Last updated:

June 8, 2023
Warwick Meale with his mother
Warwick Meale with his mother, from the book
'The Boy in the Dress' by Jonathan Butler
Author Jonathan Butler

 

Jonathan Butler's debut book The Boy in the Dress was nominated for The Age Book of the Year in 2022. It shares his archival research journey trying to uncover the truth about what happened to his ancestor Warwick Meale, a World War Two serviceman found murdered in Townsville 80 years ago. 

This episode is a recording of the Melbourne Writers Festival event at the Victorian Archives Centre from 2022 with Jonathan Butler in conversation with Dr Yves Rees. Dr Rees is an historian at La Trobe University and co-host of the Archive Fever podcast.

Episode 11: The Boy in the Dress. Jonathan Butler in conversation with Yves Rees.

Duration: 51 min

By Public Record Office Victoria

 

The Boy in the Dress podcast credits

Jonathan Butler in conversation with Dr Yves Rees

Melbourne Writers Festival 2022 

Produced and recorded by Public Record Office Victoria for the podcast series 'Look history in the eye'

Music by Jack Palmer

 

Transcript

 

(Warning to listeners/readers this podcast and transcript includes historical terminology, found in the records, that is offensive today.)

 

Jonathan Butler

There is a single moment from my many years of imagining Warwick that changed everything. It came the day I received 150 page murder case file from the Queensland State Archives. It was a winter afternoon and the sun was quickly disappearing out of my second floor window. Heaping the file onto my desk I untied the string and button fastener, I flipped through the pages searching for something that I hadn’t already read in the newspaper coverage. There were many telegrams between the Brisbane, Townsville, Sydney police, which gave rich details about the characters in Warwick’s story. Scrawled at the bottom of the page, it was dated six months after Warwick’s death, and it was a single tantalising sentence.   

Kate Follington

That’s Jonathan Butler, sharing the moment he was overwhelmed with emotion reading an important archive about his ancestor Warwick Meale. His debut book The Boy in the Dress, was nominated for The Age Book of the Year in 2022. Jonathan’s book shares his search for truth about what happened to his ancestor Warwick, who was found murdered in Townsville 80 years ago, just shy of his 21st birthday. The book offers a very rare insight into Australian queer military history during World War Two. 

My name’s Kate Follington and you’re listening to the Podcast Look History in the Eye produced by Public Record Office Victoria, the archive of the state government of Victoria. One hundred kilometres of public records about Victoria’s past are carefully preserved in climate-controlled vaults. We meet the people who dig into those boxes, look history in the eye, and bother to wonder, why. Today’s episode is a recording of our Melbourne Writers Festival event from 2022 with Jonathan Butler in conversation with Dr Yves Rees.


Dr Yves Rees

As the title suggests the Boy in the Dress starts with a photograph of a boy in a dress, and that boy’s name was Warwick Meale. That boy grew up to be a man who was murdered during World War Two. While serving in the ADF, Warwick was killed in Townsville on a balmy night in 1994, sorry 1944 not 94. (Laughter.) But his killer was never found despite a police investigation. 

So in this book, Jonathan goes on the trail of the cold case. He spent an impressive ten years conducting research to exhume the truth of this 80 year old homicide and it’s really quite a wild ride with many twists and turns. For someone like me who, as my podcast title suggests, I’m a big fan of archive fever, this book certainly delivers archive fever in spades and it’s a really really gripping read. But this book is also so much more than true crime. It’s history, both military history and queer history, it’s memoir, and I think it’s above all a really beautiful meditation on identity, family and sexuality that asks big questions about what it means to be queer in an Australia that was and remains deeply hostile to difference. So please join me in welcoming Jonathan. 


Jonathan Butler

Thank you.    

(Applause)


Dr Yves Rees

So Jonathan let’s start with the basics, for anyone who doesn’t know the story, can you tell us who was Warwick Meale and how did you get interested in his story?


Jonathan Butler

Basically I think to understand why I dedicated over ten years of my life to Warwick Meale, it’s important that we go back to the 90s and this is 5 year old Jonathan wearing his favourite witches outfit. I basically always knew I was gay. I certainly wouldn’t have called it that back then, but I certainly had a feeling that I was different and I absolutely loved dressing up, wearing dresses, playing with Barbies, all those sort of things. I had three older sisters so there was plenty of stuff lying around. The other side though is I always had a sense that that was wrong. That it wasn’t ok for boys to like dresses, it wasn’t ok to play with Barbies, and there certainly wasn’t anyone telling me that it was ok either. It wasn’t spoken about at home, it wasn’t spoken about at school, I certainly didn’t see it anywhere, I didn’t see myself represented.   

