LGBTQ officers, community members and allies gathered at the Toronto Police College recently to learn from an intolerant and overlooked chapter in Canadian history.
The Toronto Police Service LGBTQ Internal Support Network (ISN) hosted a screening ofThe Fruit Machine, a documentary on the survivors of a purge of gay and lesbian members of the Canadian military, which was part of a coordinated, national police-led effort to remove members of the LGBTQ community from public service sector jobs under the guise of ensuring national security.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion by lawyer Doug Elliott, Filmmaker Sarah Fodey, survivor Patti Gray and former police officer Wayne Davis, who was asked to resign from the RCMP when his supervisor discovered he was gay in the early 1980s.
Deputy Barb McLean said the screening is one of the most important events the ISN has organized to date, because it confronts the past in positive way.
“It’s so important to recognize our history,” said McLean, noting the survivors of the purge in the room. “Thank you for your courage, for telling your stories for seeing your pain… It’s important for us to reflect what we see tonight and call out discrimination where we see it.”
McLean said that being visible as gay at work is something that is not only healthy for an individual but also the community as a whole.
“One of things we can do is to be visible in our roles in public service. Remember we have earned our seat at the table. Our organizations are stronger because of who we are and the fact we belong to them. Our country is stronger because of who we are,” McLean said. “We have to remember for some it’s still difficult to be their true selves.”
Elliott, who won a $110 million class action lawsuit giving compensation to people who fell victim to the purge, said the targeting of the LGBTQ community is one that has happened to minorities in the past and could happen in the future if nothing is learned from history.
“Part of that is that the RCMP were so central to driving this ridiculous policy, which was the longest, most expensive and least successful police investigation in the history of Canada. It shows how we can waste resources and hurt the country when we make decisions that are based on bigotry and prejudice instead of evidence and science and that’s a lesson for all police officers on the importance for respect for human rights,” said Elliott, who explained that part the money awarded in the lawsuit judgement is to educate Canadians through the LGBT Purge Fund that will memorialize what occurred.
“I think it’s important when we make terrible mistakes like this in order to make sure we don’t repeat them we have to acknowledge them, confront them and have to figure out how we make sure we don’t make similar mistakes in future. It’s about respect for LGBT people but it could be some other group.
“As we have evolved I know there are certain sectors we still have to confront and certain areas where we still have work to do. Part of that is to change police culture so it’s more accepting of diversity. There has been leadership from people like Chief Saunders but we still have a ways to go.”
Patti Gray, was among the Canadian Forces personnel subjected to intense interrogations about their sexual history, driving her out of the military police – a dream she had pursued.
“People are opening their eyes and accepting that we are their co-workers, their friends, their relatives, that we’re here and we need to be treated as equals and treated with the same respect that they want,” said Gray, noting she had the support of friends and family but not her government. She was happy to see members of the LGBTQ community living out their careers dreams in policing roles. “I’m incredibly happy for them. They can be out at work and there won’t be repercussions like 30, 40 years ago. Look at how far we’ve come and the doors are still being kicked in. It’s good to see police brass supporting our members.”
She said participating in the film and discussions like it have been cathartic.
“It made me deal with issues I had buried. I filed it under shit that happened. We all have things that have happened to us in our life so I went on with it,” she said, noting that she had good memories from her time in the military. “I went back to work and did very well. Being part of this film allowed me to talk about what happened and not just with the filmmakers but with my partner and my family (;) details they didn’t know.”
The LGBTQ ISN organized the screening, a statement from their executive explained the idea behind the screening:
“We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the survivors of the purge for their sacrifice and bravery. We acknowledge how difficult it was to witness the atrocious mistakes made by our leaders in government, law enforcement and the military. By witnessing it, acknowledging it, sharing it and talking about it, must continue in order to ensure it never happens again. As Canadians we must continue to shine a light on the mistakes of the past in order to have a brighter future.”