As a child I heard all the stories of life during WW2 from my grandparents. Grandad was in the Royal Artillery stationed in Burma. While studying history at school I’d read about the hardships and miseries in what were the toughest battles of WW2. Grandad acknowledged the horror of that particular theatre of war when I asked him what was the worst part of fighting in Burma.
“Terrible food and dreadful entertainment. They said ENSA stood for Every Night Something Awful. They weren’t wrong!”
Growing up gay I’d assumed that my contribution to the war effort would have been cooking or kicking my heels up. I was surprised to discover there was considerably more to the LGBTQ+ community’s contribution than we’ve been told.
I took part in the BBC series Secret Agent Selection: WW2. It’s a living history programme where modern-day recruits are put through the spy training of Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). I was surprised to find myself being put through my paces with several ex-army soldiers, as I’d have struggled to get into the Brownies.
Churchill had suggested that as most gay people spent their lives pretending to be someone else they had the perfect skill set to become spies. I learned about one such man, Denis Rake.
Denis was a professional actor who performed in drag between engagements. After his training he was posted to occupied Paris to operate his wireless system for the resistance. Told to keep his head down and blend in, Denis got a job as a drag queen in a nightclub entertaining Nazi officers!
I performed in drag for many years. It pays the bills when I’m in between writing jobs and it can be hard. We’re all terrified of dying on stage but it might have actually happened to Denis if the Nazis had known he was sending messages back to Blighty from his dressing room!
We’re only just starting to hear about the contribution of our LGBTQ+ heroes in WW2 and unlike many, Denis’ story had a happy ending. After the war he was decorated by the British and French governments and went back to performing.
I wrote For Queen And Country as a comedy drama to highlight this incredible man – and I’m so proud that the British Army has commissioned the show for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of [email protected]
For Queen And Country runs from 5 to 14 August 2022. Tickets are available from [email protected]