The Secret History of
Australia's Gay Diggers
– An Anzac Day legend you won't find in Australia's textbooks –
On Anzac Day, 1982, five gay men walked up to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.
It was cold and rainy, but they marched with purpose, side by side.
By Ben Winsor
25 April 2017
They were from the Gay Ex-Services Association, and they carried a wreath dedicated to ‘all brothers and sisters who died during the wars’—but they would never get to lay it at the shrine.
As they ascended the steps, a cry rang out.
“Stop those men!"
It was the voice of Bruce Ruxton, then head of the Victorian Returned Serviceman’s League.
“I didn’t mind the poofters in the march, but they must march with their units,” he later told The Age.
“We didn’t want them to lay a wreath because we didn’t want them—and they are just another start to the denigration of Anzac Day,” he said.
Ruxton and the Shrine Commissionaire had a tense discussion with the five men at the top of the stairs.
There was a suggestion that the group instead lay the wreath at a tree near the shrine.
“Not even there,” came the response, according to City Rhythm.
Days earlier Ruxton had told broadcaster Derryn Hinch that if his son was queer he would shoot him, the magazine reported.
“I don’t know where all these gays and poofters have come from,” he was later famously quoted as saying, “I don’t remember a single one from World War Two.”
Less well known - but far more revealing - was the angry rejoinder delivered by a fellow veteran.
“As an RSL member, ex-POW and serviceman – I apparently have news for you,” the unnamed man told Outrage magazine in 1988.
“There were thousands of ex-servicemen who were camp, I think I went through 300 of them myself,” he told the magazine, a copy of which is preserved by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
While his account can't be verified today, many of the details in his story are corroborated by other sources.
He told the magazine that when his friends joined up, he joined up too.
“You had to be very careful, act butch until you found the ones like you,” he said.
A veteran of World War Two, the Australian soldier said he had been held in a POW camp in Greece and then in Germany.
The ambulance serviceman was captured in Crete after missing the last boat of the evacuation—he had gone back to collect one last wounded soldier.
Before capture, the Melbourne man said he had numerous liaisons with other servicemen, including a night-time rendezvous with his co-driver during the bombing of Athens.
“We might as well be happy while we’ve the chance,” his fellow serviceman told him as they watched the bombs rain down.
After being captured and transferred to a German internment camp - Stalag 383 - he helped stage performances in a barn that had been converted into a theatre.
At least 16 plays and musicals were staged at the camp, with many photos showing men dressed in elaborate drag to play female parts.
One of those men was Don 'Pinkie' Smith, a British POW who played the role of Yum Yum in a camp performance of The Mikado.
"A spot of paint and powder, a few yards of curtains, and a bloke like Pinkie beats the lot for looks!" wrote one POW.
When one man harassed Smith about being gay, a friend reminded him that Pinkie was a three-time featherweight boxing champion.
He was soon left alone.
"Aren't they bloody bastards. I know I'm queer, I don't need them to tell me," Pinkie told his Australian friend, according to his account.
While in the camp, the Australian profiled in Outrage had an ongoing relationship with an English serviceman.
“He was a beautiful bloke, a really lovely bloke,” he said. “We both helped out in the shows, so we had a chance to be together behind the curtain.”
But the liberation of Stalag 383 by the Americans in April 1945 ended the pair's relationship.
“They marched us out of the camp,” he said, “I knew that the English soldier and I would be separated.”
“We had remembered each other’s address because we knew that would happen.”
The English soldier was put on transport back to England, while the Australian went to France with the Americans.
“After the war he became a policeman in Birmingham, got married. We corresponded right up until his death,” the Australian veteran said, “but we never saw each other again.”
Another Australian soldier's tale corroborates the account of serious relationships developing in POW camps.
"We had cases of homosexuals really falling in love. In the interests of general happiness we re-arranged some room occupants and eventually got all the homos in one block," he said.
Despite Ruxton's assertions, there are countless tales of LGBT+ soldiers in WWI and II.
Their stories have been uncovered by dedicated historians who have sifted through thousands of newspaper reports, memoirs, letters, military documents and court records.
