Michelle Douglas, LGBTQ activist and advocate, humanitarian, civil servant (born 30 December 1963 in Ottawa,ON). Michelle Douglas began a promising career in the Canadian Armed Forces in 1986 but was honourably discharged for being a lesbian. She launched a successful lawsuit against the military that resulted in the end of its discriminatory policy against gays and lesbians. Douglas has gone on to work with numerous charitable organizations and was director of international relations at the Department of Justice. In September 2019, she became executive director of the LGBT Purge Fund.
Early Life and Education
Michelle Douglas was born on 30 December 1963 in Ottawa, Ontario. Raised in Ontario and Nova Scotia, Douglas chose to study law and political science at Carleton University in Ottawa because it was located in the country’s capital, the seat of government. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Law in 1985. During university, Douglas realized that she wanted to serve her country in some capacity, so she joined the Canadian Armed Forces after graduation.
Military Career and Discharge
Michelle Douglas joined the military on 26 November 1986 at age 23. She excelled in her courses and graduated at the top of her class in March 1987. She spent about two years as a second lieutenant before being asked to join the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) as an officer, making her one of the first female officers in the unit. The SIU investigated criminal behaviour in the military, including allegations that service members were gay or lesbian. Discrimination against gays and lesbians in the public service began in the 1950s during the Cold War, sparked by a fear that they posed a security risk because they could be blackmailed for their sexuality. (See Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from Public Service and Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from the Military).
Douglas herself was a lesbian, but took the SIU posting and decided to hide her private life. Douglas recalls that during this time: “I was so afraid. I just wanted to do my job, but none of that mattered.” The SIU began to investigate Douglas in May
1988 because of a close relationship she had with a suspected lesbian. In July, Douglas’s supervisor told her they were flying to Ottawa for an investigation; however, she was taken
to a hotel instead. There, she was interrogated about her sexual orientation by male officers for two days. Her interrogation was taped without her knowledge and she was not provided access to legal advice. Douglas denied being a lesbian and initially
refused to take a lie-detector test, as she believed that it would end her military career.
After returning to work, hostility in the office led Douglas to agree to take a lie-detector test. However, before the test could be administered, Douglas admitted that she was a lesbian. She refused to name other gays and lesbians in the military when asked.
Military service members discovered to be gay or lesbian could no longer receive training, promotions, pay raises or security clearance. After her admission, Douglas was moved to a less sensitive job and her top-secret security clearance was revoked in April 1989. The following month, she was informed she was to be discharged because she was “not advantageously employable due to homosexuality.” She reluctantly accepted her discharge on 8 June 1989, ending her military career after less than three years.
Lawsuit against the Canadian Military
After her dismissal, Michelle Douglas attended a lecture about gay rights by Svend Robinson, the first openly gay member of Parliament. After the talk, Douglas discussed her experience with Robinson, who was aware of the military’s discrimination against LGBTQ and had been looking for someone to lead a court case on the matter, which Douglas later accepted to do.
In August 1989, Douglas submitted a complaint against the military to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, an external review organization. The next year, the Committee recommended that Douglas’s dismissal was unfair and that her security clearance and position should be reinstated; however, the military refused to do so.
In January 1990, Douglas launched a lawsuit against the military for compensation for her dismissal and to challenge its discriminatory policy against gay and lesbian service members. The lawsuit took nearly three years to settle. During that time, Douglas worked as an investigator for Revenue Canada in Barrie, Ontario. Douglas’s lawsuit was the first of five similar cases to be addressed. In 1992, Douglas said of her lawsuit: “This is not simply for me. It’s for the people who are still in the Canadian Armed Forces and for those who never had the chance to take this to court. There’s no question there are still people being harmed by this policy and for them it is critically important that we get it changed and now.”
On 27 October 1992, the day of Douglas’s trial, the military settled out of court. Douglas was awarded $100,000, and the military formally ended its discrimination against gays and lesbians. Also as part of the settlement, the Federal Court of Canada issued an order that the military’s policy violated Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states:
“Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
The Court stated that the language in Section 15 was open-ended and could therefore be interpreted as providing protection against discrimination on the basis of sexuality (see LGBTQ2S Rights in Canada).
After reversing its stance, the military reinstated positions and removed career restrictions to those who had been discriminated against because of their sexuality. It also took measures to tackle discrimination within the ranks by providing sensitivity training and ensuring members adhered to the court’s ruling.
In November 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for the military’s LGBTQ purge and the Canadian government agreed to a $145-million settlement. The settlement included $110 million for compensation for LGBT civil servants affected by the purge and $15 million for historical reconciliation, education and memorialization efforts.
Post-Military Career and Volunteer Work
After her successful lawsuit, Michelle Douglas worked towards the equal treatment of the LGBTQ community. She was the founding president of the Foundation for Equal Families, a Canadian organization that sought to achieve equality for same-sex relationships. She was chair of the 519 community centre, which provides a safe space and services for LGBTQ2S individuals in Toronto. She was also a member of the Advisory Board of the Sexual Diversity Studies program at the University of Toronto.
Douglas was the volunteer chair of the Canadian Board of Directors of WE Charity (formerly Free the Children), providing legal and financial guidance to the youth empowerment organization. She resigned from the board in March 2020. Douglas was director of international relations at the Department of Justice 2000–19, and has represented Canada at international meetings. In September 2019, she became executive director of the LGBT Purge Fund. In 2018, Douglas reflected that: “This was the life I’d not actually imagined for myself. I thought I’d be an officer in the Canadian Air Forces. But frankly, experiencing discrimination changed me a lot.”
Honours and Awards
- Inductee, Canadian Lesbian + Gay Archives National Portrait (1999)
- Who’s Who of Canadian Women (1997)
- Recipient, Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)