Gays and Lesbians in the Military – WWll

(an extract from The Quest to Cure Queers)

Gays and Lesbians in the Military

When World War II arrived, it definitely created the opportunity for an increase of both male and female same-sex sex. Even though there was a concerted effort to keep homosexual men out of the military, they still got in and found each other. Effeminate men were easily identified and rejected by recruitment staff, trained to pick up traits, words and behaviours. But as we know, not all gay men are effeminate – they are just easier to pick and it’s harder to hide. Whether obvious or not, I think it is important to remember that a proportion of these men and women wanted to serve.

For a long time, most have assumed that same sex sexual activity within the armed forces was minimal or non-existent. Over time, a couple of things have ensured the facade of secrecy and denial has been slowly peeled away. Firstly, there was no such thing as being out and proud during or directly after the war. It would take many decades for returned service women and men to feel comfortable telling their stories. In a more accepting society, they have shared their stories in their latter years.

Secondly LGBT historians and researchers have meticulously delved into declassified documents and  military records, sought out aging veterans to make sure their stories were not lost and to paint a more honest account of life in the war years[1][2]. The stories run the entire gamut of deeply touching, heroic, courageous, and predictability tragic.

This has been a situation even in my own family. My great Aunt Rose, my grandfather’s sister, one of fourteen children, who died the year before I was born, was a war hero. She was known particularly for the work she did with the Red Cross and the YMCA on the western front[3] in WWl. She has the distinction of having been further north in France in the battle zone than any other woman during the war.[4] My cousin and sister, in researching the family history, have been able to put together some fascinating propositions about our great aunt Rose that would never have been talked about publicly at family gatherings. From her diaries and tracing her extraordinary life in her recently published biography[5], there are several indicators that she could have been a lesbian. Possibly this is why she continued a life of adventure in Europe and China, away from Australia and the prying eyes of family.

Bruce Ruxton, who was the President of the Victorian Returned and Services League, was an emphatic denier of gays in the forces. In 1982, when members of the Gay Ex-Services Association, tried to lay a wreath at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, dedicated to ‘all brothers and sisters who died during the wars’ Ruxton physically stopped them. Eventually, police escorted them away. Days earlier Ruxton told broadcaster Derryn Hinch, that if his son was queer he would shoot him. ‘I don’t know where all these gays and poofters have come from,’ he was later famously quoted as saying, ‘I don’t remember a single one from World War II.’[6] Of course Bruxton was an ultra-conservative, homophobic bigot and frequently controversial character, who was repulsed at the thought of the existence of gay men and women in the military.

WWII did have an impact on the prevalence of same sex activity and relationships, but as we’ll see, more importantly, it had an impact on morality itself. The reasons for the activities I’m about to share are well described by Paul Fussell, an American WWII veteran and historian when he wrote ‘The atmosphere of emergency and the proximity of violence promotes relaxed inhibitions ending in a special hedonism and lasciviousness – and of course, deeper affection as well.’[7] In other words, when one is consistently facing the reality that you could be one of the tens of thousands who would lose their lives or to come home on leave from the horrors of war, maintaining established Victorian standards of morality and sex seemed less important – ridiculous actually. Both men and women were breaking society’s long held mores and engaging in what had previously been forbidden – and were more open about it.

Gender bending in certain contexts was permissible and encouraged. Entertainment of the troops being one. This made the gay men easily identifiable and liked. Humour, talent and a desire for a bit of fun could go a long way when resting in the battlefields of Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Unlike civilian life before the war, the need to eradicate gay men seemed to take a back seat.

The influx of American troops particularly on R&R leave created new opportunities for the local gay and lesbian populations in London and the three major cities in Australia. Too many men. Not enough women. Healthy, strapping, uniformed men with American accents. Apparently in London, a bit more liberated than Australian cities, the price of rent boys increased. Quentin Crisp described the ‘invading’ American Forces far more eloquently than my simple effort above. I vaguely remember some furore in the media about Quentin’s book when it was released during my final year of high school. What a shame I couldn’t access it as a 17-year-old youth; it might have made me feel a little less alone, not so queer or like taking my life was a serious option to end the internal torment, confusion and depression.

This brand new army of (no) occupation flowed through the streets of London like cream on strawberries, like melted butter over green peas. Labelled ‘with love from Uncle Sam’ and packaged in uniforms so tight that in them their owners could fight for nothing but their honour, these ‘bundles for Britain’ leaned against the lamp-posts of Shaftesbury Avenue or lolled on the steps of thin-lipped statues of dead English statesmen. As they sat in the cafés or stood in the pubs, their bodies bulged through every straining khaki fibre towards our feverish hands. Their voices were like warm milk, their skins as flawless as expensive india rubber, and their eyes as beautiful as glass. Above all it was the liberality of their natures that was so marvellous. Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few. At the first gesture of acceptance from a stranger, words of love began to ooze from their lips, sexuality from their bodies and pound notes from their pockets like juice from a peeled peach.’ [8]

Closer to home for Australians, Port Moresby and Noumea were important ports and hosted the largest number of Americans in the region outside Australia; over 40,000 troops. As Yorick Smaal’s book ‘Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War’ reveals, action was not confined to the cities and times of R&R. Cruising, pickups and encounters occurred at Pacific outposts as well. If caught, a confession, an excuse, such as – ‘I was lonely’, ‘I was drunk’ and a promise that it wouldn’t happen again – usually sufficed. Men were needed to fight. Some things can be overlooked in extenuating circumstances. Maybe this explains Harold Arthur Martin’s confession you’ll read later on.

