6 min

No life like it

Investigating gay military history? Look for the suicide records

Credit: Joshua Meles

September 1944. In Quebec City a certain major is arrested by military police and charged with “disgraceful conduct of an indecent kind.” The major’s Quebecois batman, a soldier version of personal assistant, admits under oath that the major did suck him off, more than once.

The major is certain to be convicted, and discharged from the Canadian army. Instead, the charges are dropped. Someone is protecting the major.

Cases like this catch Paul Jackson’s eye like flashes in a prospector’s pan. In the past five years the historian has sifted through enough Canadian military records to fill a library, sifting out fragments of our lost history.

“I’ve never felt rooted in the larger society,” he explains, “and I like the idea of questioning that, taking it apart to see how it excludes people like me, and how sometimes we manage to resist and make places for ourselves.”

His work as a researcher, and more recently as a teacher, is driven by a passion for challenging the way that history is told.

“What we see on November 11,” he says, “those are the sanctioned memories, the official version of the nation’s proud military story. Our exclusion from that narrative isn’t an unfortunate oversight; to keep it nice and clean they’ve had to write us out of it deliberately. Well, I happen to be the dirt they don’t want to hear about. That’s the source of the questions that drive my research.”

For his MA thesis on homosexuality in Canada in the 1930s at the University Of Toronto, Jackson interviewed men and women who had made places for themselves in the Toronto gay underground of the 1930s and ’40s. Encounters with several veterans of the second world war sparked his current search, a PhD thesis at Queen’s University, on homosexuality in the Canadian military during that war. He found a house to share in Ottawa; it’s an easy bike ride from the National Archives, the storehouse of national memory.

His first request, to see military personnel records, was refused: personal documents can’t be viewed without permission until 20 years after the subject’s death.

“If you can’t get the name,” says Jackson, “how are you going to prove that the person is dead?”

Instead he requested transcripts from courts of inquiry into military suicides. Jackson had to read carefully between the lines; direct references to homosexuality are extremely rare. Instead he found witnesses testifying that the victim had been “sensitive,” that there had been “concerns about his morals,” or that “he never bothered with girls,” as in the case of anti-aircraft gunner Burwell Snyder.

In 1943 at a training camp in British Columbia, a “very anxious” young Snyder told his commanding officer that he was being harassed by other men claiming he was homosexual. At the inquiry, the officer testified that he had investigated, found no substance to the claim, and left it at that. In deepening distress, Snyder sought help from the medical officer, who injected him with phenobarb, a sedative. The soldier’s request for transfer to another unit was denied. One morning Snyder found his own way out. He shot his head off, a casualty of war.

In his second stage of historical digging, Paul Jackson requested transcripts of wartime court martials, under the three charges that covered sexual offences. National Defence officials kept stalling; eventually they informed him that the material was lost. But shortly after Jackson launched a formal complaint with the federal commissioner of information, the records turned up. No one had ever asked to see them before.

In fact hundreds of microfiche reels were found to be water-damaged, almost beyond saving. Jackson’s insistent request had come just in time; the records were refilmed, and are now properly preserved.

Sifting through mountains of transcripts, Jackson found case after case where men had been convicted of sexual offences, jailed and discharged from the military “with ignominy.” This form of discharge, the worst, would continue to haunt some of them for years in civilian life.

On the other hand, the historical detective was surprised to find cases where, despite clear evidence of homosex, charges were dropped or never laid. The case of the major and his batman is a striking example.

“It’s fascinating how the military managed this case,” says Jackson. “They argued that the batman was the only witness. If he was lying, the major was innocent. If he was telling the truth, then he was an accomplice to the crime and therefore he shouldn’t be believed, in which case the major was still innocent.”

To understand how the major got off, says the historian, look at the context: with Allied troops battling eastwards across Europe, and Canadian casualties mounting, the army couldn’t afford to lose key officers, not even the queer ones.

To complement his archival material, Jackson has recorded interviews with more than 40 veterans so far, mostly men, all of them over 70. The search has a certain urgency; two days before he was due to interview a former pilot, the man lost his speech to a stroke. Jackson uses a variety of tactics to find his people.

“I’ve asked bartenders, at Woody’s for example, to introduce me to some of the older men who drop by in the afternoon, to see if they’ll chat with me. Once people get a sense of you, you can ask them who else they know, and that opens all kinds of doors. Also, to find men who aren’t out in the gay world I’d go to cruising areas in places like High Park, take off my shirt, and sit there with my tape recorder, waiting.”

The unorthodox research technique worked. Several men agreed to interviews then and there, on the grass. Some of them had never told their stories to anyone.

One of the veterans that Jackson interviewed for his MA thesis, and again for his current research, was Bert Sutcliffe, who lives with his partner of more than 30 years (who is also a veteran). At 24, Sutcliffe was assigned to Canadian headquarters in London. After a few drinks on New Year’s Eve, 1942, he found himself in bed with an army buddy.

“He was the one who began my education,” Sutcliffe told The Body Politic in 1982. “He took me to the first gay bar I’d even been into. London during the war time was heaven, really – people on leave, and all kinds of gay clubs.”

At the same time, Jackson adds, the blackouts at night and the bombed-out buildings provided cover for a wide range of fruitful encounters.

After four years gathering people’s experience in the military, it occurred to the historian that perhaps he should get some of his own.

“Before I could empathize fully with their experience,” he says, “I felt I needed to know what it might be like to work in the military as an openly gay man. That way I could also see how the past relates to the present.”

Last autumn he got his chance, co-teaching Canadian military history at the Royal Military College in Kingston. “I did have a sense of foreboding about it, but I didn’t want to judge the institution too harshly before I got there.” He smiles. “Perhaps I was a little naïve.”

In October 1992, under pressure from the federal court, the Canadian Forces outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Seven years later, Paul Jackson would become the first openly gay teacher at RMC. It’s Canada’s only military college, an odd hybrid of university and officer training base. Tanks and field guns occupy lawns between grey stone buildings; cadets march from class to class in uniforms a century old.

In his first week at the college Jackson discovered that, while time had been allotted for the other two teachers to cover their specialties, conscription and fighter pilots, none had been allowed for his.

When he devoted a brief portion of one class to discussing historical changes in sexual options, two students complained to the course director, a lieutenant-colonel. He informed Jackson that sex talk had no place in military history. A few weeks later Jackson heard him banter in class about First World War ace Billy Bishop’s manly prowess with the ladies.

In a class I attended late in the year, on the Cold War in Canada, I watched the uniformed cadets – six women and about 20 men – lounge in their seats, one of them asleep, most of them taking minimal or no notes; they seemed remarkably indifferent. As was his custom, the lieutenant-colonel sat in the front row, stared at the ceiling, grinned at students, and rolled his eyes with disdain.

Jackson offered informative, challenging material, but seemed surprisingly distant. After the class, he confirmed my impression.

“I didn’t let them silence me, but they came pretty damn close. In class I’d hear this strangled voice come out of me, and I’d wonder who it was.”

Still, by speaking his truth Paul Jackson opened doors at the college, and probably some minds; three people came out to him. He got more good reviews than bad from the cadet-students. And now that his trial-by-fire is over, his voice has returned.

“The thing is,” he says, “the same people who control how the past is conveyed also control the present there. They make it very clear to the cadets that despite any changes in the law, they still decide who will make it in the Forces and who won’t. This is how they continue to keep things ordered the way they want them, without ever taking responsibility for the consequences, the bashings, the killings, the suicides. The past is still very present at RMC. You can’t escape it.”