year,” Bouchard says.

He says soldiers have access to more support now than they did 10 years
ago. “There’s more channels than there were if [soldiers] need to speak
to somebody,” he says.

A gay member of the Canadian Forces says harassment can be dealt with on
a few different levels.

The member, who asked to remain anonymous because of CF rules that
prohibit active personnel from speaking to media, says that depending on
the group’s dynamic, the issue can sometimes be resolved between
colleagues. If the issue persists or is more serious, the victim of
harassment can go to a superior to seek his or her intervention or can
ask for neutral third-party mediation.

If the issue is very serious, there is a formal complaint process. An
investigation could result in corrective remedies, such as the harasser
being charged or assigned to more sensitivity training, or the victim of
harassment might be relocated.

The military source says that in every unit, soldiers can seek support
from a harassment advisor, the chaplain or any person in a position of
responsibility. Full-time soldiers can access free counselling through
military health services, and all soldiers and their families have
access to a short-term confidential support service called the Member
Assistance Program.

Despite these procedures, the military source says most people don’t
report homophobia unless it creates a toxic environment or is a serious
threat, as in McLean’s case.

This can be attributed to the “tough-guy” attitude Bouchard refers to,
but often it’s just easier to try to brush it off, the source says. For
example, if a soldier is on a short-term assignment and faces a
discriminatory colleague, it may not be worthwhile to complain.

The source has witnessed only a few incidents of harassment but says
colleagues often use homophobic language: “You’ve got to let some things

Though there have been significant reforms to the military, including
the acceptance of lesbians and gays, Kinsman says nothing has been done
to change the character of the military.

“Rather than doing any popular education or talking to people in the
military about lesbians and gays, they basically decided to simply deal
with [harassment against gays and lesbians] as a disciplinary measure,”
he says.

Formal disciplinary measures are one way of responding to harassment,
but they do little to address informal discrimination or change
attitudes, he says.

Harassment is treated as an individual problem. In McLean’s case, the
remedy was to relocate the victim of harassment, rather than address the
issue on a larger scale.

Formal equality measures have allowed gays and lesbians to enter the
military, but they must still assimilate into the male-dominated
culture, Kinsman says.

As a result, gay and lesbian soldiers aren’t always comfortable being
open about their sexuality.

“Probably at least two guys came out when I was there,” says Bouchard.
“The thing is, for these guys it takes a long time to be comfortable. It
doesn’t happen overnight.”

Kinsman says that even after the military officially recognized spousal
rights in the 1990s, many gays and lesbians refused to identify their

“They feared the military would now have a list, and therefore if they
ever decided to take action or there was a regression in policy, they
would know who to come after,” he says.

In some ways, cases like McLean’s show the limitations of the strategies
of the gay rights movement, Kinsman says. Seeking inclusion in major
institutions like marriage or the military without transforming them
doesn’t create queer-friendly spaces, he says. “We need to go a lot
further than that.”

Kinsman says McLean’s story is one of the first occasions where someone
has come forward and confirmed what has long been said to be the reality
for gays and lesbians in the military.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface there’s a lot more
instances of violence and harassment,” he says.
Andreas Speck at War Resisters' International
Conscientious Objection Campaigning Worker
5 Caledonian Road - London N1 9DX - Britain
tel +44-20-7278 4040 - fax +44-20-7278 0444
Skype warresisters
Use encryption! More information at

Support War Resisters' International! Donate today!