Paul Jackson’s Take on Homosexuality in WWII Canada
Published 22 Feb 2017
North America in the 21st century is open to the idea that gay and lesbian people can be accepted into the mainstream of society. In the present, laws against discrimination consider the rights of homosexual persons. But less than 60 years ago this was not the normal view of society. The most advanced countries in the Western world could not tolerate the existence and practice of homosexuality.
In this book, the author tried to point out that the notion of the existence of repressive societies with regards to acceptance of homosexuals. It is a documented fact and not mere speculation and unspoken social taboos. Paul Jackson is not only bringing this up, but he is stressing that this is especially true in Canada. Paul Jackson also discussed that not only was the tolerance level very low; there was also an active move to eradicate homosexual behavior. Another major focus of the book is the description of the role of World War II as a defining force for homosexual military servicemen as they struggle with the consequence of their sexual orientation and at the same time trying to balance it with their fervent passion to serve their country and fellowmen in a time of war.
In the following discussion, Jackson will lead the readers not only in the analysis of cultures regarding homosexuality but the author will also present the evidence used in building his case against society and military organization that was unable to handle a social dilemma.
The author in the pursuit of establishing credible arguments covered the whole gamut of permissible data source like the following: 1) long-closed court martial records; 2) psychiatric and personnel files: 3) war diaries; 4) films; 5) paintings and illustrations and 6) interviews with veterans of the war.
What the author found out in the course of the research seems to be a reflection of what is going on in the lives of homosexual servicemen, and that is an exhibition of a lot of conflicts and complexities.
One can say conflicted because the Canadian army wanted to create a system of eradicating homosexuality but at the same time, those down the chain of command would not heed such orders to the letter. Some officers according to Jackson knew of homosexual behavior existing among the ranks, but they refused to report them.
One can also say complex because the label homosexual was not understood. It was so difficult enough that the author at the beginning of the book has to dig deep into the etymology of words just to have an accurate depiction of what was felt and understood in Canadian society during the decades of war.
In the end, the author was able to discover two different views about the behavior of the majority during that time. The first one is wholly prejudiced towards homosexuality and the second one is of acceptance. As mentioned before many enlisted men and some officers would argue that homosexual men were fine soldiers and comparable in skill and character as those who are straight.
Jackson was able to blend all these conflicting views and all the struggles of homosexual men and even those who were only performing same-gender sex but not homosexual in the purest sense of the word – all because of the effect of the war on the behavior of the servicemen. And how he was able to do it makes this book an interesting read.
As mentioned earlier there are two major ideas in this book. The first one explains the struggles of gay military servicemen in World War II and the second major idea is the explanation as to the role that the war played in the lives of gay military men.
Regarding the first one, Jackson was able to paint a backdrop of a society that was inflexible to the idea of gay men in the neighborhood. If this is the case then how much more difficult would it be to accept gay soldiers protecting the nation. According to the author, homosexuals were already prejudged and condemned even before verifying the facts. Since this is the state of society, then it follows that the military juggernaut will do everything in its power to either eradicate gay enlisted men from their ranks or institute a cover-up. A conspiracy of silence was what Jackson deduced from court martial records and the shame of opening up about the past
On the second major argument, Jackson was able to show clearly that WWII played a crucial role in developing an environment that encouraged the gay behavior. But Jackson did not stop here. The author tried to explain that during WWII the military brass was forced to deal with two similar yet distinct problems. The first one is homosexual behavior displayed by those who beforehand chose to be gay, in other words, these men already made up their mind regarding their sexual orientation. The second distinct problem is the practice of homosexual behavior, specifical sex between two males but not necessarily gay.
When these forces collide, Jackson described how those who are morally rigid and incapable of understanding gay behavior went all out to reduce once proud men into pitiful persons. The much-dreaded label of homosexual ensured the stripping of rights.
The author was able to argue convincingly that if the things that happened in the early part of the 20th century will ever happen today, the world will hand-out a much more favorable verdict. Jackson was also able to present a strong argument that many were unnecessarily persecuted when in fact they were only forced by circumstances brought by war. And the consequence brought by the massing of troops that resulted in cutting them off from their loved ones and female companionship.
If the words of two or more witnesses will be considered as gospel truth, then this book is an authority as to what transpired in the homosexual world of Canada’s armed forces in World War II.
In the latter part of the book in the appendix section where the author was discussing the trail of evidence, he was openly candid that it was difficult to get reliable information. First of all, there was a strong move by the military to keep it all quiet. Secondly, no one wanted to talk about the traumatic events that happened in the war and their personal lives.
The second issue here that seems to reduce the overall authoritative voice of the book is the confession of Paul Jackson that he is biased towards the homosexual community. In his own words, “Like all judgments, diagnoses, and studies, this one both suffers and benefits from the biases and insights of its creator […] Likewise, the evidence amassed […] has this time been filtered through a lens sympathetic to homosexuality…” (p.147)
This admission of bias does not diminish the overall authority of the book, but it signals caution in other areas of the book where the author – due to the absence of supporting facts – has to rely on assumptions. An example of this is the way he interprets the painting and caricatures made by men using male soldiers as subjects. On pages 26 and 155 one can see illustrations of men naked and semi-naked and here Jackson concluded that this is an expression of homosexual desires.
