Open Secrets recalls the tribulations of gay servicemen in World War Two

It's 1940. Canada is at war. Thousands of young men from across the nation enlist in the armed forces. They come from every walk of life: French and English, rich and poor, urban and rural. They are fathers, sons, husbands, brothers and lovers. Some have wives or girlfriends. Some are gay.

More than 40,000 Canadians would give up their lives on the battlefields of World War Two. Gay soldiers fought and bled and died alongside their straight comrades. So why is there no monument or memorial to their sacrifice? Why do our histories of the Canadian military during the war years never acknowledge the existence of gay officers and enlisted men?

Open Secrets, a documentary by director Jos\xE9 Torrealba, uncovers this "hidden chapter of Canada's past." The hour-long film combines archival footage and interviews with veterans to shed light on the experiences of gay servicemen in wartime.

VisionTV? airs Open Secrets on Thursday, June 17, 2004 at 10 p.m. ET, in honour of the Pride Week celebrations taking place across Canada this summer. The film is a product of the National Film Board of Canada's Reel Diversity Competition, co-sponsored by VisionTV?, which gives emerging filmmakers of colour the opportunity to make an NFB documentary for national broadcast.

Torrealba takes the viewer back 60 years, to an era before Pride parades, Will and Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It was a time, says one veteran, when homosexuality "was even more unmentionable than cancer."

For young men in the throes of sexual awakening, the military could be an erotically charged environment. While the armed services would never admit to the presence of gays within the ranks, no formal policy on the issue existed at the start of the war, and officials generally overlooked homosexual activity - as long as it was discreet. Most servicemen cared more about a comrade's trustworthiness in combat than his sexual preferences.

As the war progressed, however, military authorities began to clamp down on homosexual conduct, which they deemed to be evidence of a "pathological illness." The threat of court-martial was used to intimidate gay soldiers into curbing their activities.

Those accused of homosexual behaviour would suffer the humiliation of having explicit descriptions of their acts read aloud at the court-martial, and faced the prospect of dishonourable discharge or imprisonment. Bob Grimson, an Air Force officer who had a number of romantic encounters with fellow soldiers during the war, recalls the conflict he felt while presiding over several of these proceedings, helpless to aid the accused without destroying his own reputation.

This obsession with expunging homosexuality from the ranks would damage many lives. Henri Di Piero, an officer who witnessed the horrors of Dachau, was discharged on the mere suspicion of being homosexual. Disillusioned, he would later abandon his native country for England. Bert Sutcliffe, a regimental sergeant major during the war, saw his promising career in the service destroyed by a single indiscretion, and was driven to the brink of suicide.

The Canadian Forces today allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. But those who felt the sting of past discrimination - whose valour and honour were called into question because of their sexual orientation - have not forgotten. Their wounds run as deep as any suffered on the battlefield.

Open Secrets is based on the book Courting Homosexuals in the Military by Canadian historical researcher and teacher Paul Jackson. The film was produced for the NFB by Germaine Ying Gee Wong.

In 2004 VisionTV? proudly celebrates 15 years as Canada's multi-faith television network.

Someone writes: I'm puzzled on this one - Vision TV has no problem airing homophobic views from religious fanatics one minute then they air this film. I guess the next thing will be PrideTV? airing anti-gay documentaries before the porn flicks.

CapnDan replies: you may want to do the research on the CRTC and Vision's license - they made a deal.