News, Wit & Commentary for Lesbians
JIC Post: By Alan Travis, UK GuardianA secret "observation list" of women engaged in "suspected unnatural female friendships" was maintained for more than 40 years by the Women's Royal Air Force, according to Whitehall files released at the National Archives.The list was devised in the 1950s for those women who were suspected of lesbianism but where there was no evidence to back it up. They were placed under constant surveillance and subjected to a quarterly "check-up" by the WRAF police.The documents show that women were also targeted through flying visits from the special investigations unit. Officers would search their kit, read their letters and question them about their relationships. A shortage of WRAF women investigators meant that the inquiries were often undertaken by male RAF police with a "chaperone" present.An entry on the observation list meant that applications for new jobs or postings overseas were subject to a special screening process, known as the "lesbians index". It is believed this was still in force in the late 1990s.The creation of a system to track down and expel lesbians from the WRAF happened at a time when the RAF itself was panicking over the scale of male homosexual activity within its ranks. Whitehall air force commanders were alarmed in the 1950s at the discovery of gay "rings" at RAF bases at Cranwell and Worksop.RAF military police complained that gay airmen were using innocuous classified ads for "riding breeches" in Exchange and Mart to contact each other, and worried about a 500% rise in reported cases of homosexuality in the ranks between 1939 and the mid-1950s. The biggest "outbreak" - at RAF Cranwell - involved 11 airmen, a soldier and 12 civilians, most of whom were nurses and medical orderlies.The authorities comforted themselves with the observation that male nurses tended to be "gentle and kindly persons" and concluded that the more effeminate they were the better they were at their jobs: "This statement may also be applied to the personal servant type of man, ie valet or butler," the air force chiefs noted in 1954.The ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces was lifted only five years ago and the air ministry files show that homosexuals and lesbians were ruthlessly targeted by the RAF's special investigation police.In the early 1950s, when air chiefs considered mounting a campaign to convert the "amused tolerance" of most airmen to gay colleagues into contempt and hostility, the official policy was to "clear out the homosexuals"."Homosexuality is like an iceberg; the greater part remains unseen and undetected. The homosexual cannot exist in isolation; he must have an accomplice, and usually several - in this lies his greatest threat to the service; given suitable conditions the evil multiplies alarmingly. In fact the ease with which the service pervert corrupts the uninitiated has been a noteworthy and disturbing feature of many cases. The threat to security is very real," said a confidential note by the RAF's provost-marshal in 1955.In the 1960s a "nest of homosexuals" was discovered at the Christmas Island RAF base in the Pacific where British nuclear tests were carried out, triggering fears that men might experiment in the absence of female company.The legalisation of homosexuality between consenting adults in private in 1967 provoked a review of attitudes in the male and female air services but the dismissals went on. In 1971 the WRAF's provost marshal, Squadron Leader AP Doran, worried that the number of lesbian cases had exceeded all previous records.She nevertheless acknowledged that lesbian women had played an important role in wartime: "During the 1939-45 war, the official attitude was to turn a blind eye to lesbianism, because it was expedient to do so, in the interests of maintaining maximum womanpower in the women's services. It was not properly acknowledged as a problem until 1956," she wrote in a confidential memorandum in October 1971.The previous year the number of cases had peaked, with 57 airwomen being dismissed for lesbianism. Squadron Leader Doran was keen to revise the regulations while ensuring the "WRAF must not become a happy hunting ground for lesbians".She pointed out that recruits who committed a homosexual act were invariably dismissed. Yet there were cases of long-serving airwomen who were hard-working and had behaved otherwise impeccably who were being deprived of their livelihood at a critical stage in their lives.A distinction was to be made between the "abnormal woman who enters the service already perverted and are the prime movers in the business" who was to be thrown out and the young airwoman who becomes involved who should be "given a chance to recover a normal mode of life".The squadron leader also suggested a briefing for recruits on the subject: "This could save a naive airwoman from finding herself, however peripherally, in a lesbian situation."Chiefs had dismissed introducing such a briefing in 1956 on the grounds that "it was likely to stimulate interest in this particular form of perversion". But she doubted that there were any recruits in 1971 who had not heard of lesbianism.
This couldn't have been as much fun as a scavenger hunt... "I've got a ball of twine, a bus token, a scrap of loose leaf paper with the holes unbroken and... oh, yes! I found a lesbian! Do I win?"
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