Coming out as gay in the Canadian Forces in 1988

Coming out as gay in the Canadian Forces in 1988

Article by: 16107 Michael Loader

Recently the Canadian government announced the members of an advisory council to craft an apology to LGBT Canadians who were harmed by Canadian government policies between the 1950s and 1990s. I thought it might be time to share my own story.

I joined the Canadian Forces fresh out of high school in 1983 with no idea I was gay until a year and a half before graduating from the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston. Although I was late in understanding my sexual orientation, I knew what the military did to gays and I didn’t want to be discharged. I buried my thoughts and stayed focused on classes.

After RMC I went to Winnipeg for Air Navigator School. With more time and freedom I began to realize that I couldn’t continue to hide my true self. I was tired of lying to my friends about why I didn’t want to go to bars with them. The final trigger was a scene from a bad movie – an acquaintance had two dates lined up one night and implored me to join him on a double date. I couldn’t come up with a good way to say that I wasn’t interested and I stumbled on my inadequate lie.

On February 2, 1988, I informed my immediate superior that I was gay, knowing it would mean the end of my military career. I was summoned into the Commandant’s office and told I’d be discharged in three weeks, just like the last person who had come out on that base. I wanted to tell some close friends but I was directed to keep my mouth shut while I was sent for interviews with a doctor and psychiatrist to confirm that I was actually gay.

The next step was interrogations by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU). These sessions were conducted in a windowless room with a video camera and two-way mirror. The questions covered politics (did I believe in communism?), espionage (had I been in contact with foreign agents?), and sex (what did I think about when I masturbated?) The military determined that I had a “propensity for homosexuality”, that I had not been approached or talent spotted by a hostile intelligence service, and that I did not have financial problems or a criminal past.

Being interrogated made it difficult to focus on astronavigation classes. I gave up on my coursework knowing I’d be discharged soon. I was more worried about where I’d live and what I’d do for work after being discharged. While my friends were studying for class I was applying for jobs. I’m sure my friends wondered what was going on but I couldn’t share my secret with them.

Weeks passed and I hadn’t been kicked out yet. The Commandant met with me again and said the rules governing discharges were being put on hold temporarily due to a court case. I was instructed to continue keeping quiet about my sexuality, which is ironic since the fear of blackmail is often cited for the ban on gays. I was also required to sign an agreement to remain celibate! Any “inappropriate sexual conduct” would have resulted in my discharge. I was told to go back to class while this was sorted out. I was weeks behind on classes and my marks had dropped so I had to double down on studying.

By late 1988, my class was ready to graduate from Navigation School. My friends invited their family members to attend graduation but I had to make excuses to my parents because I didn’t know whether or not I’d be allowed to graduate. The Commandant had received verbal direction from a general in National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) that I not graduate or be posted to an active flying squadron. I was instead to be transferred to an administrative holding pen for LGBT service members in Ottawa.

The Commandant proved to be a stand-up guy. He demanded that a general in NDHQ provide the order in writing. I didn’t find out until the morning of graduation that I’d be allowed to join my peers because nobody in NDHQ had the guts to sign the order given the ongoing court case. The Commandant promoted me with the rest of my class so I will always be grateful to him for standing up for me and what was right.

I thought my ordeal was over when I got my choice of postings to 407 Maritime Patrol Squadron in British Columbia in December 1988. My secret clearance needed to be upgraded to top secret before I could train and serve on Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft. While my friends quickly received their clearances, I was subjected to a more thorough SIU evaluation. The highlight was agreeing to a voluntary polygraph test in March 1989. I was told that passing this test would allow me to get my clearance.

The experience was straight out of a pulp novel. One agent hooked me up to the polygraph machine in a cheap hotel room and asked me questions while the other monitored the results in the adjoining room. I passed the test but it didn’t matter, I found out later my Commanding Officer recommended I not be given the security clearance. But he told me that it would be better to wait for my security clearance by transferring “temporarily” to 442 Search and Rescue Squadron where I wouldn’t need a Top Secret clearance. It was a lie to get rid of me and I was angry when I found out, but he did me a favour. Search and rescue proved to be far more interesting to me!

My ordeal continued off and on for the next couple of years. There were more security investigations and I was told my career would be restricted, but I was eventually promoted to Captain anyway. While I was still bound by my agreement to remain celibate, I took the opportunity to learn what it meant to be gay, reading everything I could get my hands on. I even went to my first Pride Parade in Vancouver. My new commanding officer also proved to be a good person, ordering the SIU off his property when they started another investigation of me without clearing it with him.

