Herbert “Bert” Sutcliffe – From Soldier to Activist

By: Gillian Kerr

Gillian Kerr

Historical Contributor

Gillian Kerr is a marketing and communications professional with over 25 years of experience as a senior communication leader. Now as the owner of IdeaStove, and independent communications consultancy, she helps organizations, artists, project leaders and entrepreneurs tell stories and bring ideas to life. Though research, creative writing, coaching, and problem solving, Gillian widens and celebrates community and illuminates the new, the good, the curious and the bold.

Herbert “Bert” Sutcliffe was one of the 26,000 Canadians who served in the Korean War. His tour of duty was part of a distinguished military career that began in the Second World War, when he worked in the Canadian Intelligence Corps.

After 22 years of service, in 1962, Bert lost his job because his employer, the Canadian military, discovered that he was a homosexual. According to the policy of the time, gay men and women were not allowed to serve in the military. After he retired, Bert began to add his voice to the debate taking place in the mid-1980s about protecting the rights of LGBT members of the Canadian Armed Forces. He spoke out against the systematic removal of gay military personnel – what became known as “The Purge.” He helped build awareness of this injustice, until a lawsuit against the federal government was won and the government finally and permanently changed the policy.

Sutcliffe’s First War: World War II

Bert was born in Toronto in 1917 to parents who emigrated from Yorkshire, England. His father died serving in the First World War, just six months after Bert was born. His mother raised him and his older sister on a war widow’s pension.

Like many young people of his generation, Bert was aware of the great threat that Hitler posed to Europe. Motivated to join the fight, he entered the army in 1940 at age 23. He was sent to train in Camp Borden and then shipped to the Allied bases in Aldershot, in Hampshire.

While serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, Sutcliffe joined the Canadian Intelligence Corps, working on counterintelligence. He learned French and German and worked to gather information about who was collaborating with the enemy. When some local mayors in France were discovered to be sympathetic to the Nazis, Bert’s unit removed them and had them replaced with leaders that the Allies could trust. Bert earned the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) award for his bravery: when he found himself caught behind enemy lines, he moved his company to safety, making sure his men carried all their intelligence evidence with them.

London became the working centre of Allied forces during the Second World War and was filled with military personnel. While on leave in the city, Bert experienced the vibrant nightlife in the bars and pubs and, for the first time, began having relationships with men.

Going to Korea

After the Second World War, Bert remained active in military service and spent his summers training at the base in Petawawa. He joined the executive of the newly formed Canadian Military Intelligence Association, an organization that promoted improvements in military intelligence. Like many veterans, he decided to advance his education and began to study history at the University of Toronto. After obtaining his degree in 1950, he made plans to go to Yale for postgraduate studies. But then the Korean War started.

The Korean War began in June 1950 when Communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea. This was the first major conflict to take place after the formation of the United Nations, which had been established in the fall of 1945. The goal of the UN was to provide a forum where nations could formally work together through diplomacy to avoid future global conflicts. When the fight between North and South Korea began, the UN Security Council voted to send troops to support South Korea. Eighteen nations, including Canada, contributed forces.

Many Canadian soldiers going to Korea were veterans like Bert Sutcliffe. The military life was one he knew: it paid well and offered a pathway to promotions. By then, he had risen to the rank of captain. The promise of seeing the world and being well paid to do it was irresistible.

Bert arrived in the region in November 1950 as second-in-command of the Canadian Intelligence Corps. Intelligence work was difficult in the Asian arena. China had joined the conflict and was aiding North Korea. There were few information sources about the mountainous area: Bert’s unit had to work with maps from 1923. Much of the civilian population was constantly moving, seeking refuge to avoid fighting. Chinese agents, as well as North Koreans, hid within these transient populations in South Korea, disguised as refugees.

Not knowing the Asian languages made it challenging for the soldiers to distinguish between enemy and ally. Enemy agents were stealing supplies and sabotaging equipment. The Intelligence Corps needed to find reliable informants. Bert recruited interpreters who would work with brigade units and teach them to understand who was working for the other side. Their recruitment was all top secret. Sutcliffe had to fill up kit bags with cash and discreetly distribute them to pay his staff.

As a Canadian officer, he was allowed to use the larger number of American facilities, including the officers’ clubs. However, there were limited opportunities for camaraderie: the descending Cold War created a cautious atmosphere everywhere. Korea had been annexed by Japan from 1910 until 1945 and was a poor and largely rural country: it was a far cry from lively London. There was no social life for gay men in Korea, and for Bert, it was a lonely war.

A Sudden End to his Military Career

The Korean War eventually ended with a truce that allowed for the development of democratic South Korea. After his three years abroad, Sutcliffe came home to continue his military career in Canada. He worked at Canadian Forces headquarters in Ottawa from 1956 and was promoted to the rank of major. In June 1962, he began a two-week tour of duty in Washington, D.C., to train for a posting at the Pentagon. Bert later recalled it as a “dream-come-true” job.[i]

Bert Sutcliffe on the Brian Gazzard Show, 1986. Image/video courtesy of the ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives.