Historians Gary Wotherspoon, Graham Willett, Ruth Ford, Shirleene Robinson, Noah Riseman and Yorick Smaal have done extensive work to ensure historic LGBT+ service is brought out of the closet.
The accounts in this article are derived primarily from the documents they uncovered.
Yorick Smaal at Griffith University has dedicated his expertise to WWII.
“It’s downplayed in the history of the forces given the official emphasis on nation building and masculinity,” Smaal says, “but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that queer men did want to serve.”
“A quarter of homosexual cases in Queensland criminal courts across the war involved airmen, seamen, pilots or others in the military,” he says.
While Australia’s official ban on gay and lesbian service was repealed in 1992, LGBT+ soldiers served long before then.
“There can be little doubt there were gay soldiers [...] who manned the trenches along the Western Front,” said President Obama on America’s repeal of 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' in 2010.
“Their names are etched into the walls of our memorials,” Obama said, “their headstones dot the grounds at Arlington.”
But while LGBT+ soldiers have probably served in every army ever formed, their service has often been pushed deep into the closet.
Before repeal, the Australian Defence Force policy was to remove gay men “sympathetically and with discretion”.
According to the ADF, their service would undermine morale, create a national security risk, encourage the spread of HIV/AIDS, and risk exposing minors to “aberrant behavior”.
But right back to Australia's early years, Smaal says it was easy for gay men to join the armed forces.
The ‘hyper-masculinity’ of the institution may have even played a part in attracting them.
“Some thought that the army was going to make a man out of them,” Smaal says.
The company of other heterosexual men would help them leave behind the perceived 'perversion and degeneracy' of their former lives.
“The irony, of course, was that they ended up in an all-male environment with limited opportunity for female company – the potential for homo-sex had never been greater,” Smaal says.
“There are so many anecdotes of men having sex,” Smaal says.
Sometimes it was latent homosexuality, sometimes otherwise ‘straight’ men found themselves having sex with other men.
“Plenty of men were happy to take their pleasures where they could find them,” Smaal says.
“It was amazing the number of gay people in the POW camp,” the Australian serviceman told Outrage, “well not so much gay as bisexual – because they couldn’t get a woman they’d have a man.”
Indeed, the forces of World War One and World War Two may have been a surprisingly liberating place for gay men and women.
As troops spent every hour together in all-male environments, otherwise private activities became communal.
Removed from familiar surrounds, social mores fell away.
“War opened up a new vista of possibilities – where people might discover themselves on distant shores,” Smaal says.
Gay bars in Kings Cross bulged with servicemen and sailors as warships came to port.
There are multiple cases of veterans being arrested for homosexuality offences after the war, telling authorities they were pursuing desires discovered in the armed forces.
After the war, a gay bar called ‘Diggers’ even opened in Sydney.
“From reading over masses of personal and official records in Australia and the US, and seeing the paths men take, the lives they lived and the loves they pursued – the fluidity of sexuality, especially in war, becomes really clear,” Smaal says.
“What people say and what people do are often two different things, and experiences shift across the course of life – not everything can go into neat boxes.”
But it wasn’t just sex.
“The atmosphere of emergency and the proximity of violence promotes relaxed inhibitions ending in a special hedonism and lasciviousness - and of course, deeper affection as well,” wrote Paul Fussell, an American WWII veteran and historian.
“I do not believe I have ever loved a woman more deeply than my mate,” said one Australian WWII veteran, who went on to assert the relationship wasn't homosexual.
“We all had our particular mates; mine was a West Australian one year younger than me whose birthday fell on the same day,” he said.
The lines between gay love and straight mateship were difficult to discern for some.
J.R. Ackerley, an openly gay British war hero from World War One, wrote an acclaimed play titled The Prisoners of War upon his return to England.
The plot involves the main character, Captain Conrad, falling for junior officer Lieutenant Grayle.
The play’s critical acclaim and high quality may have played a part in avoiding a ban, with the censor ultimately concluding that the “sentimental sort of friendship” was not “sinister” in nature.
Smaal says there’s evidence that relationships forged in wartime service sometimes continued after the war, and that friendly senior officers might even arrange transfers so that partners could stay together.
While Ackerley's work has not passed through to mainstream textbooks, the works of a fellow gay contemporary have.
