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Punishment of First World War soldiers for sexual orientation detailed in new study

A man walks past the Canadian National Vimy Memorial following a ceremony, Nov. 10, 2018, at Vimy Ridge, France. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld A man walks past the Canadian National Vimy Memorial following a ceremony, Nov. 10, 2018, at Vimy Ridge, France. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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OTTAWA -

Frederick Lea Hardy died fighting for Canada near Vimy Ridge in the First World War. Shortly before being killed in action, the teenager spent time in prison doing hard labour as a military punishment for his sexuality.

Hardy was one of at least 19 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force involved in consensual relationships who were arrested and tried for what was then known as gross indecency.

The painful, often bleak, stories of these men were uncovered by Sarah Worthman while doing research at Veterans Affairs Canada. Her findings have just been published under the auspices of the LGBT Purge Fund, a non-profit organization established through a class-action settlement.

The settlement with Ottawa was a key element of a sweeping federal apology delivered in November 2017 for decades of discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

When Worthman's Veterans Affairs contract ended in May 2022, she wasn't finished delving into the First World War era.

"And I knew that I owed it to my community to do whatever I could to get these stories out there," she said in an interview. "And so I approached the Purge Fund with a project proposal."

Worthman is now a master's student and freelance researcher, as well as executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Queer Research Initiative.

Her efforts to detail the gross-indecency cases involved sifting through some 200 court files.

"The records, the way they're sorted, are just a complete mishmash," she said. "There was a lot of long hours just kind of sitting in my little office, staring at handwritten cursive and trying to interpret what it means."

Worthman chooses to use the term queer throughout her study in keeping with recent movements to reclaim the term, which has been used as a slur, as encompassing both gender and sexuality. In addition, terms such as gay, bisexual, transgender and even homosexual are relatively modern identity markers, she notes.

As a queer person, Worthman shed tears reading through the files, realizing what members of her community went through a century ago. "Part of the process was actually coping with that and working through those feelings."

Hardy grew up in Brandon, Man., and left school to help on the family farm. As the war raged in Europe in 1915, he headed overseas at age 16 with the 8th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

While serving as a private in Abele, Belgium, in July 1916, Hardy was arrested for committing "an act of gross indecency with another male person," says Worthman's study, published at lgbtpurgefund.com.

"Hardy's battalion had just returned from the front lines after a particularly intense round of fighting and the soldiers were enjoying a well-deserved rest period," the report says. "Hardy and another soldier had attended a local establishment for a couple of drinks."

They wandered from the town on a summer stroll into a nearby field.

"It was in that meadow that they were discovered together by a group of superior officers who were billeted in a nearby farmhouse. Both soldiers were arrested and the following morning they were tried by courts martial."

The five captains who witnessed the event testified against Hardy, and graphic descriptions of the men's sexual encounter were read aloud in court.

"One can only imagine the humiliation Frederick must have felt in that moment," Worthman writes. "He was a farm boy from rural Manitoba who was forced to represent himself and was denied a jury of his peers."

Hardy was found guilty by a panel of military superiors and sentenced to 18 months of hard labour in prison.

He served eight months of the sentence in the harsh H.M. Winchester, one of several prisons in England commandeered to hold military members.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force was primarily based in southern England, so most convicted Canadian soldiers were sent to prisons in that region so they could be mobilized swiftly if needed in the trenches.

Indeed, due to heavy losses at Vimy Ridge, Hardy was summoned back to the front, fighting in the Canadian offensive at Hill 70.

He was killed in battle Aug. 15, 1917. His body was never found.

"This makes him the only known queer soldier to be commemorated on the Vimy Memorial," the study says.

"Frederick Hardy lost his life fighting for a country that imprisoned him and spent the last few months of his short life being tortured because of his sexuality in the lonely halls of Winchester prison."

For many of the soldiers, the war was their first exposure to other queer people, and they had barely had the chance to figure out their own sexuality before they were forced to cover it up through patchy, ill-fitting lies, Worthman notes.

In total, at least 35 men in the CEF were tried for gross indecency, of which 19 were for consensual queer relationships.

Three men were dismissed, or "cashiered," during the war because of their sexuality, she found. "Cashiering in this context refers to the long-standing military tradition of discharging officers deemed to be 'behaving in a scandalous manner."'

During the First World War, this ceremony was carried out in front of the other officers in the regiment and involved the destruction of status symbols such as epaulettes, insignia and badges to underscore that they could never again serve under the Crown. "Not only would this destroy an officer's social standing, but it also prevented them from obtaining a military pension."

Lt. Richmond Earl Lyon, who served three years of hard labour in the Winchester prison, was cashiered immediately following his court martial, the study says.

Cashiering was also often widely reported in trench newspapers, rooted in the notion of public military discipline as a deterrent for misbehaviour. "In this instance, it was used as a threat to scare queer people into the closet."

Until recently, there was very little knowledge of these courts martial and no mention of the "horrendous imprisonment" queer men faced during the war, the study says. "As a result, there has never been an apology for what these men experienced in prison nor has there ever been any efforts to commemorate them."

Worthman says people can honour the men by reading about their stories, and she would like to see them remembered through a plaque or the laying of a wreath.

"The story of these men and their persecution should not be seen as a shameful isolated incident in Canadian history but instead as an example of the long-standing policies and principles that have evolved into the oppression that queer people still face in Canada today," she writes.

Under policies that became embedded in the 1950s and continued into the early '90s, federal agencies investigated, sanctioned and sometimes fired lesbian and gay members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP and the public service because they were deemed unsuitable.

Many who kept their jobs were demoted or overlooked for promotions or had security clearances rescinded.

The class-action settlement included millions of dollars for reconciliation and remembrance measures, including a national monument to be built in Ottawa and declassification of archival records documenting the dark chapter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2023.

Correction

This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Hardy died fighting at Vimy Ridge. He was, in fact, fighting near Vimy Ridge.

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