The ‘fruit machine’ and gay concentration camps: tackling homophobia in 1980s Ottawa

The grainy photographs of a community picnic seem ordinary enough, but they don’t fully reflect what was an era of persecution that included RCMP monitoring and rumours of a BC island concentration camp.

Yet this was the reality for the gay community in 1980s Ottawa – but this 1986 picnic marked a transition for the community.

Barry Deeprose rubbed his shaven head as he reminisced about the mood in the city decades earlier. He moved to Ottawa to work for the National Defence in 1975, after living in more liberal American cities.

“I thought I’d stepped back to the 50s because of the ‘closetry’ and the fearfulness,” he said.

This fear was rooted in the witchhunts that were conducted in the 1950s and 1960s. Approximately 400 gay men were fired due to the security risk they allegedly posed. The government feared homosexuality could be used to blackmail employees.

The RCMP sought to remove gay men from the civil service. With over 7,000 files, they had scientists develop a “fruit machine” to test for homosexuality. Deeprose recalled that some MPs suggested community concentration camps.

Mike Hutton, a Foreign Affairs employee in the 1980s, confirmed this sexual profiling. He stated how “even after changes in 1981, whilst you could no longer be fired, being gay was certainly still career-limiting.”

He concluded this is why gay and lesbians in Ottawa were so secretive.

“So-called ‘weekend fags’ would go to places like Montreal to be gay, but live discreet lives during the work week,” Deeprose stated.

Deeprose, who co-founded Ottawa’s first AIDS committee in 1985, stated that ironically it was this disease that propelled the community to be more open. The exclusion of gay rights in the 1982 Charter was another catalytic factor.

“The history of gay liberation was one of becoming visible – other people have always defined us as sinners, as perverts, as pedophiles, as security risks,” Deeprose said. “As long as we remained secretive, others defined us. That also made it very difficult to establish a community or any solidarity.”

“We were under attack, under siege,” Hutton added. “We had two choices – to either fall apart, or to coalesce and start supporting each other and start pushing back.”

So the community decided to hold a picnic. A march was deemed too visible an event and would have discouraged many from attending.

The picnic was held on a sunny summer’s day in June 1986 in Strathcona Park, specifically because it was relatively isolated.

Gabriella Goliger, a reporter for the community newspaper at the time, stated that only 50 people attended.

She remembered that balloons, and not placards, were used to identify themselves – the group wanted to be visible but ‘acceptable’. The balloons had female and male gender signs and messages like “better gay than grumpy” written on them.

“We felt that that was as much as we wanted to show at that time,” she said. “Homophobia pre-dated AIDS – the stigma was always there. So just hanging out with other gays and lesbians as a group in a public place was significant.”

The picnic was uneventful – but Deeprose stated it had a ripple effect in creating the gay pride we know today. Just three years later in 1989, the first pride march was held in Ottawa.

“I never would have forecast the speed of change 20 years ago,” Deeprose said.

But newfound freedom led to a dilution of community spirit.

“Being gay in the 1980s bound us together,” Hutton stated. “But now there’s no external threat.”

Deeprose agreed, stating, “oppression built solidarity. I’m glad that it’s lifted, but we’ve lost something in the process.”

He pointed to the annual pride event in Toronto as an example of how it’s now more a public, rather than community, event.

“Pride is big money – it’s a commercial enterprise supported by the beer companies,” Deeprose said.

Deeprose preferred to remember the roots of gay pride. Looking again at the monochrome photographs, he referred to that summer’s day as “ the first time we could walk together, in pride, in the full light of the sun.”