Queering the Cold War

Tim McCaskell

Reviewed in this article

The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation
Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile
A good book raises questions. As I was reading the early chapters of Kinsman and Gentile’s The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation, I found my mind drifting back to the early 1960s. Trudging home from school through the snow in the village of Beaverton, Ontario, I knew at the time that boys had to be interested in girls, and that at pain of exclusion and humiliation, the school “sissy” Louis/Louise had to be avoided at all costs. I also knew that the main thing that interested me about going to the district high school the next year was the prospect of communal showers after phys ed class. I worked hard at not knowing what that might mean.

What I didn’t know at the time was that simultaneously, queer civil servants were being surveilled and entrapped in Ottawa, and they were trudging through the same winter snow to interrogation sessions. I didn’t know that dykes and gay men were being humiliated and discharged from the Canadian Armed Forces. I didn’t know that “morality squads” were gathering queer names at the behest of the RCMP, or that shortly after my birth the law had been amended to exclude the immigration of homosexuals as possible subversives. Reading The Canadian War on Queers45 years later, I wondered what the connection might be between these events. Were these various independent effects of a homophobic cultural hegemony? Or were the state-directed actions in Ottawa and elsewhere producing a cascading series of effects reaching even small town Ontario?

The Canadian War on Queersis the most detailed work to date that illuminates the intersections between homophobia, gender conformity, national security, and Cold War paranoia in Canada. The authors don’t speculate about the relationship between state activity and local experiences of homophobia, but they do provoke such questions and have written a book that must be read.

It opens with a first-hand account of the techniques of police surveillance in an Ottawa gay gathering place in the 1960s, but quickly shifts to the patrons’ disruption of this surveillance through campy mockery. This is the heart of Kinsman and Gentile’s approach: gay men, lesbians, and queers are not portrayed as passive victims of state imposed social conformity, but rather as dance partners, if you like, with a regime that seeks to crush us. We respond to every move it makes. It in turn must respond to us. We thereby participate in the creation of our own history, although not under the conditions of our own choosing.

Drawing inspiration from Foucault and Marx, the book cites E.P. Thompson’s “sociology from below.” It also employs Dorothy Smith’s “institutional ethnography,” which aims at revealing how institutions coordinate their oppressive practices through texts. Both of these thinkers aspire to produce knowledge from the point of view of the exploited and oppressed, knowledge that is useful for their struggles against oppression.

It is this methodology that shapes the content of The Canadian War on Queers. It highlights first-hand accounts of those who were caught up in the state’s campaign, the impact that it had on their lives and identities, and their strategies of resistance. Extensive interviews with those caught up in the campaigns reveal the texture of queer life and subjectivities of the mid-20th century. The book also references state documents that coordinated and shaped the campaign, and is supplemented by interviews from some who were involved in implementing it. This raw material which is woven together by the authors’ analysis, attempts to make sense of, and link these diverse accounts.

The goal of The Canadian War on Queersis not just to make sure queers are properly inscribed on the list of Cold War victims but also to “queer” the Cold War itself. The authors argue that we must go beyond a conception of the period as a stand-off between two empires – the USand its allies vs. the Soviet bloc (a.k.a. freedom vs. Communism) – a struggle that was often fought out in proxy wars in the Third World between neo-colonial regimes and national liberation struggles. Kinsman and Gentile remind us that the Cold War was also an attempt to return to notions of sexual and gender “normality” that had been disrupted in the West during the Second World War. The perceived decline of Western historical dominance in the face of the Soviet challenge was displaced into an anxiety around traditional gender roles and sexuality. “The others” in this double struggle were often conflated, thus the epithet “Commie Pinko Fag.”

The Canadian War on Queersperceives itself as a political intervention. Histories are always about the present. The book both opens and closes with references to contemporary national security campaigns against Arabs and Muslims and attempts to use the experiences of similar Cold War campaigns against queers to shine light on current abuses. But it also challenges “the social organization of forgetting” complicit in the ever more hegemonic strategies of respectability in queer communities:

we remember the deep roots of heterosexism in Canadian state and social formation and argue that, given this anti-queer history, which continues to shape our present, queers require a much more profound social transformation than that constituted by simply winning the right to marry (21).

One can divide the history recounted in the book into three general periods: the 1950s and 60s, the period before decriminalization; the 1970s to the mid-90s, when queer activists confronted the state; and finally, the mid-90s to the present with its project of assimilation.