There is nothing new about homosexuality that was tackled in the book. Even the fact that the military treated homosexual soldiers differently is a fact that can be seen in many military organizations around the world (see Aldrich and Wotherspoon, 2001). What Jackson is offering here is a new body of material regarding the conspiracy of silence in the Canadian army. He is saying that aside from the few books published detailing homosexuality in Canada, there is a cover-up. A more serious allegation though can be seen in the introduction which says that the Canadian army pretends there is no problem and did everything in its power to keep it that way.
Moreover, Jackson’s perspective was far different from the other writers who wrote against homosexuality, In the author’s own words (p.147):
Some studies of gay and lesbian life focus on identifiable communities […] Their subjects have self-identified as gay and created communities based on that social difference. This study differs from that literature in that its subjects are tied together by their common association with the Canadian military during the Second World War…
This approach is very evident even as one begins to read the book. In the introductory pages, one can see the unique approach. First of all, Jackson did not take the usual route – a typical way of discussing homosexuality. He first did a slow but sure exposition of the terms used in the context of Canada at war and at the same time compare it to how terms referring to gay men are being used today. By doing so, Jackson was able to hit two birds with one stone. First, he had established a clear historical context transporting the reader back into the gay culture before and during the war of the 1940s. Second, he was able to show that he was a consummate researcher. This is very clear when he did a lengthy discussion about the use of the terms, gay, homosexual and queer.
There was another significant consequence when Jackson used this approach. He was able to discover the different layers or degree of complexity regarding how heterosexuals view the homosexual world. He said that during WWII the generic term used for homosexual was the word “queer” which offers an insight into how the majority viewed this minority group. The usage of a said word tells volumes about the common fears of those who do not understand the homosexual mind.
When Jackson was finished setting up the stage, after giving the reader the background and has explained the etymology or study of words, the author went straight into dissecting the unique circumstances present during that time that can never be experienced by a 21st-century homosexual or modern day heterosexual. The world is at war, and therefore the massing of troops has created unforeseen problems not only regarding logistics but the social and human aspect of relationships.
Men who may never have the experience of meeting a homosexual in all their lives were now hobnobbing with them and often nearby. A homosexual man who may never have had the chance to express their sexual orientation now has the capability to entice men who longed for female companionship. In other words, relationships were easily formed as men get packed together in ships, barracks and training facilities.
The only comment one can probably level against Jackson is the circuitous way he presented his ideas. In other words, in many instances, he would not go straight to the point but instead go on a laborious route just to say what is already obvious to the reader. A portion of Chapter 4 will be quoted here as an example:
How does my work differ then, from the inquiries carried out by military authorities during the war? Like them, I am concerned with understanding homosexuality and homosexuals […], But it would be a mistake to conclude that this work is qualitatively the same project as the wartime inquiries upon which it relies. In this instance, the gay men who offered their experiences did so voluntarily, in acts of self-definition… (p. 147)
Here’s the problem, the above quotation is already in Chapter 4, and if the reader has gone this far, then it would have been apparent to the reader that this book is about homosexuality and homosexuals and that the author is greatly interested in them or else he would not write this book.
The second part of the quote is again stating the obvious. Again, this already in the fourth chapter and by this time the reader knows full well that the background of the book was set in World War II, sixty or more years ago. It is very clear to a reader who can comprehend and read up to almost 150 pages of material that Canada in the 1920s and the 1950s are way different from the Canada of the 21st century. Thus, there is no need to state what is very plain to see that the “inquiries” were made not to have a scientific understanding of homosexuality
Reflection: The Book and the Course
The question remains, what is the impact of the book and its importance in understanding Canada at the turn of the century. There are two sides of the coin; those who are sympathetic to homosexuality as a minority then this book adds to their arsenal in their struggle for equality and the reduction of harassment that the third sex is experiencing in some societies. But for those who are convinced that homosexuals and homosexuality are already accepted into the mainstream, this book is simply another source of trivia or information that is fit for the historian but not for the lay person.
On a scholarly point of view though, Jackson has contributed new knowledge especially in documenting the role that the war played on the psyche of those involved. It is now clear that young men and women who joined the army at the early part of the 20th were subjected to a lot of stress. The common knowledge one had before is that they suffered from trauma brought by combat and was expressed or made evident by depression, alcoholism, etc.
This book has added to that when it asserts that another possible effect of the war is the breakdown of morals or control of self that others who are not homosexuals engaged themselves in homosexual activities.
The coup de grace is an insight into Canadian culture that came about in trying to resolve conflicting set of facts. How can the nation of Canada able to have two views about homosexuality? The first one hates the idea of homosexual behavior existing in the army and the second one is fairly tolerant. The answer lies in Jackson’s amazing summation; it was the elite of the society who do not want to seek understanding and does not want to offer a compassionate hand. While the rest were able to give what this harassed minority was seeking for.
This insight can help not only in understanding Canada in that era but can also aid in explaining the development of its policies, rules, and laws regarding behavior. It may even offer another perspective in perceiving the discriminatory practices going on if any.
Finally, this book is a good tool for studying history and a good thing to have in the course. This is because history is not just merely memorizing facts but also trying to seek understanding of the forces that shape the events. In this book, Paul Jackson demonstrated how one interprets history using facts borne out of serious research.