Douglas Lloyd Jenkins on a lively history of three gay Kiwi soldiers in World War II

For a while now there’s been a fashion for websites, blogs, social media pages and illustrated books featuring historic black and white photographs of men together. The best of these showcase young American marines serving in the Pacific, during World War II, huddled together in the mess, playing cards in their underwear or, best of all, naked and soaping each other down in the shower. These publications, with their glossy presentation and sharp images, might initially appear aimed at the nostalgia market but the come-hither innocence of their muscled subjects has been carefully selected to attract the pink dollar. They are eye candy for an audience craving male-male imagery but one also searching for a history onto which they might project something of themselves.

Spotting any recognisable prototype for the contemporary gay male in recent gay history writing is difficult. With an emphasis on effeminacy, invisibility and criminality, the masculine, visible and professional are just not there on the page. Black and white images, alluring though they might be, have a distancing property and projected contemporary desire onto these is not enough to break down the wall that time has put up. Gay culture, in the early 21st century, can therefore seem rootless because we and the gay men on the pages of our history seemingly share no common DNA.

Recent histories of gay men in mid-century New Zealand have tended to overstate the oppressive nature of the culture in which they operated, thus portraying gay men as hapless victims. This suits various political and literary agenda – many in the heterodoxy still like to present gay men as cowering, the baby-boom, gay-libers like to take credit for ending oppression (they invented sex too) and contemporary historians generally – well they love a victim. This may be a good thing, but emphasising victim narratives has, in the gay world at least long ago become tiresome.

In the new book from Otago University Press, Crossing the Lines: Three homosexual soldiers in World War II, there’s not a lot of repression, very few victims and rather a lot of handsome and willing American marines.

It would be wrong to think that in this telling of the lives of Harold Robinson, Douglas Morison and Ralph Dyer, author Brent Coutts is blinkered to the situation in which they found themselves. In his introduction he lays out the cultural parameters in which Crossing the Lines operates, “there was a strong vein of homophobia in New Zealand … people often ridiculed homosexual men and treated them with distain and hatred,” but he speedily moves on. He suggests instead that the repressive societal approach to homosexuality did not necessarily have the desired effect of repressing gay men. As Harold Robinson later summed up his pre-war life, “I was as gay as a two-bob watch and happily so.”

Dunedin in the 1930s was a city, it seems, in which young gay men went to school, had crushes, found lovers, sometimes engaged in sexual hi-jinx with the coalman, shared books, went on holiday together, found careers and made significant contributions to local culture, albeit in the niche areas of theatre, dance, and the arts. This is as good a writing of local queer history as we’ve seen anywhere, lively, revealing and somehow real. If there’s the obligatory mention of cruising public lavatories and police raids, it’s buried deep. Here, and in the telling of Morrison and Dyer’s lives in prewar Auckland, Coutts depicts young gay men integrated into the communities in which they lived. He goes further suggesting “their prewar lives gave them a strength that allowed them to adopt to the changes the war would bring”.

New Zealand soldiers at the Maadi Baths, the swimming pool built in Egypt for New Zealand soldiers. Photograph by George Kaye, DA-04274-F, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Swept up in the war along with other men their age, there was no hint that these three tried to avoid service. The army didn’t ask, Robinson didn’t tell and together they largely escaped most forms of homophobia and victimisation. This is all the more encouraging given that these men fit into some pretty narrow expectations of gayness – witty, effeminate, cross dressing, drag acts. Here Coutts could have written clichés, (the ancient BBC comedy It Ain’t Arf Hot Mum springs to mind throughout this entire book) risking both betraying his subjects and alienating his audience but instead he writes them as real people – “once the men got to know Robinson, they soon saw that his humor and sense of fun, along with his intellect, loyalty and compassion were equally attractive”.

The reader comes to very similar conclusion – Robinson, Morrison and Dyer are real gay men, doing their bit, serving their country, and having affairs with other military men (and in particular handsome American marines) on the side. In this we can recognise something close to a version of ourselves.

A lot of Crossing the Lines details the gruelling schedule of shows under difficult conditions – pleading for ostrich feathers to be sent from home, scrounging muslin from medical supplies, commandeering sewing machines, belting out ‘I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo’ and other hits of day (or penning their own ditties such as the unfathomable ‘It’s ‘ard To Go Wrong in a Cactus’) all the time undertaking regular army duties and training. Aided, and perhaps also a little hampered, by period diaries, the narrative slows down a little here concerning itself with maneuvers and movements from one place to the other – all of which serves to remind us this is also military history writing which revels in such detail. Yet the real contribution of the war chapters comes in the way Coutts explores the web of connection between the three men at the heart of narrative and the community in which them found themselves.  

There have been two previous histories of the Kiwi Concert parties Sing as We Go (1944) and Whistle as We Go (1995) which despite being written decades apart, do little more than allude opaquely to the existence of homosexuals within the concert parties themselves. Crossing the Lines tells an altogether different story in which the concert parties, while not exclusively homosexual, were significantly made up of one type of gay men that did what they were best at, dressing up as women and entertaining bored soldiers. At the same time these men provided a link that brought together the hundreds of other types of gay men liberally sprinkled throughout other branches of the armed services. Some of them we know: R. Jack Hutchinson, the soldier artist who now has a cult following among collectors or Bill Pearson, the lugubrious writer of closeted postwar fiction. Some are welcome additions – Owen Fletcher the handsome botanist and writer and others completely unexpected such as Brigadier William Dove.

Dove was a high-ranking officer who in peacetime life split himself between married life in Remuera and a secret homosexual life (one lover was a window dresser at Milne & Choyce). Dove “was known to many homosexual men … and would be a key figure helping homosexual figures in the army when he could.” Reactions to Dove were mixed among gay soldiers. Dove was, in the contemporary parlance, a daddy, who after the war shipped his favorite ex-soldier boys from around the country to sex parties hosted at his Taupo batch.  The revelation, of Dove’s existence, only one amongst many, is indicative of the way Coutts skilfully dismantles chunks of the wall between the contemporary gay world and these men. We see their world and in it we see ours.

Recently, gay-identified American television producer Ryan Murphy used his series Hollywood to deliver a retelling of the 1950s Hollywood story. This explored what might have been had racism and homophobia been confronted and overcome – the result perplexed many. However, it did make me wonder what might have happened if Crossing the Lines had appeared at the same time as Sing as We Go when the nation was in its first flush of gratitude and a flurry of war histories appeared gratefully celebrating wartime achievements. Had the real contribution of gay men been made clear and imprinted on the RSA, on ANZAC day and on Kiwi society generally, how different the 50s might have been. As it was, all three men decided after the war they were likely to be better off in Britain. Only Robinson eventually returned to New Zealand.

Crossing the Lines is a slow reveal, a new type of gay history writing, concentrating less on repeating tropes of repression and misery and more on the construction of valid lives, in themselves full of the joy and more than a little sex. In the end, Coutts writes a bittersweet story of three men who, self-empowered, construct themselves a good life in an indifferent world. There are difficulties along the way, this is not a world without homophobia, but Crossing the Lines is about visible and profession men who in the end succeeded on their own terms.

Crossing the Lines: The story of three homosexual soldiers in World War II by Brent Coutts (Otago University Press, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide.

* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *,dpr_auto,f_auto,fl_lossy,q_auto,w_1200/xz9ac4lvkjh9olwgmpxx

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins is an Auckland writer. He specialises in interpreting the history of design, architecture and art from his perspective as a gay man.

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