A look back on John Watkins and the 2SLGBTQ+ Purge by the Canadian Government
By Kay Hacker
Content warning: This article includes explicit descriptions of systematic, institutionalized homophobia and transphobia, as well as non-graphic descriptions of violence against members of the LGBTQ2S+ community. This article also contains non-graphic mentions of torture and death. Finally, this article talks in-depth about police violence and police brutality involving the RCMP.
Every June, the rainbow flags come out for the ultimate celebration of love and all the diverse forms it takes- a way to celebrate our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Two-Spirit and otherwise Queer and Trans (LGBTQ2S+) siblings in all their beautiful diversity. Many people wonder- why June, specifically?
Well, Pride isn’t always in June. In fact, in Vancouver, Pride is usually celebrated in August! This year marks Vancouver Pride’s 44th anniversary. But internationally, June is recognized as Pride month as a result of the Stonewall Riots in New York City. The Stonewall Inn is a well-known gathering place for LGBTQ2S+ people. In the 60s, it was subject to frequent police harassment. When the police raided the bar in 1969, the patrons (many of whom were trans women of colour) fought back and rioted against police brutality.
See, that’s the thing about Pride: it’s more than just a rainbow party, and more than just a celebration. Pride is a reminder to keep fighting. Pride is a reminder that we as LGBTQ2S+ people are still here, a rebuke and vindication against those who have tried to erase us.
Let me tell you about this fight. Let me tell you about the history of LGBTQ2S+ membership in the public service.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Canadian government made a concerted effort to remove any “suspected homosexuals” (not the words we would use today) from the public service. At first, the focus was mainly on MSM (men who have sex with men), as well as men who acted in ways that did not conform to their expected gender roles, such as wearing the wrong kind of clothes, since the vast majority of public servants were men. WSW (women who have sex with women) and women who acted outside their expected gender roles were also subject to persecution.
Why? Because they stepped outside of what society expected and that was considered dangerous. This was the Cold War, and for the Canadian government it was Us against Them. And there could be no “homosexuals” on our side, therefore They must be against Us.
It was considered a threat to national security to have LGBTQ2S+ people in the public service and specifically in the diplomatic apparatus, since gay public servants might be vulnerable to blackmail. Anything other than perfectly adhering to the gender you were assigned at birth and being attracted to the correct gender in the correct way left folks exposed to violence, discrimination and even criminal prosecution. So, according to the Canadian government, the best way to make the public service less vulnerable to blackmail was to uncover and uproot every possible weak spot (read: LGBTQ2S+ person) before the Russians could.
Despite the fact that there was no evidence of any successful attempts to blackmail LGBTQ2S+ members of the public service, the RCMP launched a massive campaign to unearth any member of the public service suspected of “perversion”. They monitored LGBTQ2S+ establishments and photographed patrons, conducted brutal interviews of suspected and confirmed gay public servants and tracked people down in their private lives. I invite you to think of each violation of these peoples’ basic human rights as an act of violence. LGBTQ2S+ public servants were forced into hiding, fearing for their jobs and for their safety. Thousands of “suspected homosexuals” were put on file in what is now called the LGBTQ purge.
All of this happened at the same time that the Public Service Alliance of Canada was taking shape and stepping up for public servants. This happened when my grandparents were finishing high school. You might have been alive when this happened- you certainly know at least one person who was.
I’m only telling you a small portion of the story today. I want to include so much and I know that there is still so much left to uncover. And at the same time, writing this article has been very difficult for me. Each personal narrative that I read, every article trying to capture the sea of pain in a tidy bucket… it feels like a punch in the gut. This is my community- both the LGBTQ2S+ community, and the public service.
To end this article, I want to tell you the part of the story that hit me the hardest and has stuck with me, even now: the story of one man, one victim of the LGBTQ purge. For me, the entire LGBTQ purge is filtered through his experience.
Let me tell you about John Watkins.
John Watkins was Canada’s first ambassador to Moscow. By all records, he was quite good at it, arranging for a landmark meeting between Lester B. Pearson (then-minister for external affairs) and Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union. He was a good diplomat, and a good man- popular in the public service, always with a story to tell. He was also a man who was attracted to other men. John Watkins died in 1964 at the age of 62, in a hotel in Montreal, of a heart attack. He died at the end of a four-hour long interrogation by the RCMP. By that point, he had been under constant surveillance and daily 3–4-hour interrogations for almost a month.
I would classify 28 days of interrogation as torture. The RCMP classified it as “need-to-know” information, had him declared dead of a totally coincidental heart attack and kept the reality of the situation secret until 1981. The purge of LGBTQ2S+ public servants continued until the early 1970s. LGBTQ2S+ purges continued in the RCMP and the military up until the 1990s.
The government apologized for the purge in 2017, a year before I joined the public service, and paid out a settlement to many of those affected, after victims spent years fighting for recognition.
This is not ancient history- this is living memory. As we celebrate Pride this year, as we lift up LGBTQ2S+ people in our lives, we must remember what came before- the bloody, brutal fight for recognition, and the many barriers towards LGBTQ2S+ survival. Those of us in the PSAC must recognize the history of violence against our LGBTQ2S+ members and work to avoid perpetuating this harm ourselves. The union was not able to protect LGBTQ2S+ members in the past. We will do better this time. We must.
I ask you, this Pride season, as you put up rainbow stickers and temporary tattoos, to remember John Watkins. Remember where we came from. Allies must learn to live with this tragic history, hold space for our pain, because for LGBTQ2S+ public servants, this tragedy is inescapable. It is part of the burden taken on when we chose to be public servants, and it is a burden borne most heavily by public servants who are out and proud.
We must all work towards a better future. The battle for LGBTQ2S+ rights is not over just because June has passed. LGTBQ2S+ people invited you to the party. Now, we invite you to the fight.
Kay Hacker –Local 20278.
Levy, R. (2018, October 3). Canada’s Cold War purge of LGBTQ from public service. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 2022, from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/lgbtq-purge-in-canada
Our history. Public Service Alliance of Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved June 2022, from https://psacunion.ca/our-history
UPI. (1981, December 23). RCMP interrogation of Canada’s first ambassador to Moscow, John Watkins, was kept secret to prevent scandal and to keep counter-espionage operations under wraps. UPI. Retrieved June 2022, from https://www.upi.com/Archives/1981/12/23/RCMP-interrogation-of-Canadas-first-ambassador-to-Moscow-John/1926377931600/