We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

We’re all familiar with the official refusal of the American military to permit gays and lesbians to serve in its ranks. Two decades of agitation and litigation have caused legal and social barriers to crumble in many areas, but the armed forces’ bulwarks against gay men and women, although often breached in practice, remain firmly in place officially. Prospects for the future don’t seem much better, given that the Supreme Court recently refused to hear two cases challenging the ban.

Most of us have probably assumed that this is the way it’s always been–something about the military mind-set that is wedded to traditional gender roles and modes of sexual expression. But this military attitude is relatively recent. Before World War II homosexuals had never been officially excluded or expelled from the armed forces. The act of sodomy had been targeted as criminal in the military, as in civilian society, but not homosexuals as a group or category. It was only after psychiatry developed sufficient prestige and authority, and generated theories of homosexuality as a sexual psychopathology and personality type, that gay men and women were seen as unfit for military service.

Yet paradoxically enough, it was during World War II that a national gay subculture burgeoned and gained self-consciousness in the United States, often within the ranks of the military itself. Military efforts to screen or root out homosexuals were in practice ambivalent and sporadic. In fact, the armed forces brought gay men and women from all over the country together, serving as a context in which they could discover one another and even begin a process of “coming out” (a phrase that began to assume its present meaning during the war).

This fascinating piece of social history is the subject of Allan Berube’s book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. It was during the war, he notes, that “a growing population of displaced young men and women on the move learned to think of themselves as gay, located gay nightspots, met each other, formed relationships, used a new language, followed new codes of behavior, and carved out places for themselves in the world as gay men and women.” The constant exchange of information within this mobile population helped standardize gay slang–including the term “gay”–in the United States.

The inspiration for Berube’s book came in 1979 when a San Francisco neighbor, knowing of his interest in gay history, gave him hundreds of letters from the World War II era, many from gay soldiers. Most of the dozen or so GI letter writers had met at a Missouri Army base, where they hung out together at the service club. Separated by the flux of wartime soldiering, they’d written each other about what it was like to be gay in the places where they ended up. Berube then began to seek out other gay and lesbian veterans.

What he found was intriguing and often surprising. Gay men had found themselves tolerated, for the most part, by their fellow GIs–including those who thought it relatively obvious that they were “queer” (the usual term at the time, used by both gays and straights). Even overtly effeminate men–who, though a small minority of the gay population, were among its more obvious representatives–found ways of existing and even thriving in the military. This was especially true in combat units, where good soldiering qualities were perforce valued above all else, and where many GIs engaged in “situational bisexuality.” But it was also true on the military bases and other areas far from the front lines. “Feminine styles in male barracks were rich and varied,” says Berube, who points out that a live-and-let-live ethos usually prevailed among enlisted men, who assigned each other a variety of types and roles. “The most extreme effeminate stereotype was the recruit who assumed the lisping speech and mincing or swishing mannerisms of a ‘fairy.’ . . . A recruit who was more mildly effeminate could be bookish, artistic, spoiled, delicate, a ‘mama’s boy,’ fastidious, unathletic, devoutly religious, sentimental. . . . Even the most extremely effeminate man could be accepted affectionately if he played an asexual role. . . . In the barracks, and particularly during soldier variety shows, men with the most extreme effeminate qualities–especially if they were witty and funny–could be similarly valued as company comedians, clowns, screwballs, and entertainers.”

The all-soldier shows, with their staple female-impersonation routines, offered a ready–and officially sanctioned–venue in which gay men could assume and play with feminine gender roles (Berube devotes a chapter to the subject, “GI Drag: A Gay Refuge”). Although there was always a danger of going too far, revealing oneself too much, gay performers could often become quite bold onstage, with some even creating campy routines that included identifiable homosexual characters. A way of expanding their social space and a means of self-assertion, these shows also gave gay GIs a chance to meet other gay men as friends, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

Gay men and women on leave also found each other and hung out together on the bases and in cities, where everyone seemed to be infused with a wartime spirit of adventure and risk taking. The groups they formed ranged from short- to long-term, from tight-knit in-groups to loose crowds of gays and straight hangers-on. Lesbian groups also included couples. Gay men generally respected the taboo against coupling with any of the friends they hung out with; usually the fear was such that those in these groups never talked directly about being gay. Yet one such circle at the Air Corps station in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, stayed in touch with former members through a mimeographed newsletter, the Myrtle Beach Bitch, which Berube describes as “one of the first gay publications produced in the United States, and possibly the earliest newsletter by and for gay servicemen.”

