‘Sex, soldiers and the South Pacific (review of Smaal)’, Honest History, 8 February 2016
Diane Bell* reviews Yorick Smaal’s Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War
Note: The cover of the book includes detail from Donald Friend Showers in a ruin, 1945 (Australian War Memorial ART 22907)
‘Australian scholarship’, writes Yorick Smaal (p. 5), ‘has largely ignored queer experiences in the forces. Here, I take some of the first steps in recovering this largely hidden and disregarded past.’
Smaal’s monograph, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War more than fulfills the aims of the Palgrave Macmillan series, Genders and Sexualities in History to ‘accommodate and foster new approaches to historical studies in the field of genders and sexualities’ and to focus on ‘interconnected themes of genders, sexualities, religions/religiosity, civil society, class formations, politics and war’ (p. i). Smaal weaves a complex tapestry of the hitherto under-reported and little-celebrated lives of diverse ‘Australian queer men’, their cultures, practices, pasts and futures, as they negotiate their place in wartime Australia. His is an engaging contribution to the Palgrave Macmillan series.
New approaches necessarily destabilise established orders. How to write of the existing and emerging cultures forged in the fog of war where men – civilians, servicemen and their commanders, local and foreign, young and old, black and white, in Brisbane and the South Pacific – constructed gender identities and expanded their sexual practices? To what sources might one turn to hear their voices, to learn of their experiences? In what language might these voices speak and be spoken of? What of privacy, confidentiality? By choosing to privilege the voices of those generating queer identities, Smaal shifts the focus as he re-interrogates dehumanising court reports and clinical medical treatises. His characters, their desires, conflicts and contradictions come to life through the pages of his carefully researched and structured text.
‘Meet Errol’, writes Smaal. ‘It is 1943 and he has just left school. The war in the Pacific is raging off Queensland’s coast, and on the streets of the capital Brisbane, swarms of American servicemen compete with Australian personnel for the attention and affection of local women and young men.’ (p. 1)
Many of us will be familiar with this demographic and may remember the ‘over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ mantra that captured the anxieties of urban centres such as Brisbane in the 1940s. From after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to the end of World War II, some two million American visitors passed through Queensland (p. 7). The lives of Brisbane’s 330 000 residents were transformed. Stories abound of the young girls who flirted with, fell pregnant to, were corrupted by and sometimes married these exotic others. But, Smaal tells us, ‘Young boys went crazy too. Errol was one of them.’ (p. 7)
Smaal continues setting the scene for Errol’s story which, along with the stories of ‘Diana’, Paul, Eric, Edgar and Roger, is a central thread of his narrative weave.
Night has fallen and 16-year-old Errol has caught the eye of a young Australian soldier on the Victoria Bridge. They consummate their chance meeting in an empty passenger carriage at the railway yards nearby. Here, where commuters had perhaps only hours earlier jostled to get on board at the end of the working day, Errol adopts the passive role in anal intercourse for the first time. And he cannot wait to do it again. (p. 1)
Troops at Albion Park Racecourse, Brisbane, November 1943 (AWM 059802/RN Keam)
Those who explore ideas and actions that have no place in existing comforting accounts of the nation constitute a significant challenge to ‘master narratives’ and necessarily confront profound ethical, epistemological and conceptual problems. Smaal is precise in setting out his intentions and practices with respect to his project.
‘Words have meaning’, writes Smaal in his ‘Note on Terminology’ (p. xxi). Wisely, in my opinion, Smaal uses the language of the period and people whose lives he has researched. He acknowledges the difficulty of finding an appropriate vocabulary to ‘capture the complex mix of same-sex practices cutting across class, age and race’; borrows John Howard’s term ‘homosex’; and distinguishes his use of the word ‘queer’ by italicising queer when it refers to ‘mainly middle-class American men who defined themselves to be free from gender codes’ and in plain text for ‘Australian and American men who understood their lives through their desires’ (p. xxi).
In his ‘Note on Sources’, Smaal (p. xx) explains his approach to protection of the privacy of interviewees, which must be balanced against the need of readers and researchers who might wish to consult the original sources. For individuals caught up in the Queensland court system, he retains the initial letter of first names and changes the rest. He creates acronyms for American servicemen in Noumea and an alphabetical list of pseudonyms for Australian soldiers in Port Moresby. He follows the naming protocols for interviewees in the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, except for Errol who is ‘created’ (p. xx). State actors and officials retain their own names.
Divided into three parts – The Scripts, The Services, The State – bookended between a problem-setting Introduction and a reflective Epilogue, Smaal’s slim monograph traces the development of distinctively Australian male queer identities. Smaal weaves three story lines. First, he teases out the shifting practices of bitch and butch men in Brisbane’s queer underworld and describes their elaborate parties and working class language and pleasures (pp. 25-31). He observes that by the 1940s local men were using the term ‘camp’ to signify men sleeping with men, and in contrast to the older terms ‘queen’, ‘bitch’ and ‘butch’, in a move he sees as the beginning of a newer self in Australia (p. 4). Adding a comparative case, Smaal writes of the New Guinea group of 18 queers who called themselves ‘girls’, as mirroring the culture into which Errol was inducted by other bitches (pp. 81 ff).
Smaal’s second story concerns the impact of World War II on Australian queerness. He argues that long spells spent without female company gave rise to situational sex and suggests that the ‘war provided a massive boost to gendered identities’ (pp. 4, 174 ff). Some personnel discovered their true selves in the forces, as the story of Eric illustrates (pp. 69-71), from those thrown together, to those who sought out ‘cissy’ men in Australia. He traces the interplay of local civilian populations with military men, the forward bases in the South Pacific, the interactions with American servicemen (p. 20).