Wilfred Owen's poems - including Dulce et Decorum est and Anthem for Doomed Youth - are still taught in Australian classrooms.
Absent from lesson plans is Owen's apparent homosexuality, hidden by his family but uncovered by his biographer.
Before the war's end, he spent time socialising with other gay British literary luminaries.
But he would never return after the war.
The 25-year-old was killed on the Western Front a week before the armistice was signed, the news reaching his mother hours after peace was declared.
But gay soldiers weren’t only fighting for the allies.
Magnus Hirschfeld documented numerous instances of homosexuality among German soldiers during World War One.
The gay Jewish doctor – who was later exiled by the Nazis – wrote of how German soldiers would risk severe reprimand to sneak off into the locals’ houses in occupied France to have sex.
Under fire, gay men would charge into “the thickest rain of bombs and the most deadly attacks,” Hirschfeld wrote.
After sifting through first-hand accounts, the doctor mused that some did so in the hope “that a bullet might put an end to their life, which they regard as being a complete failure.”
With men shipped overseas by the tens of thousands, women in Australia were entering the workforce to fill the positions they had left behind.
The move into the workforce pushed the boundaries of Victorian-era gender roles, particularly as women were recruited to support the WWII campaign.
The experience of gay servicewomen closely paralleled their male counterparts.
“Many lesbians joined the services because they expected other lesbians to be there,” writes historian Ruth Ford.
“For others, service life was where they fell in love with women for the first time.”
Ford writes that female homosexuality was less acknowledged in polite society than male homosexuality - many recruits had never heard of the term ‘lesbian’.
One woman, having been brought before an officer for sharing a bathtub, was asked whether she was a lesbian.
She replied that no, she was Presbyterian.
Meanwhile, managers were anxious about preserving femininity in the Australian Women’s Army Service.
Newspaper cartoons portrayed senior female officers as butch, masculine, and more comfortable in the company of each other than of men.
It was a stereotype recruiters were keen to push back on.
“To suggest that a year or two in barracks will detract one iota from the femininity of the Australian girl is sheer nonsense,” a 1944 article in the Army Education Journal asserted.
“The man who meets an ex-AWAS will find her neither unduly masculine nor a harpy; he will find her as attractively feminine as any other Australian girl.”
Women were encouraged to maintain ‘normal feminine interests’ with courses on cooking and interior decorating.
Female messengers were even banned from riding motorcycles - jeeps were provided instead.
“I’m as interested in my hairdo, my make-up and my nails as you are,” read one recruitment poster featuring a glamorous AWAS woman.
But the emphasis on femininity and heterosexuality belied a bigger truth - officers didn’t want servicewomen having sex at all, with anyone.
Pregnancy and promiscuity loomed as even bigger threats in the minds of higher-ups.
During World War One and most of World War Two, there was no concerted effort to develop a policy on homosexuality in Australia's military.
“The reality is probably a lot of the men on the ground were either tolerant or turned a blind eye,” Yorick Smaal says, “most unwanted advances were probably met by fists.”
The Americans, however, were very concerned about gay men in the ranks.
“They conducted screening examinations to try to weed out undesirable personality types, as they would call them," Smaal says, adding that "they were quite unsuccessful at this".
But by 1943, a discovery by the Americans meant the Australian Army could turn a blind eye no longer.
Research by Smaal and his colleague, renowned Australian LGBT+ historian Graham Willett, found that the US reported to Australia that they had discovered a large number of servicemen in New Guinea having gay sex – and that Australians were involved.
The Australian Army would become one of the country’s first institutions to have to grapple directly with LGBT+ identity.
A number of Australians had taken on the identity of ‘girls’ and were routinely ‘servicing’ other soldiers – several of them were former co-workers from department store David Jones.
Their self-identifier of ‘girls’ wasn’t necessarily related to transgenderism, however.
In the early 1900s sexuality was closely linked to gender identity.
“Homosexuality today is defined as being attracted to your own sex, back then it was largely defined by gender codes – masculine or feminine, 'bitch' or 'butch',” Smaal says.
Gender roles were pervasive even within homosexual relationships - the ‘girls’ in New Guinea would often take a receptive role during sex.
Sometimes they drove off into the jungle for group sex parties.