The situation of lesbians differed in many respects from that of gay men. There was probably a greater percentage of gays among women than among men in the armed forces. Although the Navy had enlisted women who weren’t nurses during World War I, it wasn’t until World War II that the other services established women’s branches. So there were few policies and procedures concerning lesbians, who, when they enlisted, were generally never asked any questions as to their sexuality. This fact, coupled with the intense wartime need for personnel by the women’s branches, the official encouragement of women who were doing “a man’s work” in all areas of society, and the social acceptability of physical demonstrations of emotion among women–all enabled lesbians, it seems, to flourish in the military relatively openly. Pat Bond describes women she knew who applied to enlist and were accepted “wearing argyle socks and pin-striped suits and the hair cut just like a man’s with sideburns shaved over the ears–the whole bit.” Also butch women–the stance most readily identified as lesbian–more readily fit the masculine military image than effeminate men and so had a higher status in the armed forces. Pat Bond recalls when she arrived for basic training in 1945: “We went to the mess hall and there were all these dykes sitting around with their feet up on the table in fatigues with Li’l Abner boots saying [in a deep voice] ‘Hey Henry, pass the salt!'” Stories such as this give a fascinating glimpse of lesbian life in the service–something one wishes Berube had explored more fully in his book, which has a distinct male orientation.

The effect of the official policies was often the precise opposite of what they aimed to mandate. Together the groups on the bases, the developing bar scene in the cities, and the proliferation of sexual experiences gave a great boost to gay life and culture, not only in bringing together and mixing those who’d already identified themselves as gay, but in “bringing out” many who’d been isolated and hadn’t thought of themselves as gay. It represented the beginnings of the formation of a national group identity.

Not that everything was roses. There were, of course, arrests, courts-martial, crackdowns, and waves of repression on the bases and in the cities frequented by these men and women. But the military soon realized that its court and prison system, already overburdened, couldn’t very well handle a large influx of gay convicts. Reform-minded officers found allies among psychiatrists and proposed a solution: homosexuality should be seen as a psychiatric medical problem rather than as a criminal one, and those diagnosed as suffering from it should be discharged rather than imprisoned. These reforms took effect in 1943 and ’44, and the effect was to greatly increase the military’s antigay apparatus, as its goal became that of rooting out homosexuals and giving them dishonorable discharges, rather than simply punishing acts of sodomy. The ideology that had governed the initial enlistment screening process came into force in the military generally. The system that still exists was in place.

Coming Out Under Fire has a fairly detailed account of the twists and turns this system went through as it came into being, and of the contradictory ways in which the psychiatric profession constructed its portrait of the “true homosexual.” Berube is rather sympathetic to the psychiatrists involved in this process, seeing most as motivated by a humane desire to help gays. He recounts how some psychiatrists argued against the military’s policy of dishonorable discharges for gays, or attempted to subvert it by deliberately misdiagnosing those who were sent to them. The psychiatric contention that gay men and women are mentally ill, Berube said in a recent interview, is “an argument that’s been discredited in the 1970s, but at that point it was a progressive argument, positioned against the military’s policy of treating homosexuals as criminals.”

Once given a dishonorable discharge, the veterans found that their problems had only begun. She, or more likely he, had to present a “blue discharge” (from the color of the paper on which the Army printed it) to the local draft board, which was not bound to secrecy, as well as to potential employers, who were free–and ready–to discriminate on the basis of it. Such veterans were also ruled ineligible for postwar GI benefits, which included generously subsidized home, college, and business loans, along with unemployment allowances and health-care benefits.

Gays weren’t the only group to suffer in this way. The more than 100,000 veterans stigmatized by blue discharges included a disproportionate number of blacks in addition to homosexuals. The exposure of this fact, and a campaign against the callous treatment these vets received, was spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Courier, at that time the most widely read black newspaper in the country. This linkage was important for gays, not only in practical terms, but also in relation to their self-definition. On one side was the military-discharge policy, which fostered a gay identity; on the other was the example of the fight of blacks for civil rights, which inspired some gays to begin speaking of discrimination, rights, and persecution as a minority. Out of this confluence came the Veterans’ Benevolent Association, formed in 1945 by four honorably discharged vets in New York City as an organization of and for gay veterans–the first major gay membership group in the United States. It existed until 1954.

The fact that such an association was not able to sustain itself beyond the early 50s is not accidental. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a virulent crackdown on gays in the military, in government service, and throughout society. For this story, and for the story of the gay experience in the 1940s through the late 1960s, one can turn to John D’Emilio’s path-breaking 1983 study, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, which provides the historical context for Berube’s book. D’Emilio charts the way in which social changes in the first part of this century began to create an urban gay subculture, how this process was tremendously accelerated by wartime changes, and–his main subject–how gays dealt with the repression directed against them during the 50s and 60s.

As the cold war began and its associated domestic witch-hunt gathered momentum, homosexuals were grouped with Communists by the right-wing crusaders whose best known representative was Joseph McCarthy. By 1953, when President Eisenhower set out his loyalty-security program, “sexual perversion” (which mainly meant homosexuality) was listed as grounds for disbarment from federal government service. Untold numbers were uprooted from jobs or prevented from taking them, not only in the federal bureaucracy but at the state and local level, as all adopted similar “security” requirements. The FBI established liaisons with local police departments, gathering arrest records on all “morals” charges (regardless of whether convictions had resulted), collecting data on gay bars and on recipients of homoerotic publications (through the Post Office), and disseminating the findings not only throughout the government but to private employers as well. The military, which had already begun much more stringent enforcement of its antigay policy as its need for personnel declined drastically after the war, intensified its crackdown in the 50s, roughly doubling the rate of discharges for homosexuality, which had already shot up in the late 40s.

In this official climate, local police forces, petty criminals, virtually anyone who wanted to felt free to harass or prey upon gays. Nor was there any public outcry; the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, supported the constitutionality of antihomosexual laws and sanctions. The 40s, despite laws and penalties, had been a period of synthesis and “coming out”; the 50s saw a concerted attempt on the part of authorities to beat back the newly arisen “homosexual menace.”

Two groups dedicated to waging a counteroffensive against the official attack were born in this dark time: the Mattachine Society, founded in 1951 in Los Angeles by a few gays who’d been members of the Communist Party or had traveled in left-wing circles, and the Daughters of Bilitis, begun four years later by a small group of lesbians in San Francisco. The two organizations worked cooperatively and shared a common viewpoint, seeing education of the public–the dispelling of myths, prejudice, and misconceptions–as the main means of improving the lot of homosexuals. But this meant a stress upon “respectable” and middle-class gays, and persistent attempts to separate themselves from the “deviants.” The Daughters of Bilitis were particularly concerned with distancing themselves from the bar culture. Lesbians, one officer declared, “aren’t bar-hoppers, but people with steady jobs, most of them good positions.”

As the grim decade wore on, the two groups (particularly the Mattachine Society) grew ever more preoccupied with the pursuit of respectability–a defensive no-win quest that only brought them a dwindling membership. In effect these champions of gay rights devised an abstract concept of “the homosexual” they were defending–a respectable middle-class image that would be acceptable to straight society but that had little to do with the real gay subculture, which had become centered in the bars. In the early 60s some east-coast militants, inspired by the burgeoning black civil rights movement, began to engage in more aggressive direct-action tactics, but it was only in San Francisco that the small movement for gay rights began to converge with the far larger gay subculture.

A unique configuration of circumstances–the city’s emergence as the center of the beat subculture, two homosexual-related scandals in city government, and a three-year-long police crackdown on gay bars–brought politics and the gay bars together in San Francisco. Through the example of the beats, D’Emilio points out, “gays could perceive themselves as nonconformists rather than deviates, as rebels against stultifying norms rather than immature, unstable personalities.” To some extent freed by the beat example from the self-images imposed by psychiatry, and angered by the concerted campaign of police repression, San Francisco gays began to fight back, forming alliances with the bar owners and, surprisingly, with the city’s Protestant clergy. The results included gains on the legal front, as the police backed off, and a changing self-conception among gays. The seeds of gay liberation–and gay pride–were planted.

By the end of the 60s, changed attitudes had begun to manifest themselves in many social institutions. The ACLU, reversing its earlier stand, began a campaign to overturn the legal basis for discrimination. Churches began to discuss the issue. And cracks began to appear even in the medical and psychiatric establishment, as challenges were mounted to the illness model of homosexuality. Among gays too the radical social movements of the decade had their effects. Soon after the famous eruption at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969, a Gay Liberation Front formed in that city, and the style and content of the struggle underwent a rapid metamorphosis.

All of this is very nicely traced by D’Emilio, who points out the way in which the efflorescence of the gay and lesbian movement during the 1970s was linked with the rise of feminism and the movement for women’s liberation. Not only did lesbian feminism provide a strong connection, but “feminism’s attack upon traditional sex roles and the affirmation of a nonreproductive sexuality that was implicit in such demands as unrestricted access to abortion paved a smoother road for lesbians and homosexuals who were also challenging rigid male and female stereotypes and championing an eroticism that by its nature did not lead to procreation.” Feminism, he concludes, “helped to remove gay life and gay politics from the margins of American society.”

One of D’Emilio’s primary purposes in writing Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities was to rescue the early activists of the “homophile” movement, as they called themselves–principally the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis–from the scorn to which they’d been consigned by their successors in the gay-liberation movement. It’s not completely clear that he succeeds, for he shows these organizations, at least by the late 1950s, to have been consumed with a futile quest for respectability according to the norms of the very culture that was persecuting them, engaged in a kind of groveling defensiveness that may be quite understandable but that is hardly admirable. Yet in the process of attempting this rehabilitation, D’Emilio accomplishes something more valuable: he sketches the historical and social forces that brought an urban gay subculture into being, showing the process of formation of “a social context in which homosexual desire might congeal into a personal identity.”

In doing so he also provides the context for Berube’s story of gays and the military in World War II–a military that now stands as almost the last national or state institution that formally proscribes homosexuality. Berube thinks that its obduracy only ensures that the military services will soon become a new front for the movement. “There’s the beginning of a gay-rights or gay-liberation movement that’s coming from within the military,” he said recently. “And it’s going to have a very different style than the gay-rights movement which grew out of the early seventies.”

It will be interesting to see.

Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two by Allan Berube, Free Press, $22.95.

Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 by John D’Emilio, University of Chicago Press, $9.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.