Sex, soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-1945: queer identities in Australia in the Second World war by Yorick Smaal.Reviewed by John Cook

Smaal

Thank you Yorick Smaal and all the amateur and professional historians who contributed directly and indirectly through resources to this important work. I note that Smaal in his epilogue refers to a quote from the antediluvian RSL President Bruce Ruxton ‘I don’t remember a single poofter from World War II’ which I can remember hearing only too well and adding it to the chorus of denials to queer existence much less worthiness I had so often heard. Of course, I can also remember some of the rejoinders which went much along the lines of ‘Yes, but you had nothing worth remembering, Bruce’. The book and its academic stature is a reassurance that the reality of this important period will not be forgotten and can be assessed for what it was.

It is clear that wartime experiences were important in forging the beginnings of a post-war queer consciousness in many of the democratic allied nations (in San Francisco for one important example) even if the following cold war influences would react with fresh layers of fear and loathing.

I have picked up many individual references over the years in Australian biographies that included wartime references as well as the sterling work of Clive Moore. This was also influenced by reading the Donald Friend diaries which include lively insights into his sex life in a range of army bases in Australia as well as Papua New Guinea. Then there are his art works such as the cover of Smaal’s book which electrify erotic potential.

I was a war baby (1941) and so was largely unconscious of this period except that I nearly died from septicaemia late in the war contracted from climbing a barbed wire fence on my uncle’s farm at Stanthorpe in order to wave to the soldiers on passing troop trains (how prescient!) and was saved by the early civilian use of penicillin (developed to save those same troops). My father, uncles and many of their friends served and I was later able to eavesdrop on some of their conversations, especially about POW life, but (like Bruxton) never heard anything to redden my youthful ears.

It was interesting, however, for anyone of my generation (1960 and following) to note how many of the places mentioned lingered in the unwritten codex of local queer consciousness. I attended my first gay party at a rented house at West End. I was part of a group who thought we were smart young things who used the back lounge at the Grand Central and many of the wet and dry locales mentioned.

Some readers may be a little put off by the careful categorical language used and the ensuing discussions, but this requires only minor adjustments to accept the need for precision that is required. I found the arrangement of the three parts useful showing how civilian life was impacted by layers of public responses, government and then military superimposition. Smaal does well to tease apart influences from the past and more contemporary thinking to produce a discourse taking place under extreme conditions.

Given the source material for which we must be glad, it remains biased in the direction of those who were ‘detected’ and we get glimpses only into the ‘double lives’ those who escaped this attention. The other matter mentioned by Smaal is the impact the period must have had on many women. I remember meeting women who must have been impacted similarly by their wartime experiences and had some difficulty in their post-war adjustments. There was more than one Eleanor Roosevelt!

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