So when I discovered this photograph that was hanging on my parents bedroom wall, of a little boy wearing a dress, you can imagine why that was so significant to me. I had this sense that it was something to be ashamed of but I was like, oh well wait a minute if this little boy from the olden days wore a dress sometimes maybe there are other people like me out there. So I really instantly had this connection for as long as I can remember, with Warwick. This photograph is actually of my grandmother, so on the left is Winifred and they’re cousins so Winifred and Warwick were cousins and they spent lots of time together growing up in their homes in Western Sydney. So this is how I’m connected to Warwick, on the left there that’s a photo of my grandmother Winifred, a bit older obviously, and if you follow the matriline line up, which feels very natural to me, you see that connection with Warwick. And that’s a photo on the right there of Warwick with his parents.  

So who was Warwick, and what happened to him, after that photograph of him playing dress ups with my grandmother Winifred? So Warwick, as I said grew up in Western Sydney, working middle class family, went to school, after school got a job in retail, worked in a shop, and when he was 16 years old that’s when World War Two was declared, and then when he was 18 he signed up basically as soon as he could. He went to New Guinea and he served in the signals, which is in the army which is the division that deals with communication. And then he came back from New Guinea to Sydney where he spent some time with his family and then he had to go back to Townsville to be deployed back to wherever the army wanted to take him, and then on the evening of the 15th of August 1944, he went out drinking with his friends. They were very relaxed, it was a quieter time for World War Two, and he went for rest on the banks of Ross Creek in Townsville, and that’s where his friends had found him beaten and bloody and comatose and he never woke from that, and that was just two months away from his 21st birthday. So he was 20 years old and he died, so that’s who Warwick was.


Dr Yves Rees

And what motivated you to go on this ten year research quest to find the killer. What, how did it all begin?


Jonathan Butler


So I had the connection with Warwick through the photograph and my mother loved that photograph because it’s a great photo of her mother. It’s very rare to have photos from the 20s, it’s a very happy photograph. But the reason behind why he was killed was a total mystery, they couldn’t find a motive, they couldn’t find the killer, so there was a real absence. It had a profound impact on my grandmother which therefore impacted my mother so I think basically in that absence a theory emerged – and that theory was that Warwick was gay and that his mysterious murder was the result of a gay hate crime. Mum had come to that through a few different reasons. There was a family rumour that Warwick was gay and that she heard a few whispers about his sexuality. But I also think the nature of the killing, you know it was in a public place, mum grew up and lived in Manly in Sydney, and we’ve all heard of those awful gay hate killings that happened in the 70s and 80s. So there was a lot of aspects of the crime that felt quite similar to that for mum as well so she had a theory that it was a gay hate crime, and that was obviously very shocking for me. Warwick was this emblem of hope and then I discovered that he might have been gay and he might have been killed because of his sexuality. So basically we started because we wanted to find out the truth of what happened to him and if he was gay and if that was the reason why he was killed.


Dr Yves Rees

So once you decided that you wanted to go on this quest of the cold case to try and find Warwick’s killer, how did you go about doing that? Where did you begin to find information? What archives did you use? Take us on your research journey.


Jonathan Butler

So, my mum was a very early adopter of Ancestry.com, (audience laughter) so I’m sure a lot of people in the room are on that as well. And her family had a lot of secrets and mysteries and I think this database was this beacon of hope of finally finding out some answers and so she was right onto it and I shared a lot with my mother. I also have a very active research imagination, and it’s probably not the most common 17 year old thing to do but mum and I spent days on the computer looking at Ancestry.com just to try to find out all the people in Warwick’s life and then it was also round the time of Trove. So that was also really exciting for mum because we figured, and myself, we figured if a man was to be murdered during World War Two in the forties that presumably it was published in the papers. And sure enough it was. And straight away we got this very vivid picture of the forties on the home front and Warwick’s life and his final night alive. So, yeah from that moment I was absolutely hooked. 


Dr Yves Rees

And you used the police report as well? Is that right?


Jonathan Butler

Yeah so initially at the start it was just that and it wasn’t until a bit later that I really ramped up my research. I figured that the newspapers couldn’t or wouldn’t report on absolutely everything back in the day so I really wanted to get a primary source. So a real game changes was when I contacted the Queensland State Archives and was able to get the detectives murder files so that was 150 pages of all the correspondence between all the different police across Australia and then that was amazing just to find out it wasn’t, you know they ultimately didn’t find the killer but they did investigate a lot of people. There were a lot of eye witnesses, there were a lot of suspects, so that was absolutely fascinating to discover the details of the investigation.   


