Five gay things I learned from The Boy In The Dress

Several years ago, I can’t remember how many exactly, my boyfriend Jonathan Butler told me he was researching a family secret. This was the murder of his grandmother’s cousin, Warwick Meale, in 1944 in Townsville. He was a signaller in the Australian armed forces, and was attacked while he was resting beside a river on a night off on August 15. He died two days later in hospital.

It is a gripping story that says so much about Australia’s history, military and otherwise. We discussed what he should do with it – a podcast, a novel. Eventually, after vast amounts of research and an extremely impressive routine (6am starts, two hours writing before work), it became The Boy In The Dress, published in February by Affirm Press.

From an investigation into a World War II cold case, The Boy In The Dress became a hybrid account: part true crime, part history, part memoir. Jonathan was inspired to investigate his relative’s death after growing up with a photo of a five-year-old Warwick in a dress, and hearing family rumours that Warwick was gay. Jonathan’s investigation of these questions leads him to uncover a fascinating and sometimes violent hidden history of queer life, and he writes of his own experience as a queer kid coming to terms with his sexuality.

It’s a brilliantly researched and very moving story – don’t take my word for it, this is what others are saying. Reading drafts and talking about it with Jonathan I also learnt so much about our queer past. Here are five of the highlights:

Australia has a queer history

In popular imagination it can sometimes feel like queer life began with the Stonewall Riots and the queer activism of the Sexual Revolution. We all know this isn’t true (hello Ancient Greece) but it’s easy to forget that queer people have always existed, everywhere. Despite ignorance or attempts to rewrite history, queer people were there in World War II, on the homefront and on the battlefield. You could even say they flourished: historians like Yorick Smaal have uncovered amazing evidence of queer people finding each other and forming communities in the most unlikely of circumstances, such as the Papuan jungle.

Same but different

That being said, queer life wouldn’t have been entirely recognisable to us today. Whereas today we have the LGBTIQ alphabet, queers in the 1940s identified in different ways. As Jonathan writes:

For a long time, homosexuality was exclusively understood in gendered terms. So much so that men who slept with other men maintained their ‘normal’ status, as long as they were masculine and didn’t participate in any submissive sexual roles.

World War II was a time when queer cultures we might recognise today began to become mainstream, as queer men made communities of “cissies” and “butches”. In other ways though, the queers of yesteryear would have fit right in today. Jonathan describes groups of ‘girls’ in New Guinea calling each other “you beautiful pansy” and “you gorgeous bitch”, phrases which I’m immediately adding to my vocabulary.

Lack of proof

Just because queer people were always there, doesn’t mean we are easy to find. Facing persecution and stigma, queer people rarely left concrete evidence behind. Sadly, the best evidence is often the kinds of court or police documents Jonathan uses in his book, investigations into murders or “perversion”. History as a discipline struggles with this. After meeting historian Graham Willett and discussing the rumour that Warwick was gay, Jonathan writes that, “These are interesting problems to solve, rather than excuses to erase all same-sex desire from history. There is a no evidence that Warwick was heterosexual, either.”

Cruel and unusual punishment

The persecution of queer people has a long history. As Jonathan explains, the criminalisation of gay sex was first codified by Henry VIII in 16th Century Britain. It was exported around the world through colonisation and lasted until 1997 in Australia. The armed forces had their own rules on top of civilian law (the ban on queer people serving was only lifted in 1992). Jonathan uncovers another murder of a gay signaller, this time in Victoria, which has similarities with later cases of “gay panic”, in which men who killed gay men could receive lesser convictions if they claimed that they had been hit on. The defense was only finally abolished in Australia in 2020.

The past is never past

Life for many queer people has improved thanks to work of activists and advocates who put their bodies on the line. Even so, much remains to be done to stop the persecution of queer people, as we continue to see around trans folk. In the military, people living with HIV still cannot enlist. And the violence of the past continues its hold over us. Jonathan writes of how his parents reacted to his coming out, drawing on all they knew of what happened to gay men:

Coming out to my parents marked the first time that I truly felt the historical burdens of being gay. I had inherited a history of stereotypes that I believed had nothing to do with me … But no matter how hard I tried, they couldn’t see what I saw. There were just too many ways to die or be hurt as a gay man.

But even though being queer can have its challenges thanks to homophobia, there is also much to celebrate. Which is one more reason books like this are so important, throwing light into the dark corners of history but also celebrating what it means to be queer.

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