Hey beautiful people!
Gosh it’s been a while. I have nothing interesting to say about my absence. I’ve been doing some stuff. I’ve been not-doing other stuff. Mental health is a minefield. We do what we can.
But this week I’ve been working on something particularly exciting for school and the story just got me so fired up that I had to share it with you. Get ready, for what I hope is the first of many installations of….
Just beautiful. Brings a tear to your eye.
Our story today begins at the height of the Cold War.Â But like any good history geek, I’m gonna give you a little bit of context. (If you don’t like me telling you what to read, you can also just scroll down a bit and get right to the Fruit Machine bit. There’s a little header for you and everything.
It’s easy for people in the present to look back at the Cold War and think, man, what a ridiculous pissing contest. No, seriously! It’s okay if you think that. The Cold War, to a lot of modern eyes, looks like 45-years-or-so of two big countries arguing over who organized their bookshelves better (or whose penis was larger, whatever metaphor makes you happiest). But for the people inside of it, try to understand–this was an absolutely terrifying time. A lot of people alive at this point had just lived through two World Wide Wars, one of which was promised to be “The War to End All Wars”, and another of which was enough for most people to give up on humanity forever because holy shit, did we really do that? (Yes. Yes, we did.) At least, roughly, estimates vary, but somewhere in the neighbourhood of 75 MILLION people died in the Second World War, on top of another 18 million in the First World War. There wasn’t a person alive in 1945 who hadn’t lost someone in their family to the war, whether they came home alive or not. Likely more than one. And in trying to move on from that, we managed not to implement peace, but instead to implement the world’s most horrifying game of chicken where the loser blew up the free world and created nuclear winter.
You know A Tale of Two Cities? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times?” Believe me when I tell you that sitting at the end of the Second World War, it was really just the worst of times. Even the people who “won” didn’t have a whole lot to beÂ super happy about. And the way tensions were going between “eastern” and “western” states, nobody was really sure how long this fragile peace would keep.
So it’s a tense time for most people to begin with.
Do you want to take a stab at what it was like to be gay then?
A little more context. We’re almost there.
Canada began to conduct “security screening”Â for federal employeesÂ around 1931. In 1935, in a report on Communist activities on university campuses, the RCMP declared communism synonymous with immorality, and more specifically,Â “illicit sexuality.”Â By the Second World War, gay men (and later women) were being quietly filtered out of the military for offences such as “conduct unbecoming of an officer or gentleman”Â or “not advantageously employable.”
It’s hard to track exactly how many people were affected by policies like this. Firstly, the word “homosexual” didn’t really come into vogue until the 50s and 60s, so we don’t have the kind of technical references we have now to point to say and “that’s gay.” Secondly, even if this terminology had existed, there’s evidence that nobody would have used it–both to protect the service men and women who were quietly trying to make a life for themselves after discharge, and for the reputations of units who didn’t want to be known as a place where “fruits” could go.
In September 1945, a Soviet cipher clerk walked out of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa with a briefcase full of secret documents about spying in Canada. He took these documents to the Ottawa Citizen, who didn’t believe he was for real–but the Soviets following Gouzenko certainly did. Gouzenko and his family fled their apartment shortly before Soviet representatives broke into the Gouzenko home, understandably a little upset that one of their cipher clerks had just sold his soul to the West.Â This event, and the aftermath, would become known as the Gouzenko Affair,Â Canada’s claim to spy fame and for many people the moment the Cold War began.
Historians have since debated how valuable the information Gouzenko defected with reallyÂ was,Â but at the time, it was huge. Igor Gouzenko was irrefutable evidence that spies existed, they were in Canada, and Canadians had something to fear. Gouzenko’s defection launched a commission on spying in Canada and gave the RCMP–and everyone else–all the ammunition they needed to crank their paranoia up to 11 and begin Canada’s own communist witch hunt.
By 1959, Canada had officially launched a federal screening program specifically to keep out communists, homosexuals, and other undesirables. Officials at the time would have said the issue with homosexuals–or anyone else with some unnatural proclivity or skeleton in their closet–wasn’t so much that they were gayÂ per seÂ as it were the threat that their secret could pose to national security. Many believed the Soviet Union would use people’s homosexuality as a bargaining chip to blackmail them into being spies for the Soviet Union. (You might think this meant the Soviet Union was sorta chill about homosexuality if it meant they got state secrets, but, spoiler alert: they were just as homophobic as everyone else.)
It’s understandable if you’re confused about that though, given that everyone willingly produced posters like this.
The RCMP & Gaydar
So by 1960, Canada is becoming increasingly paranoid about the risks of communists, gay people–basically anyone “different”, really. And the RCMP’s ability to ferret out gay people was wearing down for three main reasons:
- LGBTQ2IA+ networks and solidarity were increasing, and gay (&etc.) people were less willing than they had been previously to inform on their friends and communities.
- Field investigations (think men in bars with newspapers hiding tape recorders) were costly, both in financial cost and personnel resources, and did not have comparable output to the required investment.
- There was a hope that some kind of “scientific” method of finding homosexuals would, in addition to being more efficient and less expensive, deal with complaints of “subjectivity” that had been levelled against the RCMP’s previous tactics.
Enter Dr. Frank R. Wake.
Frank R. Wake was an American-born psychologist who moved to Quebec in his early teen years. In 1952, he was appointed the first ever Chair of the Department of Psychology and was the first full-time employee of the faculty. He was an active member of the Canadian Psychological Association, the Ontario Psychological Association, and the Ontario Board of Examiners in Psychology. From 1954 to 1958 he worked as medical researcher for “Royal Commission on the Criminal Law Relating to Criminal Sexual Psychopaths”–reading between the lines there, it’s pretty easy to guess how Wake felt about homosexual people. But he was a well-respected psychologist who had worked on previous government commissions, so it was hardly surprising when the Canadian government offered Wake several thousand dollars in 1961 to go to the United States and learn about their ongoing “homosexual detection” research.
American homosexual detection research largely revolved around intense psychiatric examinations, psychological testing, and the use of an up-and-coming machine called the polygraph. Also in vogue was a test that measured pupillary dilation in response to stimulus. The idea was, essentially, that your pupil would dilate in response to something you were interested in, and not-dilate (or dilate less) with presented with something you were less interested in.
Around 1962, Wake made contact with the Kinsey Institute, a subset of Indiana University founded by sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey of Kinsey scale fame. Wake was very interested in the Kinsey Institute’s research on sexuality, but once the Kinsey Institute realized why Wake was interested, nobody wanted to talk to him. The Kinsey Institute was in the business of normalizing homosexuality–Wake was in the business of getting people fired for it.
By 1963, the government had approved Wake to go ahead with his own tests based on what he’d learned in the United States.
And this is where stuff starts gettingÂ really weird.
The Fruit Machine
I really wish there were photos of this machine to show you. But there aren’t. And I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but given just how hard it is to research this damn project, I’m gonna say it’s becauseÂ nobody wants you to see those pictures.Â But we have some descriptions:.
“It looked like something out of science fiction,” said one of the participants. “It didn’t look as if it had been built on earth. I’m not trying to be sensational about that. It was a whole bunch of girders that were small flanges to bolt the equipment together, and a screen in a box containing naughty pictures.”
–Â John Sawatsky,Â Men in the Shadows: The RCMP Security Service, pp. 134.
“In a dimly lit room, a subject was seated before a viewing aperture, fitted with a head-rest, which was inserted in a large plywood panel. The panel concealed the working of the apparatus from the subject. Resting his head against the aperture, the subject faced a rear-projection screen, set in an otherwise black box, at a distrance of two and one-half feet from his eyes. A 35mm. slide projector behind this screen projected a nine-by-twelve-inch photo onto it. Changing of slides was controlled by the experimenter, from his position behind the panel where he also operated a concealed 16mm camera fitted with a frame counter. As the slides were being viewed, a half-silvered mirror placed at a forty-five degree angle across the subject’s line of sight permitted unobstrusive filming of the eye, at the rate of two frames per second.”
— Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile,Â The Canadian War on Queers, p.182
So in case we’re not clear here, the essential idea is that you’re going to be strapped into a repurposed dentist chair and shown smutty pictures from a slide projector while a military-grade camera takes photographs of the reflection of your eyes, on the premise that they will respond differently to gay or straight porn according to your sexuality.
Wake estimated that this second rate horror film setting would cost between $5,000 and $10,000 annually, which with inflation comes out to $40,000-80,000 a year, plus a “senior social scientist” and a master’s student in psychology. Yes, that’s right. Someone at Carleton U in 1961 could have written their thesis on actual gaydar.
Like any good social scientist, Dr. Wake wanted to create a baseline to compare people against. He estimated a control group of sixty people (fifteen straight men, fifteen gay men, fifteen straight women, fifteen gay women) would be a sufficient benchmark. (Let’s… let’s not talk about the margin of error on a 60 person sample-size just for a minute). He told the RCMP to procure the known homosexuals and the Canadian Armed Forces to procure the straight test subjects. How either group was supposed to know if the people they recruited were really gay or straight is a bit of a mystery.