Dr Yves Rees

And the book tells this research journey and kind of recreates what happened to Warwick, but also contains memoir and tells your coming of age story as a young queer kid in Tasmania of the 90s and early 2000s. why was it important to you to include your story in the book as well?


Jonathan Butler

Yeah it’s interesting. It wasn’t probably, it’s not how I approached the story at all. I was just sort of hooked, I was obsessive about finding out whether he was gay and if that was the reason he was killed. I also was hooked into the true crime component of it as well. So I actually initially thought it was just going to be a story of Warwick and his story and the investigation. 

When I was drafting an early draft I did include a single chapter on a time that my three older sisters caught me wearing a dress, and just how ashamed I was and how awful that experience was, and I just included it because I wanted to demonstrate why Warwick meant a lot to me and I gave it to Jane Rawson who is a friend and another writer and she really loved that. And she’s like oh I really love this, and it just makes it so much more powerful, I’d really love more, so just give it a go. And so I actually put the whole story aside and basically wrote my life and my coming to terms with my sexuality and my family and at school, growing up in Tassie, what that was like. And then it was a sort of tricky editing process weaving that together but a lot of people do enjoy that aspect of it and say that it actually flows quite nicely so yeah, that was not easy but I think the book’s so much better for it. 


Dr Yves Rees

Yeah I certainly really love that aspect of it, and I mean was it, as someone who’s written a memoir myself, I know it can be complicated writing about yourself, writing about other people. Did you feel kind of vulnerable or exposed putting your own story out there or did it kind of come naturally to you?      


Jonathan Butler

Very basically, (laughter). As I said I kind of just turned off the part of my brain that was thinking of it as a book and it was sort of just a diary writing exercise basically. I sort of had to try and unlock all these memories that I had totally forgotten and just write it, and it was incredibly personal experiences. And then it was a process of, once I actually got the book deal I went, oh are people actually going to read this now? (Laughter). So there was a process of culling, oh maybe we should soften that, maybe we should change that name, maybe we should… And we pulled it back. There was a few edits. But even to this day when I flip to a page, I’m like oh okay I included that, wow (laughter) whoops!          


Dr Yves Rees

That was meant to go in the editing cull!


Jonathan Butler

I think coz what it was, was incredibly confessional, and then I pulled it back a bit, but still at that point it’s quite confessional. But I’m glad I included it because I think it’s good to. Not many people know what it’s like growing up queer, growing up queer in regional Australia so I think it’s a nice exercise to build people’s empathy with that sort of experience even in a post decriminalisation era.


Dr Yves Rees

Completely, you know we’re roughly the same age and I was really struck reading your book how few accounts I’ve read of queer millennials growing up in regional Australia or elsewhere and the kind of particular struggles associated with that even though queerness was no longer criminalised, it wasn’t like homophobia had magically disappeared.   


Jonathan Butler

Totally. And I actually was very self-conscious of that. I was very, I was speaking to my father and my mother and their generation and the stories that you hear, so easily told, it’s so horrific. Suicide and murder and its almost not shocking. So I guess when I was approaching, and considering including my memoir, I was like well I haven’t had any of those sort of experiences, am I…


Dr Yves Rees

I wasn’t beaten up in a bathroom I can’t be interesting…


Jonathan Butler

Exactly, that’s exactly the thought I had. Will people read it and be like, why is he complaining, he had everything… But I think what I wanted to capture was those really early memories and really early experiences and how your entire world can be your family growing up. And even the slightest reaction or word used can have such a profound impact on you growing up and I think that’s also an important story to share.        
   

Dr Yves Rees

So even though you, your family always knew you had this interest in Warwick and that you connected to the photo, how did they react when you came out?   


Jonathan Butler

Yeah so, it’s funny because I always thought that it was very obvious that I was gay. And cos when I was growing up my idea of my sexuality was the fact that I liked Eurovision and the fact that I liked Barbies and the fact that I liked drama…


Dr Yves Rees

Who doesn’t like Barbies? I mean they’re great. 

(Laughter)


Jonathan Butler

So I was like, well it’s gonna be very obvious, but yeah, unfortunately when I did actually sit my parents down and come out, it didn’t go down as well as I would have hoped. I can now in hindsight see that they were worried because of what I mentioned earlier around those horrific stories of violence and suicide and health challenges. Like that was the narrative that people saw in the newspapers, on TV. So when I came out to my parents they were like oh no my son’s in danger essentially. But as a 17 year old myself, that’s not what I heard. I heard that my parents don’t accept me for who I am. Yeah it’s worth noting that we are much better now. Obviously there was a process to go through, but initially it was a very very tense experience.    