Smaal’s third story focuses on the ‘coping strategies’ the men developed and deployed within the confines that cast them as ‘deviant, mentally ill and prey to vice’ (p. 5). Doctors and lawyers described and theorised sexual practices and gendered behaviours but it was the allied commanders who grappled with the differences between queer identity and same-sex male behaviour’ (Chapter Four).
I do not have the space for detailed review of each chapter, so let me note some highlights. Chapter Two, ‘Queer Geographies’, offers an original reading of the landscape: where might one find privacy and accommodation; how to read the explicit and implicit codes structuring public homosex; what locations were available; and the currency of sculptured bodies depicted in health magazines. Smaal offers eclectic readings of the public discourses around how to understand and manage adolescent males infatuated with glamorous older American servicemen but concludes that public anxiety over youth sexuality, in ‘keeping with the dominant narratives’, privileged ‘female depravity’ (p. 58).
In Chapter Three, ‘Men in Uniform’, Smaal asks was homosex a consequence of cohabiting, a kind of situational contextual sex, or did sex with men satisfy desires the men had been unable or unwilling to explore at home? Smaal’s exploration of the implication of the armed forces as ‘a homosocial institution’ (p. 97) is well illustrated with life stories and nicely nuanced.
Sir Leslie Morshead and Lady Morshead, c. 1944 (AWM P01997.010)
Chapter Four, ‘Confused Commanders’, turns to the dilemma Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead, Commander of New Guinea Force, confronted when informed, via American sources, of a ‘dense queer network on the island and [the suspicion] that up to 50 Australian soldiers might be involved’ (p. 99). The Americans had already evacuated their queer personnel. Would ‘girls’ in the Australian forces now be the object of American soldier’s ‘perverted desires’? (p. 99). There were no official guidelines; Morshead wrote his own. He favoured medical evacuations over costly courts-martial. Problem solved: ‘eliminate the females’ (pp. 124-5). Officials held that the behaviors originated in civilian life: the ‘army was the crucible of Australian masculinity’ (p. 100). It was not quite that simple.
In Chapters Five and Six, ‘Preoccupied Policemen’ and ‘Disoriented Doctors’, Smaal turns to state responses in the work on the Committee of Inquiry Regarding Sexual Offences (CIRSO): police surveillance; public preoccupation with protection of vulnerable youth and women; the convoluted medical theorising of practices with implications for health (VD) and crime; and the often bizarre medico-legal expert testimony in courts. Of the ‘confused, contradictory, and reformulated ideas’ coming from local and international sources, Smaal concludes, the result was ‘obfuscating the very identity and behaviours that experts were trying to understand’ (p. 171).
By the 1980s and 1990s, gay veterans were negotiating a very different reality as they gathered at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance to honour their fallen colleagues; noted the decriminalisation of homosex in the ADF in 1985; and finally saw the overturning in 1992 of the ban on homosexuals in the Armed Forces (pp. 172-3). Victorian RSL President Bruce Ruxton’s 1982 declaration (‘I don’t know where all these gays and poofters are coming from, I don’t remember a single poofter in World War II’) had been eclipsed but one still hears echoes of his strident tones today.
Smaal is sensitive to issues of race and ethnicity and offers insights regarding the differential behaviours of Black American servicemen but he admits to being hampered by the paucity of the records (pp. 62-3, 80-1, 139-40). He notes there is little on the lives of the some 3000 Indigenous Australians who enlisted in World War II (p. 80). Interactions with local Indigenous women in Polynesia left a ‘reproductive legacy of some 3000 war babies’ but apart from the story of Ken, who, on engaging with a local villager (who was wearing only a penis gourd/sheath), described him as the ‘most sexually exciting man’ (p. 81) is silent of local indigenous practices. Male-to-male sexual practices among the populations with whom Australian and American servicemen came into contact have been the subject of spirited anthropological debate, punitive health policies and draconian laws but Smaal has not ventured into that territory, save in footnotes.
Smaal does not claim to have written a comprehensive book. He alerts the reader to the limitations of the sources and is clear that the subject of the work is men. He is well aware that World War II transformed women’s lives and that queer women frequented some of the same commercial establishments as queer men, but he points out lesbians were invisible in the criminal law and their military role was confined to Australia (p. 6). Nonetheless, I would like to see more critical scrutiny of the policy implications of the ‘woman-blaming’ embedded in much public discourse and of the parodies of the ‘feminine’ in gender stereotyping practices.
Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific began life as a PhD. It has matured into a monograph, a melding of medical, legal, psychological, historical sources and interviews. At times it is repetitive and in need of a serious edit but the text has its own momentum. As with all good research projects, there is more to be done and said. It is open to others to pursue other aspects of sexualities and gendered identities, to critique and contest Smaal’s findings. In the meantime, read his book, engage with the characters and ideas. You won’t be disappointed.
Donald Friend, Return to unit, pen and ink, 19145 (AWM ART23059)
* Diane Bell is a writer, anthropologist and social justice advocate. She is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at George Washington University, DC, USA and Writer and Editor in Residence at Flinders University, South Australia. She currently lives in Canberra, Australia, where she continues as an independent scholar to work on Native Title projects and writing. She has published widely on matters of anthropology, history, law, religion, the environment, feminist theory and practice. Her award-winning books include Generations: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters (1987), Daughters of the Dreaming(1983, 1992, 2002), and Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: a World that Is, Was, and Will Be (1988, 2014). Her previous reviews for Honest History have been of Chris Walsh’s book Cowardice, Raden Dunbar’s Secrets of the Anzacs and Miles Franklin’s writings on her experiences during the Great War.