Fighting Proud –The Untold Story of the Gay Men Who Served in Two World Wars
A Book review
Fighting Proud. Stephen Bourne.
Published: 2018. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. London.
As a researcher, the first thing I do when reviewing a book is to check how the book was received when released, in this case, going back to read the full reviews of the quotes on the back page.
Sadly, only one is available. So I searched further and was rather glad I did. I was in a dilemma about what to say about this book, but the reviews I did find seemed to back up my own: that it’s untidily written and depends too heavily on extracts from the literature which already exists. Structurally, it’s a bit of a mess, to be perfectly honest.
What I write below must be tempered with the understanding that Bourne is not an academic; perhaps that’s why his book is so fragmentary and unstructured.
From the description at the bottom of the front cover, I was expecting to read something altogether different. Untold means something new. There’s nothing new in this collection, everything has already been published, some of it several times over, by other authors.
I puzzled over the “untold” bit for quite a while. Untold to whom? That was what resonated in my mind. Who is this book aimed for? It never became clear even when I’d read it for the second time through.
What Mr. Bourne has done however, is to collate the British experiences of gay men during the two great wars into one handy volume. He does not, except in passing, deal with the Americans, or even members of the other Commonwealth services. This is not immediately apparent, unless one happens to read the blurb on the back cover before starting.
My major gripe with this book is that there’s no cohesive narrative; it’s basically a linked series of short biographies. “Where’s the theory? Where’s the theory, Jones?” I hear my research supervisor yelling his oft-repeated admonition at me in my dreams. In this case, the biographies are not linked or supported by social history of the periods in which the conflicts took place. Why did gay men enlist? This might have been a good place to start.
For example, a simple explanation about why we have more primary sources from gay men who fought in the Second World War than those who fought in the First? There are a number of explanations. The simplest of which is that during the period in which the Great War took place, men were much more private, because their society insisted on it; men were not encouraged to discuss either their feelings or their private lives. By the time homosexuality was legalised in England and Wales by the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967, most of these First World War veterans were in their seventies. It’s not as if all of a sudden, with the passing of the bill, everyone in the UK suddenly said “hooray! It’s good to be gay!” The acclimatisation took a long time and men of that age would have found it quite difficult to open up about matters they’d been taught were not to be discussed. More than ten years ago, I interviewed several men who were brave enough to speak; but their words and their stories were insinuations of what happened. “We were close. You know what I mean?” was oft repeated. Only one old digger was open enough to share, and I think that was because he wanted to shock me.
Veterans of the Second World War were still in their forties and fifties when the Sexual Offences Act was passed, so by the turn of the millennium, thirty three years later, many gay men who had served felt comfortable and happy enough to open up about their experiences during wartime. That’s why we have so many more primary sources from that particular major conflict. As I said, it’s one example. There are many other contributing factors.
The other thing that worried me while reading this book, was that it was apparent, without reading his biography, that he had no direct military experience. He was born 12 years after the end of the second world war, so neither did he grow up, as I did, in a world of damaged men who returned from conflict and were told to “man up and shut up”, or seem to have a direct connection through family to veterans who’d lived through the war. The reason I mentioned this is not because I believe a historian cannot write about something with which they have had no direct involvement, but merely for his moments of “voilà”, or “surprise, surprise!”, when he recounts the bravery of gay men in the field of war, as if it’s a revelation to the reader that not all gay men are limp wristed and effete. I got annoyed with the implied “bet you didn’t know that” (or perhaps that’s just my perception and he didn’t mean it to be patronising). In my research, and from primary sources, I’ve learned of many instances of men who were the most scared, the most timid, but who performed the bravest and most self-sacrificing of deeds in order to fight the enemy or protect their comrades. Although it probably flew under the radar to most readers, I began to feel this “marvelling” was condescending.
Mr. Bourne has taken the easy road when writing his book. On the surface, there seem to be more words from other authors than his own. He chooses “easy targets” as his examples: sissy men and drag artists. There is an abundance of information about them in literary social comment, from mid-Victorian times on. He does not explain why “sissy men” were so accepted by the rank and file. Superficially, it’s easy to explain. There exists a great tradition in British theatre, and later on in cinema, for actors to play effeminate men, who are seen by the general public as inoffensive and not necessarily homosexual, but clever and amusing. The same goes for the general acceptance of drag entertainers in the field, the companies of female impersonators who gave shows to bolster the spirit of fighting men in jungles, camps, and even just behind the front line. Their heritage is equally as long-standing. Ever since the first pantomimes, the “dame”, or a man dressed as a woman, has been an acceptable character in British life, and not necessarily perceived to be a homosexual.
He also uses court cases as examples. Court martials and dishonourable discharges which would not have seen the light of day if the officer in charge had been less puritanical or less homophobic. Most officers merely told men to “do up their flies and find somewhere more private”.