Dr Yves Rees

And returning to Warwick, I mean as we’ve discussed, the basis for your interest in him was that you thought he might have been gay as well, and he was sort of this gay elder in your family. But as I know as a historian and as you know as well, it’s really hard to research queer lives in the past because being gay was criminalised, you know people didn’t write about this really in their letters, diaries, it’s really hard to find evidence beyond rumour and hearsay, which you had access to. But there was one key moment in your research journey where you found a piece of kind of concrete evidence about Warwick’s sexuality. Could you read the section of the book that describes that moment?  


Jonathan Butler

I can and I’m going to have to juggle with microphone and book so bear with me. Ok so this is Chapter 25, the P word. 

There is a single moment from my many years of imagining Warwick that changed everything. It came the day I received 150 page murder case file from the Queensland State Archives. It was a winter afternoon and the sun was quickly disappearing out of my second floor window. Heaping the file onto my desk I untied the string and button fastener, most of the tea-coloured pages had been typed, but there were handwritten notes too. The writing was almost illegible, scratched in cursive letters with thick black ink. I flipped through the pages searching for something that I hadn’t already read in the newspaper coverage. There were many telegrams between the Brisbane, Townsville, Sydney police, which gave rich details about the characters in Warwick’s story. I set them aside.  Scrawl at the bottom of the page caught my attention. It was dated six months after Warwick’s death, and it was a single tantalising sentence. It read “a suggestion has been made that Meale might have been a pervert.” Pervert was a common term used by law enforcement at the time to refer to a homosexual. In other words the police were saying that Warwick might have been gay. It was an electrifying moment. I like to think I’m not a melodramatic person but reading that scrawled sentence I cried. Self doubt had been haunting me throughout the entire investigation. I wanted to believe that Warwick was gay and that we had some deeper connection because of it. But evidence was hard to pin down. Now I had finally found a primary source. My instincts and my mother’s may have been correct after all.  


Dr Yves Rees

Big moment. And it sounds like a really complex moment because you’d found this kind of evidence that you’d been looking for but it came in the form of this word pervert. Which of course is a slur. I think this is really illustrative of a problem that a lot of, we face doing queer history, that we’re constantly confronted with the homophobia and the bigotry of the past. So I’m interested how did you navigate that in your research journey as someone who’s queer yourself doing a deep dive into hatred against queerness in historical Australia. 


Jonathan Butler

I think by that point I think because I was so obsessively researching and I was so obsessively looking for evidence ironically it was a positive moment I think. (Laughter). You know obviously it’s an awful word, my first reaction was quickly research what did that even mean. So I think in the acute moment it was positive because I was, yeah it was finally some evidence, but I often do wonder – I actually was interviewed by someone doing their PhD in this topic of what’s the impact for queer researchers because it’s just an onslaught of hate and awful language. And the fact that, researching the book I did look into a lot of other gay hate crimes, looked at incredibly homophobic laws, and treatment in the military and in the state and I do feel like now I’m kind of looking for more positive and happy stories and happy experiences, because it was a very long time of staring at a really ugly time of Australia’s history in the face.


Dr Yves Rees

You don’t want to spend another ten years researching homophobia and hate crimes?       


Jonathan Butler

No! And people tell me to…

(Laughter). 


Dr Yves Rees

On this question of queer history and how it’s researched, another question that often gets talked about a lot is this question of language and how to refer to people. You know today we obviously have words like queer and trans and gay and lesbian, but they weren’t really in circulation in the same way as in the forties, the decade that you were researching. So how did you sort of work out how to talk about people and what words to use?


Jonathan Butler

Yeah that was tricky. I tried to use the words that they used in the archives, so hence the emphasis on the word pervert. Obviously it’s an awful word but it was the word that the detectives used. And there’s another story that I came about where the forces were investigating evidence of some Australian soldiers who were having sex with American soldiers, both male. And they called themselves the New Guinea girls so I used that term to refer to them as well. And I guess the umbrella term of queer can be helpful as well, because queer just means not straight basically or...


Dr Yves Rees

Just a bit queer.


Jonathan Butler

Just a bit queer. So I tried to sort of use those broader terms but yeah, it definitely was challenging because I know that that’s a real risk of conducting queer history. Historical research is transposing our ideas today into the past but when you just sort of drill it down to same sex desire and behaviour, it’s pretty clear that there are some commonalities between the two.    


Dr Yves Rees

Yeah on this kind of question of the history of same sex desire, one thing that I find really fascinating about Warwick’s story is I spose how gender and sexuality kind of intersect. You know, it’s called The Boy in the Dress, you as a child seeing that photo kind of took it as a hint of Warwick’s perhaps same sex desires. But I suppose for me as a trans person having read a lot of trans literature, a boy in a dress is a real kind of trope of a kind of trans feminine coming of age story. So I spose I’m interested did you ever think about if there might have been things going on with Warwick’s gender or kind of think about that side of things?   


