Reading against the grain: Queer lives and loves in court

Research Brief 18


Court records document more than policing patterns and criminalised behaviours of the past. While they are crucial to writing criminal justice histories, they can be used in other ways, read against the grain to provide a window into particular cultural practices and social behaviours. These narratives are not without their methodological challenges but historians of sexualities have long recognised the alternative potential of the evidence, bringing to life the pursuits, interests and relationships of individuals who found themselves before the courts.

Witness statements, police files and criminal exhibits have all proved useful in writing histories of homosexualities. They can provide rich documentary evidence of queer lives and lifestyles – at least as far as they intersect with state control – and supplement oral histories, newspapers and other contemporary accounts of male-only desire.

Criminal depositions were a crucial part of my history of queer identities in Australia in the Second World War. A limited number of personal accounts and a death of courts-martial records meant criminal prosecutions were one of the best sources on the lives and loves of Allied soldiers in the South Pacific.  Servicemen were certainly prominent among the defendants charged with same-sex activities and at least one quarter of the relevant Queensland court cases between 1939 and 1948 involve some combination of air men, sailors, soldiers and civilians.

Queensland is an important case study. It was a major Allied supply base with massive throngs of local and foreign servicemen and it provides an unusually rich tapestry weaving together the complexities of homoerotic inclination and self-expression in Australia and the South Pacific. The state was visited by up to two million American service personnel between 1941 and 1945 and it hosted the largest contingent of Australian army troops: some 140,000 men at December 1943.

Large numbers of men in company brought varying degrees of social promiscuity. Young soldiers, often away from home for the first time and in their sexual prime, enjoyed intimacy and affection with other males in and out of uniform. Some men continued behaviours they had practiced in the civil world while others discovered themselves among the uniformed throngs on distant shores.

The statements of police as well as defendants tell us a good deal about how they did this. We have detailed descriptions about where men made contact with each other and how they signalled their interest and availability. Public toilets and parks were good places to pick up. Brisbane’s William Street bus shelter was frequented regularly, while crowded hotels and pubs in the city and other towns were a good bet, especially with the consummation of alcohol. War memorials were another possibility. Effeminate individuals were known to loiter by Brisbane’s Shrine of Remembrance, for instance, cruising for soldiers passing by.


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Evidence of queer lives and practices can also be found in the lower courts. Consider Sydney S. who was caught in Brisbane’s Wickham Park in 1943 dressed in a two piece frock, high-heeled shoes, a cape and auburn wig. S/he was reported to the authorities by two US sailors, brought before the police magistrate and convicted of no lawful means of support, a charge commonly used for prostitution.

Sydney’s exploits point to the various forms of homosexual expression in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Some queer men created meaning for themselves by adopting feminine traits and performing certain cultural rituals, usually as part of a closely-knit subculture. Other men adopted the active role in intercourse without eroding their masculine status while still others defined themselves free from gender codes altogether.

In tandem with other evidence criminal depositions allow us to gaze upon rich contemporary networks of friends and lovers. Men and male youths wrote to each other, they found employment for their friends, they went on holidays together and they took in the cultural delights of the city in company.

While the prosecution of individuals is premised on the physical mechanics of particular sexual acts defined in criminal law, queer lives were so much more than that even if sex was a fundamental part of the contemporary experience. Men made lives for themselves despite being cast as outlaw, mentally unwell and immoral, and the legal records help historians reveal the light and shade of these emotional, affective and cultural worlds.


Author: Dr Yorick Smaal, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

To cite this research brief: Yorick Smaal, ‘Reading against the grain: Queer lives and loves in court’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 18, (19 November 2015, viewed 19 July 2016).

For further reading see Yorick Smaal, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific 1939-45: Queer identities in the Second World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). The introduction can be downloaded here: