4 min

Paul Jackson explores history of gays in the military

New book focusses on soldiers serving overseas

FAIRIES BETTER TOLERATED THAN BUTCH HOMOS. The experience of gay Canadian soldiers overseas varied widely in the Second World War, says historian Paul Jackson. Credit: Shawn Scallen

Gay men have never gotten the credit they deserve for fighting for their country.

The history of the Canadian military has been captured in official documents and in numerous books by well-known authors such as Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat. But these accounts have subverted the role gay men played in the Second World War. Paul Jackson, in his recent book, One Of The Boys, corrects the record by chronicling the lives and struggles of Canadian queers who served overseas and in Canada.

Jackson came to academic studies late in his life. Although there was no military service in his immediate family, he was intrigued by the connections between military life and definitions of masculinity. By studying the experience of homosexuals in the military, he was able to challenge and disturb notions of maleness that have been held by the military for decades.

“When I spoke to gay veterans who fought in the war,” Jackson told me recently, “I found the experiences they recounted did not jibe with the histories that have been written. So the formidable task in undertaking my study was to uncover references to homosexuality in military records. I decided I had to look in different places than other historians, some of whom tried to dissuade me from this task.”

Jackson found that in military court martial records, “homosexual” was a term commonly used by legal, medical and administrative authorities. There were two interpretations of the term. It was applied to men who were effeminate, and who were seen as suffering gender inversion, and to men who were masculine and who were thought to be morally lax. Homosexuality was perceived as being destructive to the individual, to the military and to society.

When he started contacting gay veterans whose names were cited in these records, few of them would permit him to use their real names. Some had found their experiences traumatic. Others felt obliged to retain total discretion as they had married and raised children after the war. Only a handful were open about their gay experiences while in the military. These were men who had been upfront about their sexuality during the war and who either escaped detection or who had found a way to be accepted.

“It’s a generational thing,” Jackson says. “My generation feels it is important to challenge the status quo and to speak out. But we are protected by the Charter Of Rights. For men in that era, this was not the case. While they spoke amazingly freely, for many they did so only if they were guaranteed it was in a private way.”

Gaining access to the court martial records was difficult. It took him two years to retrieve them. No one knew where they were or who was responsible for them. Finally, they were found in a basement of a federal records centre. They were being destroyed by the humidity in the basement. If he hadn’t done this project, the records would have been lost forever. Some of the microfilm had to be redone in order to make it readable.

“When I finally got the records, I found some curious charges that talked of scandalous behaviour or indecent behaviour. These always involved two people and so I became suspicious. It was clear that how they were applied was reflective of the military policy, which had been put in place during the war. However, I discovered how the policy was applied was erratic. Largely courts martial took place because a third party had observed sex between two comrades and was offended by it.”

When their sexuality became public, the soldiers were often referred to psychiatrists. In the 20th century, homosexuality had been designated as a psychopathic type of abnormal sexuality. While in the US, this had been prevalent since the 1920s, in Canada it appeared only during the Second World War, officially in the Army, Navy and Air Force Acts.

The military police also became involved when charges were pending. More often than not, the police, who had been trained to find violators, worked hard to get a conviction for someone charged. They wanted to purge the military of homosexuals.

The military acts did not include lesbians. Jackson points out that it was considered improper to focus on a woman’s sexuality. Those in charge of writing the policy seemed even more uncomfortable with the idea of lesbianism. The acts focussed on defining what a real man was and what he wasn’t.

“Interestingly, men who were seen as fairies often survived better in the forces. It was men who looked and presented themselves as masculine who would be prosecuted more rigorously. They were considered immoral, failures as men.”

To have a homosexual in a unit was seen to be an embarrassment. However, this sometimes had the opposite effect – stopping prosecution, as it would be an admission that there were homosexuals in the military in general, and in a unit in particular. Sometimes, comrades didn’t realize that a fellow soldier was queer until after he had already established a strong role for himself within the unit. Unit cohesion was more important than charging a person.

“Everyone in the military had their secrets,” Jackson says. “People were doing other illegal things. No one wanted the military police to find out. They didn’t want investigators snooping around.”

Jackson is intrigued by how homosexuals survived in the macho setting of the military.

He found in interviewing the ex-soldiers some men enjoyed the regulation of masculinity. Other men hated it and had bitter memories. These men often came out later in life or after they had retired from the service. They had repressed their sexual identity while on duty. When they did have sex, they denied it or claimed it happened due to the influence of liquor. Sometimes, it pitted one soldier against another in court cases.

And yet for some men, the minority, their sojourn overseas was an escape from the social restrictions of Canada. They became involved with homosexuals in Britain, France and Italy. It was an exploration and confirmation of their sexual identity. Certain regiments were known to be more open to gay men, and sometimes gay men who were identified would be transferred into them. And there was the entertainment unit, the Tin Hats, which had two female impersonators – one not gay and the other flaming. Among the other members of the unit, there were gay, bisexual and straight men. Everyone was comfortable with the range of relationships that were going on.

“If a man was found guilty, there was a wide range of punishments that were possible, some quite severe,” says Jackson. “And yet, while the official policies went unchallenged, some psychiatrists were reluctant to mark these men as true homosexuals. Practical arrangements evolved among military personnel of all ranks. There was a tacit acceptance that homosexuals could be valuable to the war effort. So, without a doubt, emotional and physical bonds between gay men developed.”

Jackson remains interested in the lives of gays and lesbians in the Canadian Forces. He points out that while, officially, the military appears more open to queers, in reality things have not changed that much. A recent poll, he says, indicates that people would still refuse to serve with queers.