How the Cold War 'fruit machine' tried to determine gay from straight

A relic of Ottawa's efforts to root out homosexuals in the military and public service during the Cold War is back in the news following a class-action lawsuit from LGBT individuals who lost their jobs.

Federal government facing class-action lawsuit from LGBT public servants who lost jobs

Government commissioned 'Fruit Machine' in 1960s to detect homosexuals 6:34

It's not fiction — although it sounds like something straight out of a dystopian novel.

The so-called "fruit machine" was a homosexuality detection system commissioned by the Canadian government during the Cold War — and developed largely by a psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa — to keep LGBT people out of the public service or military. 

While the machine is long gone, its legacy is back in the news after the federal government was hit with a class-action lawsuit this week from former public servants who lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation.

Gay and lesbian civil servants were driven out of the Canadian military and public service beginning in the 1950s, but the practice continued after homosexuality was removed from the Criminal Code in the 1960s.

At the time, homosexuals were perceived by the government as weak, unreliable and potentially disloyal. The government feared they might be easy targets for Soviet spies who could blackmail them into giving up important secrets — and thus commissioned the machine to determine a person's sexual identity through involuntary biological responses.

The project "was a series of psychological tests," said Patrizia Gentile, an associate professor at Carleton University and the author of The Canadian War on Queers.

In one test, for example, subjects were shown pictures that would "arouse desire," said Gentile, while cameras took pictures of their pupils, to see if they dilated.

'Product of his time'

The machine was used by the federal government throughout the 1960s, until the Defence Research Board — which was later folded into the Department of National Defence — pulled funding in 1967.

The device was never able to establish a "discernable difference," between the biological responses of heterosexuals and LGBT individuals, Gentile wrote in her book. 

The machine was based on research by Frank Robert Wake, a Carleton University psychologist who died in 1993. 

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

"I think he was a product of his time, definitely. But that doesn't of course excuse the fact that he came up with research that was discriminatory and harmful to a lot of people's lives," Gentile told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Thursday.

"He is part of the Cold War culture and this culture of fear, where homosexuals and communists were conflated."

According to Doug Elliott, a longtime gay rights activist and the Toronto lawyer leading the class-action lawsuit, as many as 9,000 people could be eligible to join it. 

The Liberal government is planning an apology to the country's LGBT community for the past discrimination, but it's unclear when it will act.