In the first period, the Canadian state’s ostensible reason for sniffing out fags and dykes in the civil service, RCMP, and the military was the possibility of blackmail by Soviet agents. As post-war government bureaucracy grew, more and more of its work was formalized in documents and texts. Access to “sensitive” documents required security clearance. As long as homosexuality was illegal, the fear was that enemy agents might use the threat of disclosure to manipulate queer targets with access to such texts. Gay subjects were furthermore considered particularly vulnerable to blackmail because we supposedly suffered from “character weakness,” and were therefore less likely to be able to stand up to manipulation. We were defined as congenitally unreliable.

According to The Canadian War on Queers,at the same time that urban life was creating the possibility of queer networks, the national security campaigns were requiring government workers to hide their sexuality – thus recreating the “double life” that we have come to know as the closet. One result of this process was a queer world divided on class lines. Working class queers were more often open. Middle class and professional queers, especially those in the civil service with more to lose, were less likely to be public about their sexuality.

But since the criminalization of homosexuality and the national security campaigns required many of us to construct our lives in various closets, the state was left in turn with the difficult task of identification of hidden potential subversives. The Canadian War on Queersdisplays the confusions within different parts of the state apparatus around how to define the nature of the homosexual threat. As the 60s wore on, original understandings of “sexual inversion” that linked homosexual proclivities with gender nonconformity – feminine men and masculine women – gave way to more “modern,” “psychological” notions of “sexual object choice” or sexual orientation, that might or might not be associated with gender nonconformity at all. The task of identification of “the homosexual” therefore became more difficult, and the RCMPbegan to work more closely with municipal police “morality squads” to penetrate queer networks. But this was a cat and mouse game where queer “mice” learned to protect each other by developing a notion of solidarity about revealing names of acquaintances, making the job of developing a network of informants even more difficult and costly. The state therefore anxiously tried to develop a better mousetrap – some sort of test that could reveal the hidden homosexual. The period culminated in the aborted attempt to construct the infamous “Fruit Machine” that could once and for all identify the homosexual type.

After homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private was decriminalized in 1969, the game began to change. An increasingly assertive gay liberation/gay rights movement began to challenge the assumptions of the national security campaign as part of its struggle against discrimination. Ironically, this movement fed into the worst fears of the security apparatus, as it began to detect the emergence of “commie pinko fags” as a political force. The early days of gay liberation were in fact marked by an attempt by many leading activists to understand queer oppression using a Marxist analysis of capitalism. Gay liberation saw itself as part of the pantheon of liberation movements intent on fundamental social change – national, black, and women’s liberation. At the same time, traditional left-wing communist, Trotskyist, and “New Left” groups found themselves challenged to develop an analysis of, and accommodate themselves to, notions of sexual liberation.

As a result, the security apparatus began to change its orientation. It now had an organizational focus for its surveillance: leftist groups with openly queer members and queer groups with openly leftist members. The Canadian War on Queersgoes into more detail than is perhaps necessary to chart the twists and turns of such organizations and cites examples from declassified reports indicating police surveillance and penetration. But it does remind us that in the early period, gay liberation saw itself, and was seen by a suspicious state, as a left wing movement.

This period, however, also witnessed the slow unraveling of the rationale for the Canadian security apparatus’ war against queers. After decriminalization and the lesbian and gay movement’s slow but steady accumulation of human rights protections and other law reforms, more and more queer people were coming out. Blackmail could no longer be posed as an important threat undermining national security. The 1981 McDonald report on the RCMP, for example, transformed the notion of “character weakness” to “character trait.” No longer was being a homosexual a security risk in itself. Being in the closet still put one at risk for blackmail, but those who were openly gay were not. At the same time, the Cold War itself was winding down, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s it came to a close. In 1992, a year after the fall of “communism,” the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was used to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Canadian military. The final pieces of discriminatory legislation were soon to fall.

The Canadian War on Queersfocuses on the evolution of the relationship between queers and national security through the historical period that saw the birth of gay liberation and the achievement of legal equality. But this was also the period that saw the dramatic shift to neoliberalism, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the production of class disparities that would have been unimaginable 30 years before. The question of the connection between those processes is outside the scope of the book’s mandate, but reading this history still raises tantalizing questions. What is the relationship between the development of queer communities and the neoliberal project to facilitate the penetration of market economies into all aspects of life?