Jonathan Butler

I also want to say that I absolutely love this question because something I’ve noticed as well, I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of media for the book, and typically when I’m speaking to a journalist and if that journalist happens to be a straight male…


Dr Yves Rees

Which many journalists are…

(laughter).


Jonathan Butler

Shock. There’s a lot of like, there’s the opposite reaction, it’s often like, oh we all dressed up, don’t think I’m gay! Sort of reaction (laughter.) So I kind of love the idea of you know actually you didn’t go far enough with it.  


Dr Yves Rees

Maybe Warwick was even queerer.

(laughter).


Jonathan Butler

Yeah exactly I like that. I think there’s probably two answers. One answer is probably, blindness, my own, my own self. So I think a lot of this book is a document of my research that I went through and a lion’s share, as I said it was sort of from when I was 18. A lot of the research was done when I was 25. So there certainly was an aspect of me not even considering the trans aspect and me just seeing the boy wearing the dress as a queer thing. And that’s something that I identify with, and drag and that sort of thing.

I think the second part of the answer though is that, something I found really interesting about queer history is that, and it kind of goes back to your question around what terms to use, so another word that was used a lot was invert and at the time, gender and sexuality weren’t as distinct as we think of them today. That there was another phrase that often uses, oh I thought he was effeminate, and as that meaning he was gay and had sexual relations with men. So it’s quite porous relationship between gender and sexuality back then. And I guess growing up myself, my, as I was saying, my sense of my sexuality was linked to me wanting to wear dresses and loving female things and really identifying with my three older sisters, and girls in my family. So I think I actually quite relate to that 1940s view I suppose of sexuality (laughter) that gender and sexuality are kind of porous. But yeah, obviously not too, and that’s different for every single queer person and that makes it incredibly a complicated field to talk about and to write about but for me that certainly was the case.  


Dr Yves Rees

Yeah. And you mentioned a moment ago that the contextualising things you researched were other kind of gay hate crimes, and I believe one them you researched right here at PROV or the Victorian Archives Centre. Can you tell us a bit about that case?    


Jonathan Butler

Yeah, yeah, certainly. I do want to be aided by visuals for this one so I’m going to make everyone dizzy, no, here we go. So broadly speaking the detectives explored three ideas of who killed Warwick. One was that it was an American sailor, and I think we’ve all heard about the tensions between the US and Australian forces, mostly over women. When lots of guys got together and drunk, you know they thought ok maybe it was just a drunken brawl that went to far and so that was one of the theories. The other theory that it was just someone who’d returned from war and had been so psychologically damaged that they just randomly killed Warwick with no reason whatsoever other than a destroyed mind as they said.   

The third theory that they investigated was that note that I found in the archives that I just read earlier around Warwick’s sexuality. And the reason behind that question is the reason why my research went from the Queensland State Archives to this building, to PROV, was because of a man called Norman Brook, and Jack Edward Lloyd. So six months after Warwick was murdered, there was a very very similar case that actually happened down here on Mornington Peninsula and it was at Balcombe Camp which is that photograph on the top there, the gates are still there. And basically the detective on the case up in Townsville saw a newspaper article of this case and was like wow there’s a lot of similarities: the night of the dance, lots of drinking, there was a weapon of opportunity that was grabbed from nearby, and they were all part of the same signals unit as well. So, and it was outside, there was just too many similarities for them to ignore. So the detectives actually investigated whether Norman, who was the perpetrator of this crime, was in Townsville at the same time and could potentially have been the one who killed Warwick.

This case was absolutely fascinating, so broadly speaking, Jack was, had the nickname of Dulcie and he was a bit of a character. He was incredibly effeminate, he was described as not being able to do a single thing in the way that a man would do it (laughter). He had no sporting ability, the way he spoke provided much entertainment, and they all really loved him for it. They thought it was great, they used to yell out I’d go you Jackie, and I’d go you Dulcie, and there seemed to be a lot of, like they really loved this character. But unfortunately, on this night of the dance Jack propositioned Norman. So there’s a map there on the top left, it’s probably a bit faint, but basically there’s where the dance was, where the huts are, and across the Nepean Highway is Murphy’s Paddock. 

So Norman was on picket duty, he had a formal job to do, so Jack said let’s go for a walk around the paddock to sober up. And then Norman claimed that Jack made an unwanted sexual advance and then that’s why he so brutally attacked Jack and ultimately killed him. So this was an incredibly fascinating case. I got all the court files from the archives and looked through them. And it was a really interesting case coz they had to really grapple with this idea of sexuality. 

So they investigated all of Jack’s, they got witness testimony from all of Jack’s fellow soldiers and it was really interesting to hear them say like oh yeah he was effeminate, they basically were saying everything I was saying but they always stopped short of oh but he actually wasn’t a pervert or he didn’t actually have sex with men or, never omitted that or said that was the case. Really interesting from a point of sexuality and gender and challenging that assumption that potentially queer people in the military were only closeted and were deeply terrified of the repercussions. Maybe there were some flamboyant camp people that were happy to be themselves. 

The other fascinating aspect of this case was that Norman got away with it. So how did that happen? Basically he claimed that Jack had made an unwanted sexual advance and therefore it was provoked and that the entire male jury, it’s worth mentioning, acquitted him of everything and Norman just walked free and lived a long life until he was in his 80s.   

When I read that, as you can imagine, I was shocked. I was like he literally admitted to killing this man! Why has this happened? And that led me to discover the gay panic defence. And the gay panic defence for those who don’t know is the idea that’s based on really sketchy psychology that there is some sort of psychological reaction in a straight man if they get hit on by a gay man. And therefore their murder can be downgraded and there’s been numerous cases across the world, of this being used. And believe it or not it was actually a viable legal strategy up until 2020 in South Australia. So it's not ancient history. 2018 in Queensland. So it’s basically provocation, legal strategy and it was used in a lot of cases, mainly murder down to manslaughter. So yeah through discovering Jack’s story I learnt this really awful part of queer history as well.


Dr Yves Rees

Yeah and that just speaks volumes about the way homophobia was embedded in the institutions of this country, in the legal system, and you know elsewhere. I wanted to ask more generally about the kind of queer history of the military which is a big part of your research. You know I think in the popular imagination we don’t ordinarily think of the military as being a particularly queer space because it kind of is so associated with toxic masculinity, really blokey, straight, aggressively straight culture. But as you found that is not the case. Can you tell us a bit about that long queer history in the ADF?        


Jonathan Butler

Yeah sure. So basically with my research I got the Trove and I got all the archival evidence as well and then there were a few gaps and I basically wanted to work out, ok if Warwick was gay, what was that like and did people exist – you know I certainly, you know I went through the same year 10 curriculum as a lot of people and learnt about World War 2 and I certainly didn’t learn about queer people. But it didn’t take long for me to find all that amazing research that has been done in the last few decades into queer history in the military and surprise, surprise, there were queer people. (laughter).    


Dr Yves Rees

Shock, horror. 


Jonathan Butler

Yeah and I will, I will go back to this slide. So these were really important texts that I used in researching this book: Yorick Smaal’s Sec, Soldiers and the South Pacific, Serving in Silence by Graham Willett, Noah Riseman and Shirleene Robinson as well. These books were absolutely amazing. They really step out all the sort of available evidence that we have, people reflecting on their experiences during World War Two, also you know any cases that happened as well, and so it was pretty shocking to learn that this is such a hug part of our national story that just isn’t told as much as it should be.


Dr Yves Rees

Why isn’t it celebrated on Anzac Day?     


Jonathan Butler

I know I know. But I should mention that I’m sure many people saw that there’s a wonderful exhibition at the moment at the Shrine of Remembrance about queer history in the military, so things are certainly changing but for a long time it was outright denial to the point of erased from the history books and not talked about or acknowledged.     


Dr Yves Rees

And even you know as we saw I think last year with Peter Dutton forbidding celebrations of was it IDAHOBIT Day?   


Jonathan Butler

Yeah it was yeah.


Dr Yves Rees

In the military. It shows that there still is some way to go in acknowledging that part of our military culture. 


Jonathan Butler

Absolutely yeah and I think that was why I really wanted to write this book as well. I think it is an awful reaction to IDAHOBIT Day to say you’re not allowed to wear rainbow clothing. But I guess on the surface, and if you don’t think of it historically, you can be like so what it’s just what you’re wearing. But then I guess if you understand the history of the mis treatment of queer people in the military then it makes it even more awful.  


Dr Yves Rees

Yeah. I want to kind of delve into that question I spose of the power of telling histories of marginalised and oppressed groups. You know, I’m obviously a historian by training so this is something I think about a lot, you know the way in which various groups, whether it’s women, Indigenous people, black communities and queer communities, have kind of undertaken history telling projects as a kind of a broader liberation project. And I think that can take so many forms. It’s sort of about proving we exist but also about finding a sense of lineage and community. I’m interested in your thoughts on this question Jonathan. Like, was this your instance of queer history, do you see that as a kind of political thing, a form of activism or protest? 


