Local Freemans Bay resident Brent Coutts has just published his book telling the story of three homosexual New Zealand soldiers in WWII.
After 10 years of multiple first-hand interviews and painstaking archival research, Coutts discovered there was a surprising level of acceptance of homosexuality by the military, considering its illegal status. “We assume people had to keep their sexuality hidden and yes, discretion was necessary, but homosexual soldiers had a fairly open experience regarding being gay during the war,” says Coutts. Harold Robinson, a ballet dancer, found a role as the batman (personal servant) of Major John Marshall, who later became New Zealand’s prime minister. “He’s gone down in history as being one of our conservative PMs, yet, during the war, he had a batman who crossed-dressed.”
Coutts discovered from court-martial files that very few prosecutions were carried out on grounds of homosexuality. “Of thousands of court-martials, there were just eight prosecutions involving 10 gay men among the surviving records.”
‘Crossing the Lines’ reveals Harold’s friendship and later marriage to Auckland socialite and lesbian Freda Stark. “Harold met Freda in Auckland, just as he was about to leave for Egypt. Freda sent him food parcels. Later, Harold got a soldier’s bursary to attend the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in London where Freda joined him. “They got married and tried for a few months to have a normal relationship.”
This richly illustrated account, which includes rarely seen photos, is principally a story of mateship. It follows the men from their formative pre-war lives to their experiences living in post war London, where they embraced the many new possibilities available. It is a story of the search for love and belonging, and the foundation of the queer community today.
Award-winning, Freeman’s Bay-based historian Brent Coutts has written the first-ever history of homosexual NZ soldiers during WWII - published in August.
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Pictured above: Two servicemen kiss at Trentham Army Camp.
PA1-o-1794-42-3, Donald Peat Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington