Sarah Worthman, a historian and freelance researcher for the LGBT Purge Fund, released a stunning report last week about queer persecution in the First World War. Worthman writes: “There have been countless times throughout this research process where I have been told that ‘There may have been queer people in the First World War but the records of them simply do not exist.’”
Refusing to accept the historical record as silent, Worthman mined archives in Canada and the UK to find detailed records of queer sex, love, and expression within the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). The report is free to download from the LGBT Purge Fund website.
She says on social media: “This project is the culmination of almost two years worth of research, writing, and activism. I left a little piece of my heart in this piece and I hope that translates to the reader.”
Worthman does an admirable job illuminating an unknown past and makes the report compelling to read. The research is both thorough and inspired. In the report, she identifies 19 men who were court-marshalled for being queer—12 were imprisoned, and 7 were sent to work in a labour camp. Interestingly some were sent back to the front when their bodies were needed more than their punishment.
The report is affected by presentism: interpreting the past through a contemporary lens. Although these persecutions were clearly unjust, a new line of inquiry is why the situation wasn’t worse. There were likely thousands of queer men involved in the war effort who escaped approbation. The popularity of female impersonation amongst the troops (as well as in Canadian society at that time) makes me wonder if queer identity was allowed to flourish in specific contexts. Worthman’s report does reference the military life of Ross Hamilton, a female impersonating soldier, but largely overlooks his cultural impact and celebrity in Canada.
Many historians have written about how enabling homosocial spaces are for queer sex. In this vein, another illuminating read is My Queer War. Although not Canadian, James Lord’s autobiography of his queer life in WWII is stunning in its openness and vibrancy—upending notions of queer isolation and persecution in the mid-20th Century. I would wager some WWI soldiers might have had similar experiences of unfettered queer joy and same-sex love. Historians clearly have more to uncover!
I am very grateful that Sarah Worthman took on this challenge. We all need to know these previously untold stories of WWI queer persecution—essential to a new understanding of Canadian History.