Jonathan Butler

Yeah I think so. I think even when I embarked…so I think, I had the assumption that World War Two history was dull (laughter.) That it was all strategies and weapons and that sort of side of things, so even embarking on this project I was a bit hesitant that would anyone be interested in a story like this because that reputation of World War Two history, but I think that perception is just a result of what I’ve been taught, and it wasn’t that full story. So I certainly saw the potential in telling a story about queer people and World War Two from the perspective of a twenty something gay guy might actually sort of broaden that story and make people realise, you know, that our national story is a bit more complex than what we’re told. 

I think on the surface I suppose you could think of it as activist. I think, one of the reactions that I get from people reading this book is I knew it was bad, I had no idea it was that bad. So I think just making people aware of how bad it was and you know, how far we’ve come but also how far we have to go.


Dr Yves Rees

Why the queers are so angry.

(laughter).


Jonathan Butler

Exactly. So yeah I think it’s really good context and to understand what we still need to continue to fight for as well, but yeah, I do see it as activist. I think, I was listening to NGV recently had a queer exhibition and there was a podcast and they were speaking to one of the artists and they described – she did these very hypermasculine art pieces and she described it as like a trojan horse of her kind of sneaking in to this hypermasculine world and then vandalising it. And when I heard that I was like have I done the same thing?  

(laughter).

Because, I’ve taken this very traditionally masculine topic, you know even true crime can be, or crime can be quite masculine, and told a story about a gay boy growing up in regional Tasmania and you know, all these queer people in the military, and there’s a lot of sex in there as well. So, I kind of like the idea that I’m sort of like a bit of a trojan horse.           


Dr Yves Rees

That leads nicely to what I wanted to ask as well, I suppose about this question of audience and how the book is sort of positioned. You know, true crime, military history, as you’ve said are pretty masculine, blokey, straight, kind of fields that also sell very well so it’s advantageous to kind of position a book in that way. But as you’ve said this is a really queer book. So I spose, how did you, did you think about audience when you were writing it. Did you think you were writing for a queer audience, a military history audience, and how did you kind of navigate that dynamic?


Jonathan Butler

I didn’t write for an audience at all, and I know that a lot of, I know a lot of writers say that, but I – yeah, so my mother became quite ill. She was diagnosed with Multiple system atrophy, a very awful degenerative disorder. But one thing that she said to me, coz I kind of took over the reigns of the research, was you must tell Warwick’s story. And to be honest my reaction was like sure but no one’s gonna wanna read it. Like, why. It’s World War Two, it’s queer history, it’s true crime, it’s memoir, like surely there’s no audience out there for that. So like the entire experience I had no, I had very low hopes of it ever being published let alone read. 

But I think it was an interesting process to go through once it was taken up and I was very conscious of, you know, that tension I suppose of you know, if Warwick in a dress was on the cover instead of what it is at the moment with Warwick in his uniform.  


Dr Yves Rees

Military uniform, looking quite manly.


Jonathan Butler

(Laughter). If it sort of, was a bit more… Some of the reactions I have got is anger. A lot of people have been angry that they, the trojan horse thing I suppose, that they were lured into a true crime World War Two story and they’re like…


Dr Yves Rees

And there were homosexuals in it! An outrage. 

(laughter).


Jonathan Butler

Yeah. Absolutely. I didn’t want to learn about this coming out story ra ra ra. Yeah so there has been a bit of anger around that for people who got lured in. I suppose it’s called The Boy in the Dress (laughter). It’s in the title. But yeah I suppose the way, if you just sort of picked it up and looked at the blurb you might not realise just how many queer things are actually inside the cover.           


Dr Yves Rees

And as you’ve said your mum really encouraged you to finish the book and the book’s dedicated to her, but sadly she’s not here to see it. How do you think she’d feel about the book in the flesh though if she was here?


Jonathan Butler

She would be absolutely ecstatic. (Laughter) absolutely ecstatic. 

So one of the biggest challenges for us doing this research was that her mother Winifred was very secretive and Warwick was totally out of bounds. You weren’t allowed to talk about it. Very brief conversations and stopped straight away. Mum was exactly the opposite. She was all about sharing and telling and just nothing in her view, and I’ve inherited it as well, nothing good can come of secrets and hiding. It’s only, in fact she was hurt quite a lot through family secrets. That sort of thing. So I think she’d be so happy that this is out in the world, she’d be really proud that it was written by me, that it’s found an audience, but yeah it was really important to me that I made that part of the story coz obviously I inherited my love of research through mum. I inherited my ability to sit at a computer for like weeks and weeks and weeks from mum. And yeah she didn’t see it become a book but I was able to read her early chapters at the nursing home which she absolutely loved, and she hated when I stopped. And she did see the equal marriage plebiscite result and she was so happy. So, when I came out when I was young, she was quite worried but through researching and talking about Warwick’s story together it actually became quite a positive experience and created a space for us to talk about sexuality and then for her to then see equal marriage and be absolutely ecstatic it was really, really lovely story and one that I really share with mum.