Just one problem (well, one to start with): strangely, no one wanted to volunteer for testing that might prove them unfit forÂ their jobs based on their pupillary response to pornographic photos.
Wake and his team conducted “preliminary investigations” on a sample size of 21 people–fourteen men and seven women (so, y’know, less than a high school gym class’s worth of people). A 1969 paper published by Wake’s team in 1969 showed “no significant difference” in pupillary response for straight or gay imagery. Wake and his team concluded there were issues with the methodology and the recording of images (one wrote that the shift in pupillary response averaged between 0.5 of a millimetre and 1.0 millimetres–a change in size that was visible to the human eye, but unable to be captured even by their military-grade camera when the eye was refracted across a mirror*).
This conclusion is an interesting one and, I would argue, betrays much of the inherent bias in the process–the scientists concluded there must be an issue with their equipment, not that there must be an issue with their science.
Some of the other issues with the testing:
- The equipment, bolted together on a relatively small budget, did not easily accommodate people of different heights, differently shaped faces, or other physical discrepancies. This may also have influenced the ability to accurately measure pupillary response.
- Because the photos were presented on slides, there was an instant of blank projector screen between each image. Think of when your teacher in high school would swap out the overhead-slide and everyone would wince until the new sheet was in place. This shift in light likely caused pupils to dilate in response to the change in brightness.
- Unless every photo presented on the slides was taken with the same focus and depth of field, the subject’s eyes would respond to the movement and different photo simply to focus on whatever was being presented.
- The testing in no way accounted for the fact that sexuality is not a black and white issue, and people of orientations other than 1000% straight and 100000% gay may have been tested.
There are conflicting accounts (and Wake himself isn’t even consistent), but it’s estimated that as many as 51 people had been tested by the machine by 1964-5. Because of the inconclusive results of the test and the high cost of maintaining the project, it was scrapped in 1967 and the machine was most likely destroyed.
Interviewed in 1992, just eight months before his death of natural causes, Wake refused to discuss his experiments in any great detail because of the “natural security character” of his research.
Whether or not the fruit machine actually worked, the entire project is representative of a movement that lasted almost forty years in the light and perhaps another twenty before that. Despite the fruit machine’s demise in 1967, discrimination in the RCMP, the government, and the Canadian Armed Forces continued, even despite changes to the Criminal Code in 1969 that decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults.
- In 1970, fifteen women in Halifax were “dropped” from the Canadian Armed Forces. One of these women tried to commit suicide and was then held for 24 straight hours of interrogation, at which point she broke and gave the Army names of other lesbians in the field.
- In 1976, Jacques Gallant became the first gay man to take the CAF to court for wrongful termination resulting from his sexuality. The Department of Defense successfully argued that the military was not subject to civil law or regulation and won the case against Gallant. This same argument would serve the military for another almost thirty years.
- In 1992, the Army is forced to overturn its discriminatory policies when Michelle Douglas finally brought successful challenge to homosexual discrimination.
- Gay marriage was federally legalized in Canada in 2005, and the first gay military wedding occurred the same year.
These listed items show only a few occasions of formal challenge to the policy. Less easy to quantify are the many people who quietly resigned against allegations of homosexuality rather than face dishonorable discharge or discrimination in the barracks.
Researching the fruit machine (and other events like it) is not easy. RCMP records are not publically searchable, and researchers conducting ATIP requests (Access to Information requests, formally through the government) are often passed from department to department or given pages of information that have been largely blacked out.
This blog post is compiled primarily from Gary Kinsman and Patricia Gentile’sÂ The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual RegulationÂ (UBC Press: Vancouver, 2010) and John Sawatsky’sÂ Men in the Shadows: The RCMP Security ServiceÂ (Doubleday: 1980). Also useful for context was David K. Johnson’sÂ The Lavender ScareÂ (University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Larry Hannant’sÂ The Infernal Machine: Investigating the Loyalty of Canada’s CitizensÂ (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995). Props to the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives as well, whose website is full of fascinating stuff if you know where to look.
Got a topic you want to know more about in queer (Canadian) history? Have a suggestion for an interesting one-shot? Comment, I’d love to hear about it.
If this post taught you something or made you think, please consider donating to the authorÂ or commissioning a knitted good. I am a currently unemployed queer kid with serious mental health problems and lots of school debt, and these posts do take a lot of time and effort, so I really appreciate any kickbacks. Likes and shares also help other people learn and grow!
until next time!~
* The mirror was necessary because the camera could not be pointed directly at the subject’s eyes without obscuring the projection of the images. This was 1961, remember. Colour television wasn’t even close to accessible.