As historian Yorick Smaal, noted, ‘The American visitors fitted into the local gay worlds and a new language emerged with their arrival. ‘Terms like ‘fruit’, ‘queer’ and ‘blowjob’ all appeared in the Australian lexicon in the 1940s, the latter reflecting an alleged fondness among GIs for fellatio.’ and these encounters had a cross cultural impact. ‘Life in Australia shaped the experiences of young US soldiers, too. Discovering romance with locals on distant shores provided comfort and support to homesick servicemen facing long deployments and the dangers of conflict.’[9]

There was a wonderful opportunity, during WWII, for lesbians to go stealth in the forces wearing uniforms, sometimes taking on traditional male activities and living in same sex environments. Unlike the effeminate men, a blind eye was turned on masculine women, as their contribution to the war effort was necessary and valued. As mentioned previously, it was socially acceptable for girls to stick together and have close friendships which at times may include public displays of affection no one takes a second look at.

Just how much impact lesbians had entering the forces is told in an interesting and amusing story recalled by Johnnie Phelps, a female sergeant in the army. Sergeant Phelps worked for General Eisenhower during the post-war occupation of Europe.

One day, Eisenhower told Phelps, “I’m giving you an order to ferret those lesbians out. We’re going to get rid of them.”

Phelps recalls the incident.

“I looked at him and then I looked at his secretary who was standing next to me, and I said, ‘Well, sir, if the general pleases, sir, I’ll be happy to do this investigation for you. But you have to know that the first name on the list will be mine.’ “

“And he was kind of taken aback a bit. And then this woman standing next to me said, ‘Sir, if the General pleases, you must be aware that Sergeant Phelp’s name may be second, but mine will be first.”

“Then I looked at him, and said, ‘Sir, you’re right. They are lesbians in the WAC battalion. And if the general is prepared to replace all the file clerks, all the section commanders, all the drivers-every woman in the WAC detachment-and there were about nine hundred and eighty something of us-then I’ll be happy to make that list. But I think the general should be aware that among those women are the most highly decorated women in the war. There have been no cases of illegal pregnancy. There have been no cases of AWOL. There have been no cases of misconduct. And as a matter of fact, every six months since we’ve been here, the general has awarded us a commendation for meritorious conduct.”

“And he said, ‘Forget the order.”[10]

Many lesbians joined the services because they expected other lesbians to be there. For others, service life was where they fell in love with women for the first time.’ historian Ruth Ford wrote.[11]

Ford also writes that as female homosexuality was rarely acknowledged in polite society, that many recruits had never heard of the term ‘lesbian’. An amusing story is told of one woman, having been brought before an officer for sharing a bathtub with a fellow servicewoman, was asked whether she was a lesbian. She replied that no, she was Presbyterian.[12]

When talking about same sex sexual activity during the war, it needs to often be looked at with different eyes than we would view it today. Gender roles was a major consideration, as revealed in the way some gay men were spoken of as the ‘girls’. So much was ‘situational’ indeed but there was also many gay men and lesbians who were finally able to discover what their strange feelings and urges were really all about. It certainly wasn’t all about sex; love and romance were also discovered.

This new-found freedom was to be short lived however. Just as the war had changed everything, the post-war world would bring new horrors for gay men and women in many ways worse than before. Two decades that could easily be labelled the homosexual dark ages.

[1] Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War (Palgrave, 2015)

[2] Queen and Country: Same-Sex Desire in the British Armed Forces, 1939-45 Emma Vickers,  Manchester University Press, 2013

[3] https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/122793309

[4] https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/120528535

[5] Red Cross Rose: An Aussie Civilian in France 1916-1920, Venn-Brown, Sandra,  Australian Scholarly Publishing 2021

[6] http://www.sbs.com.au/topics/sexuality/feature/secret-history-australias-gay-diggers-anzac

[7] The Great War and Modern Memory  Paul Fussell

[8] The Naked Civil Servant,  Quentin Crisp, published Jonathan Cape, 1968.

[9] http://notchesblog.com/2016/07/19/sex-soldiers-and-the-south-pacific

[10] Before Stonewall – 1984 documentary http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088782/

[11] Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century page 97

[12] Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century page 97