Unfortunately, she passed away just two weeks after the equal marriage result, so just to give you a sense of the timeline, she didn’t see the book but I’m glad that she saw equal marriage happen. That was a huge milestone for both of us.   


Dr Yves Rees

Yeah that’s wonderful. We’re going to go to audience questions in a few minutes so get ready, but before we do that I just want to touch finally on the craft of your writing and the way you’ve written this history and this memoir because that is so beautiful and deserves to be acknowledged on its own. You know as a historian who works in academia, I read a lot of history that is quite dry. (Laughter.) I won’t be afraid to say. But I’m a huge believer in doing historical research that is rigorous, and very intelligent and engages with the other literature, but is also just really readable and beautifully written. And that’s one of the things I really appreciate about your book. So, one thing I really like is the way that it’s kind of written like a novel in a sense. You include sensory details and bits of dialogue that you’d normally see in a kind of historical novel. Can you tell us about the craft of shaping those details?


Jonathan Butler

So a really big part of this project is I really wanted to make it visual, so I actually I studied photography at university…


Dr Yves Rees

So you’re a visual person.


Jonathan Butler

I’m quite visual. And I really wanted to be evocative, and I really wanted to be…to centre a real world experience. Like I read a lot of the academic texts and I really wanted to know about the person and what it felt like and what it smelt like and felt like to be there so a lot of my research was guided by that question. 

So yeah I think all the archives listed above really helped me get those details but I think, one thing I will point out is the Australians at war film archive. I don’t know if anyone’s heard of that before. But there’s hours and hours of interviews with people who served in our wars, so once person would have an eight hour interview, and they would talk about what they had for breakfast, they would talk about what the streets looked like, they would talk about what the dance was like, and if it was fun, or you know what the dynamics were. So that was just as you can imagine, amazing to get this really evocative detail into the book.

I was quite lucky with all the court cases that they do actually quote a lot of the dialogue so a lot of the dialogue is actually from archival sources so I didn’t make that up I was actually drawn from that. So yeah I think obviously Trove was really helpful in getting the details of the stories…


Dr Yves Rees

You can find what the weather was that day and things like that.


Jonathan Butler

Exactly, yep. I tried to do that as well and I wanted to do things like find menus, so American diners were becoming more popular on the home front so wanted to know what they would have been eating and drinking. You know there was air raid shelters were really important so what did they look like. 

Photographs were obviously really great. Lots of photos and videos from the Australian War Memorial website. I was very conscious that a lot of this stuff is in black and white, I really wanted to think in colour, so paintings were amazing for that so you can see there’s a painting of Townsville beach so you can see all the characters all the Americans, the Australians, and there’s barbed wire along the water. So that was a really interesting detail. Warwick was a linesman what did that look like? So there’s an artist impression of that. I found out that there was a squadron that baked bread every morning so what would have that smelt like? What did the drag, cross dressers look like that performed for them? They got time off and went to the beach, so if I was a queer person would have they noticed and looked at? So yeah I definitely wanted to fill in that rich detail but 100% grounded in archival research.  


Dr Yves Rees

Yeah which is really a remarkable achievement. And there is though also some kind of speculation and imagination in the book as well. Can you tell us about your decision to include a bit of that? 


Jonathan Butler
   
Yeah I think I wanted it to be, I actually was, I wanted it to be a document of my investigation. So I always wanted to make that up front. That it’s what the questions that I was asking of the archives and the things that I wanted to find. So I made sure that that was front and centre. I think the other aspect comes back to what we were talking about queer history and the complexity of queer history. I learnt a lot about the limitations of recorded life. If I just took the primary historical research of Warwick and Jack, I would just tell the story of murder, I would just tell the story of the army because there’s a great document of the army, but what about that lived life? That wasn’t recorded. It was illegal to be gay in the military and in life so you know, writing a letter or telling any one or writing in a diary could get you in a lot of trouble so I was just very conscious that there was a lot of unrecorded life. So I did try to find recorded life so that was why finding archival documents of people that were brave enough to do this, and I actually brought that into the book as well. 

So yeah I think there is definitely re-imaging going on but I’m very confident that it’s all sort of based on historical research.                 
 

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