A Secret History

The queer ANZAC history we aren't taught

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Words || Harry Fraser

On ANZAC Day 1982, five men ascended the steps of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne to lay a wreath. Before they could reach the top, a man ordered for them to stop.

Bruce Ruxton, then the head of the Returned Serviceman’s League in Victoria, barred the men from entering the shrine. Even the suggestion that the men lay their wreath at a tree near the shrine was dismissed. 

The men were from the Gay Ex-Services Association, a group of fewer than 10 former soldiers based in Melbourne. 

Bruce Ruxton, the man who denied these veterans entry to the shrine, later told The Age “We didn’t want them to lay a wreath because we didn’t want them. They are just another start to the denigration of ANZAC Day.”

The Age also reported that only days earlier, Ruxton told broadcaster Derryn Hinch that if his son was queer, he would shoot him. 

Ruxton was famously quoted as having told reporters, “I don’t know where all these gays and poofters have come from, I don’t remember a single one from World War II.”

In response to these comments, many queer ex-servicemen came forward with their stories both on record and anonymously. Accounts of late-night rendezvous, orgies and drag performances emerged from veterans of World War II.

Historians are now uncovering the hidden queer histories of the Australian Defence Forces. Both major World Wars promulgated the hypermasculinity that undoubtedly attracted gay men to join up. Others thought the army would provide a path to manhood. 

Ironically, such men would find themselves almost exclusively in the company of other men, where the potential of sexual interaction was heightened. 

Anecdotes of sexual encounters describe the expression of latent homosexuality, while others include straight men who find themselves having sex with other men. One Australian serviceman told the magazine Outrage in 1988 that many considered themselves bisexual, “if they couldn’t get a woman, they’d have a man.”

Prisoner of war camps in Greece and Germany staged elaborate drag shows. The performance of at least 15 plays were confirmed by accounts, with men dressing up as women if the production required it.

One famous account comes from British POW Don ‘Pinkie’ Smith, who spent time in a POW camp in Germany with many Australian soldiers. After his performance as a Geisha, Yum Yum in the production of ‘The Mikado,’ Pinkie was known and remembered as the showgirl of camp Stalag. 

“A spot of paint and powder, a few yards of curtains, and a bloke like Pinkie beats the lot for looks!” wrote one POW in his diary.

Historian, Yorick Smaal describes the environment of World War I and World War II as somewhat liberating for queer people in the Australian Defence Forces. The constant threat of death, removal of social values from home, and the communal nature of life as a soldier encouraged and enabled servicemen to explore their gender identities and sexuality. 

Court records from the US, the UK and Australia report criminal charges resulting from individuals pursuing desires uncovered during the war. Kings Cross in Sydney came to life when servicemen were on leave and after the war, a gay bar called ‘Diggers’ opened. 

Queer experiences were not unique to the Allies. During World War I it was reported that German soldiers risked severe punishment to sneak off to abandoned French houses to have sex. 

On the home front, women were tasked with occupying roles traditionally held by men. For women who joined the Australian Defence Forces, their experiences mirrored that of the men. 

Many joined up because they expected other lesbians to do the same while others found intimacy and affection, even love, during their time serving with other women. Many women were discovering homosexuality among women for the first time. While homosexuality was a taboo in society, male homosexuality was more acknowledged.

One account reports of a woman being brought before her commanding officer for sharing a bathtub. When asked if she was a lesbian, the woman replied that she was not a lesbian, but a Presbyterian. 

Going into World War II, the Australian Defence Force had no official policy on homosexuality. Most instances of homosexual behaviour was either tolerated or overlooked. 

Personality tests were used to try and identify those with what were called “undesirable traits” before they began training, however this method was largely unsuccessful. 

This all changed in 1943 when the American army, who had strict homosexual policies, encountered the Australian Army in Papua New Guinea. The US reported that a number of servicemen, including Australians, were having lots of gay sex. 

Numerous Australian soldiers adopted identities of ‘girls’ and frequently ‘serviced’ other soldiers. Many ‘girls’ were former David Jones employees. During the early and mid 20th century, sexuality and gender were seen as inextricably linked. By calling themselves ‘girls,’ soldiers were not necessarily experiencing transgenderism, but rather indicating a submissive sex role. 

Jungle orgies were described by some soldiers, where one Australian would sneak into the African American camps on the US base, lie on a bed and let black servicemen take turns. Gore Vidal, author and US former serviceman, noted that Australians were notorious for instigating orgies and taking obedient sex roles. 

Such widespread homosexual behaviour caused concern within the higher ranks of the US military. In men calling themselves ‘girls’ and having sex with other ostensibly straight men, anxiety arose in the leadership of what was and to some extent still is, a masculine institution. 

Under pressure from the US Army, the Australian Defence Force implemented procedures for identifying and diagnosing “homosexual types” as they were called. Such a diagnosis resulted in a medical discharge. This policy was developed by the Americans and was essentially replicated by our military in Australia. 

This policy would remain in place until 1992, when the then Prime Minister Paul Keating led the government in repealing it. It wasn’t until 2010 that the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy was repealed in the US by President Obama. 

Historian Yorick Smaal notes that the Australian Defence forces were one of the first institutions in the country that was forced to grapple with notions of gender and identity. 

Those five men who tried to lay a wreath for their fellow soldiers in 1982 forced Australia to consider how ANZAC and queer identities intersected, and how the traditional ANZAC spirit may be more myth than history. 

Today the Australian Defence Forces are one of the most inclusive organisations in Australia. Founded in 2002 the Defence Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Information Service or DGLBTIIS now works with the ADF and RSL to host recruiting events targeted at queer people. 

Members of the ADF now march in uniform in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney, led by high ranking officers. 

Every ANZAC Day, DGLBTIIS members lay a rainbow wreath at various memorials around the country. In 2015, 33 years after queer ex-servicemen were denied entry, DGLBTIIS mounted those steps to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and lay a rainbow wreath. No one tried to stop them.