The one interesting fact in this book that I haven’t seen articulated elsewhere was his mention of the British being seen by gay men in other forces as only interested in masturbation. There was a current belief that American men were supposedly only interested in oral sex, while Australian men not only had a jar of Vaseline in their pockets, but would obligingly roll onto their tummies for an American if he asked nicely. My godfather, who’d served during the Second World War and was gay, told me it was a common saying in the mixed forces bars during the conflict when many Americans were based in Australian cities. When I jokingly asked him whether he’d found it to be true, he replied, with a wink, “Oh, yeah! And the Brits all had bad teeth, and the Yanks needed help tying up their shoelaces”. His best friend cheerily chimed in and volunteered that in his experience in the POW camps in Thailand, the Pommies were just as adept at all things and were happy to be the Yank or the Aussie, depending on the occasion.
The further I got into this book, the more I began to examine my waning interest. There was nothing new offered. Most of the examples can be found elsewhere, and there was little that was astounding, I kept going over the same things I’d read elsewhere. In fact, I became quite annoyed with his obsession with flamboyant men who served and who’ve been well documented, rather than doing the hard yards and researching the literature to find examples of men who were quiet, did their duty, and didn’t bother anyone else. There’s plenty out there; one only has to look.
He did mention at length the night time encounters in London during the Blitz when men, who might not otherwise have tried a gay encounter, would find comfort with another man with the same thought in his mind: “Will I be alive tomorrow?” However, the exploration, other than by providing excerpts from biographies, of situational encounters born out of the need for physical or emotional comfort was not adequately dealt with. Anecdotally, it was the most common form of homosexual expression during both conflicts. Men who found some brief sense of solace with another friend, or stranger, with no suggestion of anything other than what it was. More than once I’ve read accounts and spoken with men who’ve said, in more or less the same words, “It wasn’t gay or anything, it was just mucking about.” I have more than a few acquaintances who returned from more recent conflicts who’d formed sexual relations with other members of the same sex during their tours of duty, and then who’ve returned to a so called “normal” life with no further same sex activities.
The last section of the book (Part III. Not Forgotten) almost put me to sleep, and I truly wondered on its purpose. He prefaces the section by explaining, yet again, that “the life stories of some of the iconic gay figures from the two world wars would not be the main focus of Fighting Proud.” But then goes on to list a very long series of mini-biographies of people like Coward, Novello, Roger Casement, etc., one after the other like a series of unconnected, condensed, Wikipedia articles, that offer nothing but mere facts. I, for one, want to know about the man, not about what he did, or what medals he earned. I found the section about Novello particularly irksome. There’s much more to his story than one page warrants.
There was also a huge amount of padding with biographies of people who did not “Fight Proud”, except socially. The extended section on Quentin Crisp is notable for this, and yet another example for his fascination with “camp” men. The section on Mr. Crisp, to my mind at least, was over extended and had nothing much to offer about fighting men, as interesting as it might be to someone who might never have heard of him before.
There were also moments when so much of another author’s work was used, I felt my time would be better spent reading the book in question, which undoubtedly would have more framework and substance behind it than Mr. Bourne managed to do in his book.
As a researcher, it all felt a bit third-hand. I longed to read something new, to be offered more than a potted history of a lot of different men’s lives during conflict strung together like a set of beads on a wonky piece of string.
The various reviews I’ve managed to find have all more or less reflected my own thoughts. Although there were one or two that made me wonder who found such dry cloth “highly readable”, as a snippet of a review on the back cover states? However, as negative, or rather, disappointed my impression of the book may seem to be, if you’ve no previous knowledge of the subject, then it’s the book for you. It’s something you can pick up, read a few pages, and then put down with a smile.
There’s nothing wrong with the content. It’s the blandness of the way it’s put together between the cover and the back cover that made it tough going for me. Together with its lack of proposition, argument, and conclusion, it feels like a collection of “research snippets” someone might collate for future reference in an academic paper they might be preparing.
These are my own opinions and I come from a place of years of research on the subject. Make up your own minds. If you read it and love it, I’m happy for you. If we all loved the same books there’d be a handful on the market. No one wants that!
For those of you who’d like a less UK-centric treatment of gay men during both conflicts (this is what I mean by social history and context: cultures in other English speaking countries which did not have such a strong class system, are quite different, and their combatants did not suffer from the same social pressures), here are four excellent books to get you going.
Bérubé, A. (1990). Coming Out Under Fire. Free Press. U.S.A.
Costello, J. (1986). Love, Sex and War. Pan Books. London.
Jackson, P. (2010). One Of The Boys. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Québec.
Lord, J. (2010). My Queer War. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. New York.