- One of the Boys: Homosexuality in the Military During World War II
Paul Jackson has done all of us a favour by taking up the underexamined story of homosexuality in Canada's military during the Second World War This is important work, for it unpacks the sexual complexities within an institution dominated by official masculinity, and operating under rules officially dedicated to rooting out homosexuality. In doing this, it highlights the day-to-day contradictions inherent in any regulatory order, and especially one operating under the duress of war.
Among the riches of this book are the stories told through interviews with men who had served in the war, and through an examination of court martial records. These stories are almost entirely about men, in part because female homosexuality was so widely ignored. Throughout the book, however, Jackson points to the significance of gender norms in the regulation of homosexuality, and the particularly harsh response to femininity among men.
These stories show us what openings are created in wartime for behaviour that breaks from traditional 'family' norms. Some tell of severe [End Page 429] punishment or suicide; more often they tell of relatively light punishment to ensure a return to service. Most common of all are accounts of sexual contact between men that remained undetected among comrades or widely acknowledged and defended against intrusive policing.
The room for discreet same-sex contact, and occasionally for more public expressions of homosexual inclination, varied across the three armed services, and roles within them. More importantly, they tended to be more frequent overseas, and particularly in combat, and to vary across military rank. The stories that Jackson relays are not largely about what we would call gay men. Some of those who engaged in homosexual activity saw themselves as entirely drawn to other men sexually, and identified themselves in that way. But most crossed categories, engaging in such activity without abandoning their heterosexuality. This is an important theme for Jackson, properly so, though I think there is some roughness in the shifts between empirical story lines and the poststructuralist theories that inform his analysis. He also tends to understate the recognition of fluidity of sexual expression among writers informed by other analytical currents.
At times I found Jackson inconsistent in describing the severity of official sanction directed at homosexuality. In places he seemed to be saying that official proscription was ubiquitous; elsewhere he pointed to what seemed like major exceptions. This is no doubt partly a product of inconsistencies within the military hierarchy itself, though somewhat cleaner presentation of such messy reality would have helped. I think, too, that a little more could have been done to clarify and explain the patterning of variations in the capacity for sexual expression outside the rules and in peer acceptance of homosexuality. This is admittedly difficult, for there are no locations in which responses are consistent. Still, I would have wished for more of the kind of descriptive summation that marks the very effective concluding chapter, and more attention to why the variations exist.
One of the contributions of this book is that its themes dovetail with much of the writing about homosexuality and the military elsewhere, and about the impact of the Second World War on gender relations. At the heart of much of such literature are the contradictions of the period. As Jackson and others before him have shown, it is precisely in those situations where the military's official rationale for homophobic exclusion are most applicable, where unit cohesion and high morale are most needed, that the room for exploration and acceptance is greatest.
The American military continues to use the 'unit cohesion' rationale for excluding lesbians and gay men from service, and yet behaves in ways consistent with Jackson's portayal of the wartime Canadian military. During us wars, including Iraq, just when unit cohesion is most urgent, expulsions decline. Jackson's next project apparently is a comparative exploration of Canadian and American military policies from the 1940s on, and we should expect a...