My favourite story from this time is standing in the squadron ops room while working on a flight plan and overhearing a senior officer say that he’d know if he were flying with a gay person, that he could “just tell.” I did’t know it at the time, but there were four or five of us in the ops room that day who were LGBT!

I voluntarily left the Canadian Forces with no regrets in May 1992 when my service was up, trading in the vacuum tubes and analog computer of our aircraft for the chance to work with more modern technology outside of the military. The gay service rules were still “temporarily” on hold when I left but were finally lifted in October 1992.

I apologize to my friends to whom I made so many misleading statements and outright lies to adhere to the rules I was required to follow. I’m glad I had the courage to tell the truth about who I was even if the military then sealed my lips. Even this limited coming out was freeing to me and in some ways I think those who remained firmly in the closet paid a higher price than I did. I had learned in 1988 that one of the Navigation School’s pilots was gay, and with my permission, he was told I was gay although he didn’t know I knew about him. One day while on a training flight he left the cockpit to stretch his legs in the back of the plane where the navigation students were practicing. I could feel his eyes on me for several minutes, likely wondering why I hadn’t been kicked out and what it would feel like to come out as I had. He had years of seniority so he had too much invested in his career to take the risk. I felt sorry for him because the walls of his closet were a lot higher than mine.

I’m glad the Canadian government may finally apologize to LGBT Canadians for the way we were treated. Although I didn’t have it easy, almost everybody treated me with respect and I’m left with no bitterness. I enjoyed my time in the Canadian Forces and I met the love of my life shortly after my release. I can only laugh thinking back to the SIU interrogations – I hope asking me incredibly inappropriate questions about sex was as uncomfortable for the agents as it was upsetting to me!

While I have no wounds for a government apology to heal, I realize others had it much harder than me. I want the government to apologize not for me but for those whose lives were ruined. I hope that they or their families can find some solace in an apology.

To the LGBT members of the Canadian Armed Forces today, thank you for continuing to serve and please come out if you haven’t already. Do your job, serve your country, and most of all, don’t lie to your friends about being gay.


  • Alice Gianotti

    October 16, 2017 at 10:46 am

    Thank you Michael for this story that shows how much ground the LGBTQ ordeal as progress in a nice direction since your time at RMC. Today, students seem much more open to LGBTQ people and, as a female student told me in class the other day, “everybody knows I’m gay and it’s not a problem”. Nevertheless, I think it is important that we keep on finding some allies in the heterosexual world and I’m very happy to say that I will participate soon in helping to crate a safe space in my classroom for anyone who wants to speak of his/her experience of excepting who they truly are…No more questioning will be done. Thank you again for your testimony. Alice

  • John Whitaker

    October 16, 2017 at 10:49 am

    Sad that it took our military so long to come to grips with the normality of homosexuality. I feel sorry for Michael and what he had to go through. I hope an apology to the LGBQ community is coming in the near future.

  • Theresa Winchester

    October 16, 2017 at 11:53 am

    So sorry to hear about your experience, Michael. BZ to you for maintaining your sense of self. The Canadian military seems to be a reflection of society but way slower. I remember very well that 1988 court case and how it put everything on hold — no release but no promotion, no courses, no nothing for those who were out.
    Are you don’t want to be an author? That lie detector scene would be great in a time piece movie.

  • JJ Smith

    October 16, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    I had the privilege of serving with Michael when we were officer cadets at Royal Roads. He was then, as now, a courageous person of great integrity. Canada has been the poorer for his not having served a full career in the CF, and the tragedy of his case underscores the necessity of an apology from our government and senior CF officers of the time. That such treatment of serving people continued after the equality guarantees in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1985 was an affront to Canadians. – 16142 JJ Smith RR88

  • Barry Struthers

    October 16, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    I grew up in the military so was always aware of the culture being 5 to 10 years behind.
    Dad was posted to England when I was 10. English, and especially grammar was Very big. Does it disturb anyone else that..for example 2 of the above 3 comments desperately need assistance of an Editor ? This newsletter regularly wouldn’t get past my Grade 8 teacher. [ I know I’m demonstrating one of the joys of being retired. A quote I’ve recently read said- ” I’m not always sarcastic. Sometimes I’m asleep.” That said, what was the 1988 court case ?

