Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile’s The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation discusses the under-the-radar – and sometimes officially sanctioned – targeting of gays and lesbians as security threats from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Written from – and told through – a series of first-hand accounts combined with documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, Kinsman and Gentile discuss the history of queer Canadians in a way that is passionate and personal.
In the second half of the 20th century, queer women and men were interrogated, spied-on, and harassed. Others were fired from their jobs, put through the “Fruit Machine” – a test that measured the supposed erotic response to a series of images – and declared to be national security risks.
First person narratives form the core of the book, providing both the most informative and the most interesting segments. While materials for The Canadian War on Queers did in part come from documents released under the Access to Information Act, Gentile says that it was important to look beyond the officially sanctioned – and officially censored – information.
The declassified documents tell a chilling tale in which queers were seen as having character weaknesses, and therefore as unreliable, disloyal, and subject to blackmail, making them threats to national security. But the most interesting part of the book is the recounting of the experiences of those who experienced the purges first-hand.
“They become the highlight of the book,” says Gentile.
The Canadian War on Queers also aims to be, in Gentile’s words, an act of rebellion. Not only does it tell the stories of those who were purged, interrogated, and spied upon, and who resisted, it also, in Gentile’s words, is an act of rebellion.
“Most people don’t learn about queers in Canadian history and they certainly don’t learn about how the Canadian state was trying to get rid of homosexuals working in the federal government and the military,” says Gentile. “My political motivation is not as a queer person wanting to write this history, but as a historian wanting to record the voices of people who have been silenced.”
One of the book’s main weaknesses is its “In this chapter we will show” style, which non-academic readers will find frustrating. Kinsman and Gentile sometimes get bogged down by using particular phrasing instead of just saying what they mean, and by summarizing the personal accounts instead of leaving them to speak for themselves. That said, they do a fantastic job of leaving excerpts from their interviews long enough to give context in a self-contained manner, which adds a lot to the narrative.
In one of the most enlightening – and most worrying – parts of the book, Kinsman and Gentile draw comparisons between the past War on Gay and the present War on Terror. Arguing that the indiscriminate targeting of Arab and Islamic-identified peoples is very similar to a non-specific fear of gays and lesbians, they show that the Cold War world is still uncomfortably close.
“The national security ideology is not something that happens in the past; it’s something that’s very active and has a very contemporary character to it,” says Gentile. “Although we’re talking about queers, we can extend the analysis that we make in the book to what’s happening today.”