Recently I went to one of my favourite places in London, the Imperial War Museum! Within seconds of walking in I was raiding the bookshop. One book by Stephen Bourne caught my eye. ‘Fighting Proud’ looks at the gay men who served in the armed forces or contributed to the war effort on the home front in World War I and World War II.
The image shows the book cover, which features a photo of two men in uniform embracing.
After just 10 pages I had to put the book down for a while because it invoked such a strong reaction in me. In the preface Bourne writes “In the 1970s I was completely unaware that, as a gay teenager, I had a history.” He then goes on to write that finding a book in the library changed that, and taught him that gay men had existed in the past.
I can relate to that feeling so strongly. Growing up and going to school under Section 28 meant that I only learned about LGBTQ+ issues and LGBTQ+ history by myself, looking up and reading about whatever I could after I had left secondary school. It’s hard to look up what you don’t know about though. And you can’t educate yourself on what you never think to search.
In the first few pages of Fighting Proud I learned that Wilfred Owen, the well known First World War soldier, was gay. WHAT?! How did I not know this sooner?! Siegfried Sassoon was too!
I feel shocked, angry, and cheated by the education system. Like nearly everyone in the UK, I studied their war poetry in my English lessons. This important part of who they were was never mentioned. (Although I’m not sure if this was directly because of Section 28, or whether the syllabus in general was ‘straight-washed’ and this part of their identity was conveniently not mentioned by teachers or the textbooks.)
I also learned that a play I studied in English called ‘Journey’s End‘ contains a lot of homoerotic subtext. Its original director James Whale was gay and the author R C Sherriff is thought to have been gay too.
In another chapter of Fighting Proud Bourne writes about Lord Kitchener. Again, another prominent figure in British history. Even if you don’t recognise the name or know he was a military leader in the First World War, you’ve probably seen his face on the famous recruitment poster. (The one where he points towards the viewer with the caption “Your country needs you.” written underneath.)
As is often the case in history there is no concrete evidence of Lord Kitchener’s sexuality. However he did live with a younger man, Captain Oswald ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, for 9 years. Again after reading this I felt shocked, angry, and cheated about what little I had been taught in history class.
Perhaps it’s worth pondering at this point whether someone’s sexuality matters. After all, it’s not relevant to their war poetry, playwriting skills, or ability to lead to lead the troops to victory, is it? We still learn about them and their achievements all the same, don’t we?
But it matters to LGBTQ+ people. Without this knowledge we grow up not knowing the lives and stories of those who came before us. I hope it’s different for younger LGBTQ+ people out there today, but for the pre-internet and pre-social media generation this straight-washing of education meant growing up thinking you were the only one. That you were abnormal. New. A seed rather than something with roots to ground you and show you your place within the world. You grew up without role models. Without knowing that people like you have achieved amazing things and have been remembered in history for them. (Or in Kitchener’s case, a controversial figure rightly criticised for a lot of horrific stuff too.)
And everyone else grows up thinking LGBTQ+ people never existed in the past either. That being queer or trans is wrong and abnormal when actually, we’re really common! There’s thousands and millions of us! And lo and behold, the harmful myths and prejudices against LGBTQ+ people continue. So does the higher rates of violence, hate crime, and discrimination. Plus higher rates of mental health problems compared to the general population.
All this time there was so much I never knew. I never fully appreciated how robbed I was by the straight-washing of history until now, and this is just one small section of history from one book.
Without consciously realising it I had thought that everything I studied in school was ‘straight’ and I just had to accept it. But I don’t think that way any more, because now I know that I was denied my truth and I was lied to.
I’ve mentioned the well known folk from history in this blog post, however Fighting Proud is full of other previously untold stories. Thank you Stephen Bourne for bringing them into the spotlight where they belong.