Wednesday, 19 July 2017
Gay men at sea in WW2 - and raunchy divas. A little of what you fancy does you good, especially in wartime
Fighting Proud is the story of men in war. The few women who briefly appear in it are divas such as Bette Davis, who men emulated, or friends and supporters such as Elisabeth Welch, the mixed-race singer of Stormy Weather.
That means servicewomen with non-heterosexual identities, such as lesbian Wren Nancy Spain, are absent. That’s still a book in search of an author.
This new rich book devotes two chapters to queered men who were in sea-related work. They include musician George Melly (1926-2007) on aircraft carrier HMS Argus; and George Hayim (1920-2011), a millionaire idler slumming it among the 480 men on new cruiser HMS Cleopatra. After he left circa 1943 his (later) lover, Lt Cdr Anthony Heckstall-Smith (1904-1983) was also aboard.
Picture, right: Anthony Heckstall-Smith in later life, when he was an author.
There are disproportionately small references to men in the Merchant Navy, where MSM (men who have sex with men) proliferated.
My review here focuses on the Royal Navy in WW2, but the book shows the armed forces and home front queer contexts in both world wars.
WHY WOULDN'T QUEER MEN BE ON SHIPS IN WAR?
Bringing the story forward to the 1982 Falklands Conflict the author introduces merchant seafarer John Webber, who explains why gay men were thought unsuited to ships, especially when battling on the waves.
Webber was on an (unnamed here) civilian ship transporting the Queen’s Own Highlanders to the South Atlantic. He disputed with senior armed forces officers on board: ‘Their argument was simply “you can’t have men playing with each other like this. What if you’re attacked and they’re busy taking care of each other’s desires”' (p.xix )
The same argument - ‘sexual desire would distract people from the duties’ - was used to oppose Royal Navy women being allowed to work at sea before 1990.
In fact, relationships, sexual preference and personal identity do not necessarily bear any relation to bravery, self-discipline and commitment to the greater good. This was proved, for example, by John Beardmore (1920-2004). He was a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve sub-lieutenant who was in the appallingly challenging Russian convoys including PQ17 on corvette HMS Poppy. (Betty, his Women’s Auxiliary Air Force sister, unbeknown to him, plotted its course). He also took part in the North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy landings and was Mentioned in Dispatches and be-medalled (p70-71).
DIFFERENT SEXUAL OPTIONS EMERGE IN WARTIME
Wars undoubtedly lead to different sexual behaviours. The reasons included:
• the idea ‘feel free to act now, because tomorrow we may be dead’
• tenderness towards colleagues bonded by adversity, a closeness that may extend to physical demonstrations
• experiment away from home and familial norms
• the simple seeking of sexual relief. John Beardmore explained the common practice of seamen mutually masturbating each other: it was said to be a way to avoid catching sexually transmitted diseases from female sex industry workers ashore (p71).
IT’S DIFFERENT IN THE NAVY
A key question must be what does being at sea – as opposed to in the army, RAF and at the Home Front – enable in the way of non-heterosexual expression and identity exploration?
The book doesn’t tackle this. But from my own research I believe three answers are paramount:
1.CLOSENESS. Long-term living in close quarters bonds people, creates stupendous camaraderie, and develops respect for human differences. Officers’ cook and Polari-speaking female impersonator Terri Gardener (1920-2000) tells apparently double stories of crews’ homophobia yet politeness, of subtle disrespect yet useful loyalty: ‘I was called horrendous things’ but also ‘I don’t ever remember running into real unpleasantness' (p77). A gay man had early advised him ‘the best way for me was to be downright outrageous.’ He did so by entertaining in drag, which made him popular. He was also so appreciated as a receptive partner that ‘I just couldn’t take any more of it’: possibly he was used rather instrumentally. Terri went to see a naval psychiatrist and as result never sailed again. He was under open arrest ‘for being homosexual’ not for committing a homosexual act, points out Bourne, crucially. Officials asked everyone on his ship if they had they had intercourse with Terri. His shipmates all kept schtum (pp77-78). This would partly have been to protect themselves too. But Terri was eventually given a dishonourable discharge. This is something that happened to many LGBTQ naval people in the post-war years and wrecked careers and lives.