  • JJ Smith

    October 16, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    Hello Barry. In reply to your post, the case in question was almost certainly that of a Lieutenant Michelle Douglas (as she then was). As with Michael, she began to be investigated in 1988 and had career-limiting action against her in 1989. She pursued judicial review of the CF’s policy in the Federal Court of Canada, and the case was settled shortly before trial in 1992. So there is no reported decision from a court in her circumstances nor, I expect, in any other case at the time or since.

  • Nick 24122

    October 16, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    Michael, thanks for sharing your story. Very brave. I don’t think you owe any apologies. We’re fortunate as an organization to have great champions like you, and your Commandant years before. Many members, open or not, continue to experience hardship and negative treatment, including harassment. I’m sure that young Canadians and their parents want to join an inclusive and diverse organization. Thanks for your efforts to make our culture more open, inclusive, and – ultimately – operationally effective.

    That’s leadership.

  • Tanya Grodzinski

    October 17, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    Michael; many thanks for sharing your experiences. Fortunately, the laws, paranoia and prejudice that fuelled the injustices against LGBTQ were quickly destroyed. Nonetheless, what you endured was inexcusable and it’s a testament to your strength of character, that in sharing that pain with us today, you remind us how precious our freedoms are, and, perhaps more importantly, how recently they were won.

  • 13139 Mitch MacLeod

    October 18, 2017 at 11:55 am

    RMC in the 70s and 80s, and the Canadian Army were, and probably still are, to a degree, homophobic. The crazy witch hunts that were tolerated prior to 1992 seem incredible today. Thank you for sharing.

  • Graham Keene 10700

    October 18, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    Michael thanks so much for sharing you story with us. It is difficult to understand how only a few short years ago ,(I graduated in 1975 so everything now seems short), much of the CAF culture, looking back, was still residing culturally in the dark ages. Whether it be sexual abuse, homophobia, or just plain old red neck thinking most of us didn’t even realize it was going on. The CAF, as with all social groups, was made up and led by individuals who exercised the individual prejudices they had been taught in their time. I believe that thanks to courageous people like you leading the charge, gains are being made across the board. Perhaps all too slowly but none-the-less progress is being made. I am not one for apologies by today’s leaders who weren’t even part of the problem at that time. What is now relevant and important is strong and open minded leadership, education, and continued social change for the better. Show me the money. Saying we are sorry is easy and to me meaningless. Let’s look forward and not fumble with the past.

  • Mike Kennedy #12570

    October 18, 2017 at 5:21 pm

    This situation is reminiscent of the case of Joseph Steffan, who coincidentally was the same vintage as Mike Loader. Steffan was a top-ranked Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy who was dismissed a few weeks before his scheduled graduation in 1987 after he admitted to being gay. He later sued the U.S. government, but after several years of unsuccessful litigation he finally declined to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although at one point a lower court had ruled in his favour, I don’t believe he ever did receive his degree or commission.
    After his discharge from the Navy, Steffan eventually went on to become a lawyer and i believe he now works in the securities industry in New York City. Readers who have an interest in his case may wish to have a look at his 1992 autobiography “Honor Bound”.

  • Daniel Tremblay

    October 18, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    This is truly horrific Mike! I recall my instructors at Fleet School trying to out people in 1991… yeah, being gay in the military sure was nothing to call home about. Personally, I left before I was found out; I was 28 when I took FRP and never looked back.

    I’m glad you made it through and I hope you are able to move forward with your life. I remember you as the fencing team captain. We had a lot of great tournaments all over Ontario. You were a great mentor.

  • 27853 Jacob Kroell

    October 19, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    Thank you for sharing that amazing story Mr. Loader. We look back on previous missions and operations and learn what we did right and wrong in our actions in the military (as I’m sure you’re aware), and I think it is important to this from a historical perspective, so that we can prevent such atrocities happening to other minorities in our great military. Education on such matters is what leads to understanding and compassion for the difficult road that LGBT Forces members face (more so in the past than now), and sharing stories as you have helps educate those who don’t hear such stories, or witness the discrimination that has happened in our society. Our military is much stronger and understanding for people sharing stories such as your own. Your story reminds me to never hide who I am here at the College and in my future endeavours in the CAF. Thank you for sharing.