The Fruit Machine: Why every Canadian should learn about this country's 'gay purge'

A new documentary examines the legacy of Canada's notorious homosexuality detection device.

New documentary examines the legacy of Canada's notorious homosexuality detection device

Johanne Boutin, one of the survivors interviewed in The Fruit Machine (Sandbay Entertainment)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Like too many Canadians, filmmaker Sarah Fodey had once never heard of "the fruit machine." That changed in 2002, when she arranged to meet a man named George Hartsgrove to discuss a potential documentary about his failed attempt to open Canada's first gay and lesbian retirement home in Ottawa. Hartsgrove explained to her that the home was "ahead of its time." 

"The women and men it [was being] marketed toward would be hesitant to live in a rainbow-adorned brownstone given that they were the same cohort who had their sexuality driven underground during 'the fruit machine' era," Hartsgrove had told her.

What was the "fruit machine era," exactly?

Well, as Fodey would find out that day, the fruit machine was created as an ostensibly scientific way to detect homosexuals, so they could be fired from their government jobs or pre-screened before being offered employment in the first place. This was during the Cold War, and the prevailing fear was that homosexuals would be at a greater risk of blackmail by Russian spies. They needed to be identified and removed, the thinking went, so they wouldn't reveal the nation's secrets.

Still from the set of The Fruit Machine (Sandbay Entertainment)

This story, along with the stories of survivors of the "gay purge" of Canada's military and public service, are now the focus of Fodey's new documentary The Fruit Machine.

The "Special Project"

"It was designed in the early 1960s by Frank Robert Wake, a psychology professor with Carleton University," Fodey explains. "The Canadian government paid to send Dr. Wake to the United States to study detection devices that were used there at the time. After about a year of research, Dr. Wake returned to Canada and used his findings to create the 'Special Project' as it was officially known. A sergeant with the RCMP later coined it 'the fruit machine,' and the name stuck."

The machine itself was dismantled long ago, but it "looked like something resembling a dentist chair in front of a camera mounted on a pulley," says Fodey.

"Men would be subjected to lewd images and photographs would be taken of their pupils in response to the various images," Fodey says. "The thinking was that if one's pupils enlarged at the sight of a naked man, this would indicate same sex attraction. It was, in a word, ridiculous."

One of the images shown to suspected LGBTQ public servants as part of the so-called 'fruit machine' testing during the Cold War. (CBC)

Fodey said that — rightfully so — her mind was blown by discovering this. So she started doing some research, and soon after put together an outline for a documentary. But it wasn't so easy from there.

"The broadcasters I approached were both shocked and intrigued by the story, but they had trouble seeing how it would fit into contemporary discourse around LGBT issues at that time," Fodey says. "The best advice I received was from Andrew Johnson, then commissioning editor of CBC Rough Cuts, who told me to simply sit on the film and that one day the political climate would be ripe to tell this story." He was right. Last winter, TV Ontario commissioned Fodey's film.

Now, some 16 years after that fateful coffee with George Hartsgrove, Fodey's film is having its world premiere on June 1 — the first day of Pride month — at Toronto's Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. And this fall, it will premiere on TVO. Which means, for Ontarians at least, there's no excuse for you not to find a way to it, and it's definitely essential viewing for all Canadians.

A horror story

When Fodey first started researching the film, she was shocked this had even happened — and how long it continued (it began in the 1950s and wasn't eliminated until — seriously — the early 1990s). But as her work continued, what surprised her most was how this went far beyond people losing their jobs.

"In fact, for many, losing their jobs was the least of what they endured directly because of this campaign," she says. "Poverty, homelessness, having to go back in the closet, substance abuse, gay aversion therapy, sexual assaults, and for some — suicide. The consequences of this campaign, as one of our survivors captures perfectly in the film, was a scenario from a horror story."

It's a horror story that Fodey believes everyone in this country should witness.

"This is not something we learn in Canadian history books," she says, "but we should."

Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a sweeping apology in the House of Commons to those caught in the "gay purge," and the federal government has reached a settlement with survivors that includes $110 million in compensation.

"I want people to leave this documentary angry that this happened, and committed to talking about it in their own communities. I also want people to cry and laugh in parts of this film — laugh at the ridiculousness of what was being carried out by the government, and also laugh because many of these survivors are funny — very funny. They have used humour as a way to cope, I suspect. And it's worked. They are magnetic. You want to hear more from them because they make you laugh on the heels of making you cry.

"It's a beautiful combination."

The Fruit Machine. Directed by Sarah Fodey. World Premiere June 1, TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival.

About the Author

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.


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