The war against queer history
Periods of conflict can often give way to periods of enormous social change. The experience of queer people around the world is often a bit of a roller-coaster, but the ups and downs are often closely associated with what’s happening in the military.
Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in the UK until 1967 – 22 years after the end of WWII.
Consequently, many gay men enlisted or conscripted during wartime would have tried to keep their sexuality hidden – for fear of being ostracised or reported to their superiors for ‘indecency’.
Records show that during WWII at least 230 men from the British armed forces were charged and sent to prison because they were gay.
Similarly, in the US, the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ (DADT) law was passed in 1993 – allowing queer people to serve their country as long as they didn’t disclose their sexuality. The legislation wasn’t revoked until 2011. However, the focus has now shifted to debate about Trans people in the US military.
Let’s take a look at some of the queer wartime heroes that we can all be proud of.
Alan Turing is one of the UK’s most notable heroes of WWII.
Turing was a mathematician and code-breaker at Bletchley during WWII – he was described by Churchill as the ‘biggest contribution to the victory against the Nazis’.
What was Turing’s reward? A prison sentence for ‘gross indecency’, chemical castration and driven to suicide at the age of 41. All because of his sexuality.
Ian Gleed learned to fly privately before he joined the RAF at the age of twenty.
He completed his ‘wings’ course on Christmas Day 1936. Away from the RAF, Ian’s pastime pursuits included sailing and writing.
Holidaying in the south of France in 1938, Ian met and befriended the novelist W. Somerset Maugham who invited the young man to stay at his villa. Maugham later described Gleed as “Quite a little chap – jaunty, with a care-free look in his impudent blue eyes. He was a jovial, cheery soul. He was in tearing spirits because he had two days’ leave and was determined to have the time of his life. He was full of plans for the future. After the war was won, he was going to buy a sailing-boat, forty-foot-long, and sail with a friend to the South Seas.”
In public, Gleed had to keep his sexuality private or risk being court-martialled and thrown out of the RAF.
Gleed flew for the RAF throughout the war, receiving numerous honours.
In 1943, while on patrol over Tunisia, Gleed was shot down. His plane was found on sand dunes near the sea on the western coastline of Cap Bon. He was buried in the Military Cemetery at Enfidaville, a town in north-eastern Tunisia, on 25 April 1944.
Conscripted in 1941, aged 20, Dudley Cave joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps as a driver.
“They used us when it suited them, and then victimised us when the country was no longer in danger…” said Cave, speaking after the war. “I am glad I served but I am angry that military homophobia was allowed to wreck so many lives for over 50 years after we gave our all for a freedom that gay people were denied.”
“People were put in the army regardless of whether they were gay or not…” according to Cave’s recollections. “It didn’t seem to bother the military authorities. There was none of the later homophobic uproar about gays undermining military discipline and effectiveness. With Britain seriously threatened by the Nazis, the forces weren’t fussy about who they accepted”.
During the fall of Singapore in 1942, Cave was captured by the Japanese. Sent north in a prisoner-of-war labour detachment, his unit was assigned to back-breaking work on the construction of the Thai-Burma railway, about ten miles beyond the bridge on the River Kwai.
Three-quarters of Cave’s comrades in ‘H’ force perished. Luckily, after a bad bout of malaria, he was sent back to Singapore and remained in Changi Prison until the end of the war.
Close to death from malnutrition, Private Cave was liberated after the Japanese surrender and repatriated to Britain in October 1945. He returned to a society where discrimination against gay people remained rife.
Teaching LGBTQ history in schools
It’s essential that young LGBTQ people are taught about the contribution that queer people have made to the world throughout history.
We are not some subversive minority out to upset the status quo, we are essential members of any community and we have every right to be proud of our past and confident about our future.