In the 19th century, when British women were squeamish about their husbands’ amorous advances, they were advised to “close their eyes and think of England.” Proper sex was a productive act in the service of nation. It generated soldiers and administrators and labourers for empire. Improper sex – that involving birth control, abortion, or homosexuality for instance – did not, and therefore flirted with treason. It was this association that we see carried through to Canada’s war on queers a century later.

But neoliberalism struggles with different demands. We live in a period of overproduction. The political imperative is to consume. As George W. Bush pointed out, in the 21st century, patriotism and serving the nation involves shopping. Sex is now a universal marketing tool, and in itself, a commodity that requires continual upgrades. You can have too many refrigerators, but you can never have too much sex, and therefore never too much of the clothes, the fragrance, the body, or the cars that promise its just-in-time delivery. Queers are an important niche market, the cutting edge of sexualized consumption in the neoliberal city.

Our struggle for liberation was against state intrusion in our “private lives.” But in retrospect, was getting “the state out of the bedrooms of the nation” an early example of the neoliberal goal of shrinking the state’s reach, soon to be followed by its retreat from interference in the economy, wealth redistribution, the social safety net, environmental protections, etc.? These retreats, central to the neoliberal project, were designed to “free” capital. We demanded the state’s retreat from the bedrooms in order to “free” sexuality.

The final historical period addressed in The Canadian War on Queers, that of assimilation, corresponds to this triumph of neoliberalism. The book focuses on parallels between the homophobic surveillance of the Cold War period and today’s War on Terror. New “others,” new threats to the nation, have been identified. In fact, now fully integrated into the nation, ourqueer freedoms are often deployed to display theirbackward, dangerous otherness.

While these parallels are obvious, it is the least satisfactory part of the book. The intent appears to be to convince a queer readership that we have a stake in opposing the serious abuse of civil liberties characteristic of the War on Terror, which now targets Arabs and Muslims. While I could not agree more with this sentiment, the links described seem at times forced. The notion of queer solidarity called upon also begs the larger question about whether it is still meaningful to talk about a queer “community” given the growing disparity that neoliberalism has produced over the last 30 years. Does the fading memory of our common exclusion provide enough of a basis for such solidarity in 2010?

Canadian queers can now fully participate as soldiers in imperialist invasions. We can marry with pomp and circumstance in traditional churches. We can not only openly rub shoulders with the rich and powerful, indeed we can openly bethe rich and powerful, as long as we are properly raced, properly trained in performing class, and adequately loyal to the interests of the elite. If we understand the national security campaigns of the past and the present not as expressions of collective paranoia but as strategies for preserving elite power and privilege, then we have to ask how the growing class divisions within our “community” will affect our ability to speak with any common queer voice.

The political work of The Canadian War on Queers will therefore be different for different readers. To those concerned with the erosion of civil liberties under the War on Terror, it provides an insight into the coordination, implementation, and social effects of such campaigns, with historical examples of the strengths and weakness of spontaneous and organized forms of resistance. The parallels and differences between the War on Queers and the War on Terror will help deepen understanding of both processes. To those sectors of the queer “community” who have seen their quality of life deteriorate under neoliberalism, despite the advances in queer rights and the corresponding cultural shifts, The Canadian War on Queers opens a window into understanding the continuities in state sponsored marginalization of the designated “other.” To those who have benefited from the intensified class privilege of the neoliberal world order in the context of legal protections against homophobia, it may provide a counterbalance to “the social organization of forgetting,” which obscures the vulnerability of our gains and clouds an understanding of the continuing processes of marginalization and targeting of others.

In terms of this political work, some of the strengths of The Canadian War on Queersare also its weaknesses. The fascinating first-hand accounts of persecution and resistance, and the lengthy quotes from declassified documents are important source material, but also produce a narrative that is sometimes disjointed, cumbersome, and unnecessarily lengthy. Often, the authors’ interpretation of this material simply restates the obvious. UBCPress could have served both readers and the authors with a more hard-nosed editing process that could have slimmed the volume and better focused its themes.

Nevertheless, The Canadian War on Queersstands out an important and evocative work of sociology and history. It is a reference that all of those interested in the fight for social justice should have at our disposal.