Drag Queens at War: Forgotten ANZAC legends


drag queens at war anzac

Drag Queens played an essential role in two world wars: braving enemy fire to boost troop morale. QNews has documented some of the hundreds of Drag Queens who served our country in our free pictorial PDF eBook, Drag Queens at War.

Drag Queens at War: World War I

Fred Reade, an original ANZAC, was also one of our first drag queen soldiers.

Lauded as ‘the most graceful male dancer on the Australian stage’, Fred sacrificed show business stardom to serve his country. He enlisted with the Australian Expeditionary Force as a cook.

After surviving the bitterly fought Gallipoli campaign, Fred became a member of the first field theatre troupe of the Australian Imperial Forces: the Anzac Coves, named for the small beach where the cast members first landed at Gallipoli.

Show producer Sergeant Rannel Carlisle explained to a newspaper that the Coves performed under actual battle conditions and sometimes suffered casualties.

“As a party of entertainers, we are the closest of all to the firing line and have to put over our show under the most trying conditions. Shells and bombs play a big part. Sometimes they drown the performances, and the earth appears to shake.

“Anderson and Brittlebank, our pianist and scenic artist, were blown to pieces the other day in their dugouts. We all have some very exciting times.”

drag queens at war anzac
Fred Reade
drag queens at war anzac
Privates Fred Reade and Bobbie Roberts (centre) along with two handsome costars.

Privates Fred Reade and Bobbie Roberts performed in drag, beginning a tradition that endured through two world wars of drag artists as the stars of wartime entertainment. Fred choreographed the show and he and Bobbie also made the costumes. Two of their best efforts: Fred’s gown, sewn from the less scorched bits of a tapestry curtain from a shelled house and a suit of armour made from biscuit tins.

Troop Morale

Sergeant Carlisle later tried to articulate how important the shows were to the soldiers at the front.

“It makes them forget the trenches and what they have gone through and will still return to.”

The drag queens and their fellow entertainers brought joy to the life of men surrounded by misery and gave them the will to continue the fight. Witnessing the impact of the drag entertainers, General Sir John Monash dispatched his company female impersonators to London from the war front in France, to be outfitted in wigs, gloves, shoes, hosiery, frocks, and jewellery.

“The result is most startling.”

Drag Queens at War: World War II

When the world again went to war in the 1940s, the Australian Army remembered the lessons of the previous conflict. It didn’t only rely on finding drag queens in the ranks. It actually advertised for female impersonators. At an army camp at Pagewood in NSW, seamstresses sewed and fitted dresses to the drag queen soldiers while theatre professionals assisted them to create acts to perform behind the front lines.

Hundreds of Aussie and Kiwi drag queens valiantly served their countries — in frocks.

drag queens at war anzac
Private Maurice Earley, performing as Carmen Miranda and peeling spuds. Milne Bay, New Guinea. Images: Australian War Memorial

Longreach’s Stan Nelson

Australian Army magazine Salt described a 1943 show somewhere in the tropics.

“Behind the hill, searchlights poke restlessly into the soft darkness. Suddenly the orchestra strikes; the footlights light up… After a card trickster — the female impersonator, ravishing in ‘her’ gorgeous evening gown. (S)he sang ‘I love you only’. Off-stage, (s)he’s tough enough.”

The Longreach Leader proudly informed readers, “The female impersonator in that camp concert is Private Stanley Nelson, son of Mr and Mrs Nelson, Emu Street, Longreach.”

Locals knew Stan well. Before the war, he was a popular boy soprano, performing at concerts, weddings and on Outback radio.

He returned home after the war and married. However, his wife left over his bringing too many mates home and they later divorced.

drags queens at war anzac
Corporal Stanley Nelson

Vilification of drag queens

Sadly, In recent times, far-right trolls sometimes incite followers to bombard event organisers or venues with harassment and threats to stop drag events.

It’s nothing new.

In 1915, the Melbourne Truth urged vigilante action to interrupt popular and perfectly legal theatre performances by drag queen Lindsay Kemble. Lindsay later went on to serve his country in two world wars. After the war, the popular ex-servicemen worked as the barman at the Mackay RSL in North Queensland.

Lest we forget.

Read or download Drag Queens at War here

READ MORE: 

Honouring gay diggers: Rainbow wreaths on ANZAC Day

Charles Holt, drag war hero – a proud ANZAC

Actually, the ANZACS did fight & die for this shit!

For the latest LGBTIQA+ Sister Girl and Brother Boy news, entertainment, community stories in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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