2.CROSS-DRESSING. The tradition of dressing as women for entertainment, including theatre shows, was more common on ships on boringly long inactive voyages than it was in the army or air force. Naval signalman Dennis Prattley dragged up for concert parties in a troupe of three. He 'was' singer Ann Sheridan and his pals 'were' Rita Hayworth and Katharine Hepburn.
Picture: the real Ann Sheridan
'Sherry's' troupe was so successful that the members tried to leave the navy to pursue full- time theatrical careers. Although in peacetime navy psychiatrists were keen to get gay men removed (they were seen as weak links), in war Dennis and co had to stay on, ‘I did my bit for my country and was always in action one way or the other,’ he quipped. 'I think I made a lot of difference’ (p71-72).
3.EXCEPTIONALITY OF A SHIP. The vessel far away at sea becomes a heterotopic space where the othered may occur – and may be treated in a tolerant, othered manner, despite official prohibitions.
In other words, sex, love and friendship – in all their hues – naturally happen in cooped-up 24:7 floating workplaces. That’s why today the now gender-integrated Royal Navy has a no-touching rule, and why both Royal and Merchant Navies necessarily have strict policies about sexual bullying aboard, and gender-segregated spaces.
EXTENDING INTO PEACE TIME
Such space-times of relative freedom were not just war-specific. A number of men who had same-sex sex at sea married but continued their old connections in some way. John Beardmore explained ‘I know of fellows who were oppo’s [counterparts] and who were having affairs at the time…[but who] went on to become godfathers to each other’s children’ (p71).
Terri Gardener. Continuing to idolise Greta Garbo, until 1971 Terri became part of a professional twosome of female impersonators: Chatt and Gardener. He and partner Barri Chatt appear in the musichall documentary A Little of What You Fancy (1968) (still available via Amazon films).
The title refers to the risque Victorian song made famous by Marie Lloyd, which female impersonators often sang:
'I always hold in having it, if you fancy it,
if you fancy it, that's understood.
And suppose it makes you fat?
I don't worry over that.
A little of what you fancy does you good.'
John Beardmore. After the war John Beardmore resumed his stage career and was in TV series as late as the 1980s, including playing patriarchal roles such as the judge in Softly, Softly: Task Force .
George Hayim.Later known as the Duchess of Cremorne, George in 1988 published a candid memoir: Thou shalt not uncover thy mother’s nakedness . It includes the camp lines: ‘I never wanted to join the Navy to kill anyone, or to sink the Bismarck. I just thought it would be a turn on: a bunch of hard men bubbling away together in a pot. Also, navy blue is my best colour and I love dressing-up.’
In fact, his ship was among the many vessels and planes that in 1941 did actually pursue and later sink the iconic German battleship - while he was seasick below. (No Stugeron tablets for the armed forces in that war; ‘proper men’ supposedly don’t throw up! )
Picture: George Hayim’s autobiography (still available second-hand).
Bourne’s valuable and easy-to-read book is not quite a collection of ‘untold’ stories, as in the sub-title. Rather it gathers under-told stories, and those not previously collected together to give a coherent collective account of GBTQI men in wars. That is, it is not an oral history, nor a collection of hitherto unpublished writings nor an examination of official documents dealing with homosexuality in the services. Those sorts of articles and detailed studies by other scholars will surely follow.
The footnotes and bibliography will help readers research further,
Fighting Proud makes a worthy counterpart to John Costello’s Love, Sex and War: Changing values 1939-45; to the US story told in Allan Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire; to the Canadian work by Paul Jackson, One of the Boys: Homosexuality in the Military During World War II; and to Yorick Smaal's Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War.
It is, in a sense, a sister to Emma Vickers’s academic study,Queen and Country: Same Sex desire in the British Armed Forces 1939-45. Fighting Proud's findings are complemented by the Merchant Navy post-war history I wrote with Paul Baker: Hello Sailor: The Hidden History of Homosexuality at Sea. and the recent book about queer life aboard a Falklands Conflict merchant vessel, the Norland: All in the Same Boat, by Warren FitzGerald.