In a 1986 Canadian television interview, Sutcliffe recounted his experience of being asked to leave the military, or in his words, how he “became unmasked as a homosexual.”[ii] While in Washington, the CIA learned of his meeting in a bar with another man and reported this liaison to the Pentagon and then to the Canadians. Back in Ottawa, his boss requested his presence in his office. Bert was told that his homosexuality had been discovered. He agreed to resign in exchange for an honourable discharge but was so despondent that he went back to his apartment and found his Luger – a Second World War German handgun. In anger and shame, Bert put the gun to his head and considered ending his life. But he reconsidered and set aside the weapon: “I just wasn’t going to let them do that to me.”[iii]

What was the reason for purging homosexuals from the military? The stated view at the time – in the context of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West – was that homosexuals were untrustworthy and vulnerable to extortion. Some believed that this vulnerability could become a national security problem. If the Soviets were to capture a gay soldier, they could use the secret of their homosexuality to leverage information from them.

Sutcliffe told his family that he had been discharged from the military and, finally, that he was gay. His family had no idea, didn’t understand or know how to support him. Away from his job, he no longer had the company and friends of his military community. Forced to start over, his strength and resilience helped him find a new path in life, and for the next 18 years, he taught history as a high school teacher.

The First to Tell His Story

After he retired in 1979, Bert became more outspoken about his experiences and how he had lost his military career. As he put it, “retirement made him brave,”[iv] and he wanted to tell his story. He had no more fear about the consequences of speaking the truth.

Bert Sutcliffe, c. 1981/1982. Image courtesy of Body Politic Magazine, No. 89, Dec. 1982.

Sutcliffe was the first gay Canadian veteran to talk about his experience and advocate for change. His interviews and television appearances created awareness about the vast numbers of military personnel who were forced from their jobs because of their sexuality. More than 9,000 men and women were spied on, interrogated, and ultimately purged from the armed forces, RCMP, and public service between the 1950s and mid-1990s. Like Bert, many struggled with the trauma of these experiences, as well as the challenge of leaving careers they loved to find new work.

In the mid-1980s, after the release of a report by a parliamentary committee called Equality for All, which revealed high levels of discrimination against homosexuals, a national debate began about their rights, including the role of homosexuals in the military. While some parliamentarians invited discussion about allowing gay men and women to serve, there was loud opposition from conservative factions. In 1986, Sutcliffe wrote a letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, as well as the leaders of the other political parties, to express his sense of injustice. The Toronto Star also wrote about Bert’s letter. In it, he told the leaders that “the stunted, prejudiced ideas that most of you hold almost cost me my life … I won’t go into the heartache, disorientation, or anger but I would like each one of you politicians to find your careers to be destroyed thus.”[v]

“Still angry: Herbert Sutcliffe, left, in the Spadina Rd. apartment he shares with Ralph Wormleighton, shows his companion the medals he won for service during World War II before he was exposed as a homosexual and his military career shattered. His anger has not dimmed.” March 15, 1986. Image courtesy of the Toronto Star Archive & Toronto Public Library.

The End of the Purge

In 1989, a young lieutenant named Michelle Douglas was forced to quit the military because she was a lesbian. Douglas shared her experience in a 2023 Toronto Star article: “The military also forced me to come out to my family and they gave me 24 hours to do it, or they told me that the police would do it for me.”[vi]

Not long after, Michelle met Clayton Ruby, an accomplished lawyer and human rights champion. With Ruby’s help, she sued the Canadian government for breaching her Charter rights. Her lawsuit was settled the night before a trial was set to begin in 1992. In addition to a financial settlement for Michelle, the government repealed the purge policy.

It would take more time to change culture and make progress toward further rights, such as equal marriage and spousal rights. Finally, on November 28, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a public apology to LGBTQ Canadians for “state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection.”[vii] He delivered the apology with a $145-million settlement for victims, which also included the development of the LGBT Purge Fund. The fund leads memorialization and education initiatives, and Michelle Douglas serves as the executive director.

Bert Sutcliffe lived to see dignity restored for gay military personnel. Continuing his life of service after retirement, he volunteered his time to many causes, including UNICEF, the Canadian Cancer Society, and the Gay Community Appeal. In 1973, Bert met his partner, Ralph, also a veteran of the Second World War, and lived with him until the end of his life in 2003.

[i] Television interview, Brian Gazzard Show (October 1986), ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives.

[ii] Television interview, Brian Gazzard Show (October 1986), ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives.

[iii] Television interview, Brian Gazzard Show (October 1986), ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives.

[iv] Foolscap Gay Oral History with Bert Sutcliffe (August 1988), ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives.

[v] Flavelle, Dana, “Homosexuality Destroyed Decorated Soldier’s Career,” Toronto Star (March 15, 1986).

[vi] Bradley, Brian, “She Was Among Those Purged from Canada’s Military. Today, Michelle Douglas Looks Back on the Pain and the Progress,” Toronto Star (April 2, 2023).

[vii] Justin Trudeau’s formal apology to House of Commons (November 28, 2017).