One Australian soldier described routinely sneaking off to a US base and lying on a bed while black US servicemen had their way with him.
“They wanted to give you something, grog, food or clothing, which was most prized by the Aussies,” he said, “I refused, saying I wasn't a prostitute."
"All I wanted was for them to be friends, and some became good friends,” he said.
The Australians must have made quite an impression.
Gore Vidal, the US author and WWII veteran, once said that Australian soldiers had a reputation for rolling over on their stomachs ‘most obediently’.
Smaal says Vidal’s quote should be taken with a grain of salt - there were probably plenty of ‘butch’ Aussies and ‘sissy’ Americans too.
But it was true that some Americans preferred Aussies to New Zealanders.
“At least one US sailor said they couldn’t stand the accent,” Smaal says.
All of this caused consternation higher up the ranks.
“Given the army is a quintessentially masculine institution, men who are having sex with other men was one thing - but men who are also defining themselves as ‘girls’ caused real anxiety,” Smaal says.
Together with Graham Willett, he has pored over official documents detailing the Army's internal deliberations.
“There was a palpable fear that masses of ostensibly heterosexual or butch men were going to be serviced by these self-proclaimed ‘girls’ in New Guinea – and at the same time that men would falsely claim to be queer to get out of service – so it’s a Catch 22,” Smaal says.
The Army’s initial response was to interview a number of the ‘girls’ to try to understand what was going on – they ended up speaking with 18 of them.
“It was difficult and complex enterprise – and there’s a temptation to just bury their head in the sand, ignore it and hope homosexuality goes away,” Smaal says.
“But the army actually became one of the first organisations in Australia to grapple with the mix of sexuality and gender, and the differences between behaviour and identity.”
Officers conducting the investigation recommended that the men be diagnosed psychiatrically and evacuated to the mainland, but top-brass was leaning towards criminal prosecution.
“Officials at Land Headquarters in Melbourne eventually refined their position and issued guidelines on ‘psycho-pathic’ behaviors,” Smaal says.
‘Personality types’ and ‘authentic homosexuals’ were then able to be medically discharged.
It’s a solution which was developed under the guidance of US counterparts, essentially replicating their approach to the issue.
In Australia, a rule mandating discharge for homosexuality would continue in some form or other until the Keating government’s repeal in 1992.
The move was led by the Prime Minister and his Attorney General, over opposition from ADF chiefs and the Defence Minister.
According to one telling by former advisor Anne Summers, Keating was eager to get in first with the reform after the election of Bill Clinton in the US.
For his part, Clinton eventually had to compromise with the policy of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'.
As debate raged in Australia, the head of the National Returned Services League, Alf Garland, made his position clear.
Homosexuals were “sexual deviants who have a medical problem and should not be treated any differently to drug addicts,” he said.
For the men who served in secret before 1992, theirs was a dual sacrifice – a sacrifice to country, and a sacrifice of identity.
Today, the ADF aims to be an “employer of choice” not only for people of diverse sexualities, but also for transgender personnel.
A spokeswoman for the Defence Department says there has been a significant effort in recent years to promote diversity and inclusion.
“Inclusion is a critical issue as our combat capability is built upon team cohesion and respect,” she says.
"It also helps to ensure Defence is more representative of the community it serves."
The Gay Ex-Services Association was followed by 'G-force' in 1996 and then by DEFGLIS in 2002 – the Defence Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Information Service.
The RSL has gone from active opposition to LGBT+ service in the early 2000s, to assisting with DEFGLIS event planning.
Today, members of the Australian Defence Force march openly in uniform at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney.
Every Anzac Day, DEFGLIS members lay rainbow wreaths at war memorials around Australia.
Nobody tries to stop them.
The group started the tradition in 2015 with a wreath at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.
The inscription: "For all our LGBTI brothers and sisters who died during the war - From DEFGLIS, with pride."
This details in this article would not have been possible without the painstaking work of historians including Gary Wotherspoon, Graham Willett, Ruth Ford, Shirleene Robinson, John Barrett, George Simmers, Noah Riseman and Yorick Smaal.
Thanks also to Raine Alexander, the Surrey History Centre, and the Australian War Memorial for their preservation of stunning images from WWI and WWII.