Sexuality in the Mainstream: A Brief History of Regulation in Canada and the U.S.

Michael Sam made sporting headlines recently by making his first public appearance since announcing openly that he is gay. Sam is a 6-foot-2, 255-pound defensive end who played football for the University of Missouri Tigers. Despite having won the Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year award, Sam is only projected as a mid-round pick in the upcoming NFL entry draft this May. With impressive credentials and a strong athletic frame, many around NFL circles believe Sam’s draft ranking is being hurt by his sexual orientation.

The NFL supports its athletes regardless of sexuality, but some management and executive personnel around the league are hesitant when asked how a gay player would fit on the field and in the locker room. When asked of Sam, Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome raised concern for current and future media attention given to the player. For his part, Sam told the media: “I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.” The clear consensus around the NFL is that Sam will be treated as an equal and with respect, regardless of draft team. Yet his selection ranking is still in question. To be clear, Sam’s potential as a football player was hotly debated even before his announcement. There are many within the NFL who question as well as praise his athletic ability, but sports media is fixated on the impact that his open sexual orientation will have when he officially enters the league.

While sports culture is both unique and varied around the world, the fight for gay rights is certainly emblematic of wider social trends. Western democracies have just recently begun to legalize gay marriage, but certain belief systems still provide a strong measure of social resistance against complete and unbinding acceptance of homosexuality. The history of state resistance and attempted regulation of sexual orientation in Canada is both shocking and long. For nearly fifty years, agents of the Canadian state spied on, harassed, and interrogated gays and lesbians under the guise of national security. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and other enforcement groups pursued homosexuals as threats to society and developed techniques to identify and confront their targets. Many civil servants and high-ranking officials within Canadian government, as well as their family members and close friends, were subjected to a range of tests meant to isolate their individual sexuality.

What happened in Canada was by no means unique. The policies and actions of many Western governments toward gays and lesbians in this era seems to suggest that homosexuality went against a perceived “norm” and posed a risk to the heterosexual nuclear family driving force behind postwar reconstruction. In the United States of the late 1940s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover spearheaded efforts to publically expose “Communist” infiltrators. At this time, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator and former wartime ally, was prepared to lead a Communist bloc that included all of Eastern Europe as well as China. A fear of Communism – otherwise known as a “red scare” – swept through Western countries, as democratic leaders proclaimed the dangers of potential communist ideology. South of the border, efforts to root out perceived threats to national security were increased by McCarthyism and what scholars have since called an all-out government initiated witch hunt. For Canadians, the events that unfolded in the United States were mesmerizing, but little did they know that their own government had set rules to screen out the Communist threat at home.

In the late 1940s, Canadians generally thought of themselves and their government as more liberal, tolerant, and less erratic than their American counterparts. This may be the case, but in Canada Communism was perceived as a threat to society and the government (right or wrong) took action accordingly. In May 1946, the Liberal government established the Security Panel. Comprised of senior representatives from Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Defence Staff, the RCMP, and External Affairs, the panel devised a screening program for the civil service and kept security issues out of the public eye. The RCMP rooted through Canadian society as a democratic right-thinking police force, targeting potential “Communists” as well as peoples who may or may not have had ties to the Soviet bloc. In addition to the civil service, trade unions throughout the country were targeted the most, as the RCMP suspended civil liberties to interrogate left-wingers with potential ties to the Communist East. Somehow in the midst of this Cold War-driven turmoil, fears grew into paranoia and homosexuality became equated with Communist espionage. The Mounties had even devised a physiological tool designed to detect homosexuality. What became known as the “Fruit Machine,” was a sensing chair used to measure the stimuli responses of strapped-in subjects. It was never implemented beyond experimental trials, but it exemplifies the extent to which irrational thought consumed state practice during the Cold War.

By the late 1960s, anti-homosexual purges reached their peak in both the United States and Canada. Acting as Justice Minister and Attorney General in 1967, a young Pierre Trudeau introduced his highly controversial Omnibus Bill in the House of Commons and made a now infamous remark to reporters on sexuality and abortion by commenting, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Two years later same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was decriminalized in 1969, but by that time the damage done by the RCMP and other enforcement groups was irreparable. It wasn’t until the introduction of the Charter of Rights in the 1980s, that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was itself officially purged from Canada. Unfortunately, as evident from the media’s coverage of Michael Sam, the remnants of sexual regulation still permeate culturally today. He may be an American athlete, but as evidence from a brief history of sexual regulation in the West, his story has roots in Canada as well.