Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Expecting an unfavorable ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada, the Canadian armed forces negotiated a settlement with lesbian soldier Michelle Douglas, which encouraged the Canadian attorney general to lift the government’s ban on gays and lesbians in the military.

Summary of Event

Before 1992, Canada had banned gays and lesbians from serving in its armed forces, a ban outlined in Administrative Order 19-20. The Canadian Forces (CF) did not allow the enlistment or commission of gays and lesbians who were out, and any service personnel found to be gay or lesbian were dismissed. Soldiers were required to notify leadership about all suspected or known gay and lesbian personnel. A special investigations unit had been formed to handle the resulting court cases. [kw]Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians (Oct., 1992) [kw]Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians, Canadian (Oct., 1992) [kw]Ban on Gays and Lesbians, Canadian Military Lifts Its (Oct., 1992) [kw]Gays and Lesbians, Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on (Oct., 1992) [kw]Lesbians, Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and (Oct., 1992) Military, Canadian;and service ban[service ban] Supreme Court, Canadian;discrimination Douglas v. Canada (1992)[Douglas v Canada] Lesbians;military service [c]Military;Oct., 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians[2210] [c]Civil rights;Oct., 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians[2210] [c]Government and politics;Oct., 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians[2210] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct., 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians[2210] Douglas, Michelle Haig, Graham Birch, Joshua Campbell, Kim

The CF policy on lesbian and gay servicemembers came under increasing judicial and political scrutiny after the passage of the Canadian Human Rights Act Human Rights Act, Canada (1978) (CHRA) in 1978 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada in 1985. While the CHRA did not explicitly cover sexual orientation, it required employers to justify exclusionary or restrictive policies. The charter, similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights, also did not include sexual orientation in its list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. Section 15 of the charter did, however, enable the restriction of other forms of discrimination if so ruled by the courts.

Following the adoption of the charter, the CF launched a study of the issue of lesbians and gays in the military. Following its results, the ban was slightly modified. Under this change, the CF would not knowingly enroll gays and lesbians. If soldiers were “discovered” or announced themselves to be gay or lesbian, they would be asked to leave but would not be dismissed. Those who chose to stay, however, would not be eligible for training courses, security clearances, transfers, promotions, or reenlistment. The CF already had removed from regulations the obligation of servicemembers to report on suspicions that another solider may be lesbian or gay.

In 1986, Canadian courts served as the battleground for ending this modified policy. In one case, Stiles v. The Queen, a soldier was denied an important transfer because he was gay; the case was settled. A second case, Bordeleau v. Canada, escalated the conflict. Bordeleau was dismissed from the CF because he was gay. The dismissal, he argued, violated the charter. In June, 1989, the court ruled that Bordeleau “may have a reasonable cause of action since discrimination under the Charter is not limited only to the categories listed.” The CF did not respond.

In 1992, two important cases prompted the courts, the legislature, and the military to reconsider the ban. The first case, Haig v. Canada, Haig v. Canada (1992)[Haig v Canada] pitted Graham Haig, an Ottawa gay activist, and Joshua Birch, a former Canadian air force (CAF) captain, against the Canadian forces. The CAF refused to promote Birch because he was gay. The CHRA refused to investigate policy because sexual orientation was not included in it. In June, 1992, the Ontario Court of Appeals weighed in and demanded that the CHRA was to be “interpreted, applied and administrated as though it contained sexual orientation as a prohibitive ground of discrimination and read as if sexual orientation was specifically included in it.” The government did not appeal, and the precedent would soon be cited in a number of other cases.

The most significant case was filed in 1992 by Michelle Douglas, who had been expelled because she was a lesbian. Douglas charged that Administrative Order 19-20 was inconsistent with the charter. She also argued her dismissal undermined her right to freedom of association. An adjudicator agreed, and ordered that Douglas be reinstated to her position.

A series of appeals ensued, with each side scoring victories. However, as the final lawsuit was about to be heard, the armed forces capitulated and, citing Haig, negotiated a settlement. Shortly thereafter, in October, Attorney General Kim Campbell (later prime minister) relented and lifted the ban against gays and lesbians in the military. A Canadian court agreed with and adopted the settlement on December 1 (Douglas v. Canada).


Various studies by different Canadian government agencies between 1992 and 1995 found that heterosexual soldiers were increasingly accepting of gay and lesbian personnel and that military effectiveness was not affected. The studies also found gay soldiers reported a good working relationship with their heterosexual peers, reports of sexual harassment dropped 46 percent, there was no increase in disciplinary problems, and gay bashing incidents in the military dropped significantly.

The process of lifting the ban, and the subsequent studies, served as a strong example for other countries throughout the world. Shortly after Canada lifted the ban, Australia followed suit. As part of his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton promised to do the same with the U.S. armed forces. However, soon after he took office in 1993, Clinton was undermined by the Republican-led Congress, and instead created a much maligned compromise known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell] New Zealand lifted its ban in 1993, and South Africa did the same in 1998. Following the examples set by Canada and the European Union, the government of Great Britain also lifted its ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers in 2000. Taiwan followed suit in 2002. The only country to move backward, Russia, added further restrictions on gay and lesbian personnel in 2003.

On another front, section 15 of the Canadian charter, which secures equal rights for all Canadians without regard to sexual orientation, was strengthened by lifting the military ban. Because the antidiscrimination clause grew stronger, Canada was well positioned to initiate groundbreaking laws regarding same-gender marriage (which is now legal in Canada) and other gay and lesbian rights concerns. Military, Canadian;and service ban[service ban] Supreme Court, Canadian;discrimination Douglas v. Canada (1992)[Douglas v Canada] Lesbians;military service

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belkin, Aaron, and Jason McNichol. “Effects of the 1992 Lifting of Restrictions on Gay and Lesbian Service in the Canadian Forces: Appraising the Evidence.” April, 2000. Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, University of California, Santa Barbara. http://www.gaymilitary _Toc475351398.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bindman, Stephen. “Military Opens Its Arms to Gays: New Policy Lifts Ban on Hiring, Promotion of Homosexuals.” The Gazette (Montreal), October 10, 1993, p. B1.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Paul. One of the Boys: Homosexuality in the Military During World War II. Montreal, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lahey, Kathleen A. Are We “Persons” Yet? Law and Sexuality in Canada. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDougall, Bruce. Queer Judgements: Homosexuality, Expression, and the Courts in Canada. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Miriam. Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada: Social Movements and Equality Seeking, 1971-1999. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Tom. Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

March 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1976-1990: Army Reservist Ben-Shalom Sues for Reinstatement

May-August, 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch Hunt

May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier

1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans

August 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams

November 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented

January 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military

Categories: History