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In the year 1946, a gay GI who had recently been discharged wrote in a letter:

I can't change. I have no desire to change, because it took me a long, long time to figure out how to enjoy life. For you'll agree, I'm not going back to what I left.
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 are often credited with being a watershed moment that fundamentally altered the course of gay history. This, of course, is true. But it was not the watershed moment. Long before gay bar patrons rioted against the NYPD and gave momentum to the largest political mobilization of gays and lesbians in history, World War II was setting the stage for Stonewall.

The above excerpt from the 1947 letter is but one example of a gay life that was profoundly changed by the war. In this diary, I'd like to explore the ways in which World War II drastically changed life for thousands of gays and lesbians in America as well as the ways in which it helped crystallize a nascent gay and lesbian identity. Stonewall and the ensuing gay liberation movement could not have unfolded in the way that they did without the massive changes wrought by the war in both gay and lesbian life. In many ways, World War II directly spawned some of the first gay and lesbian rights activists, in addition to setting the stage for the McCarthy-era witch hunts of gays and lesbians in the federal government, the military, and broader American society. Follow me below the fold.

Long before the signing of DADT in 1993, homosexual activity was explicitly targeted in the United States military. As far back as the Revolutionary War, sodomy was forbidden in the military and, in many instances, punished harshly. After World War I, when homosexuality was just trickling down into public discourse from medical professionals who had defined the homosexual as a "sexual invert," the military began to make efforts to exclude gays and lesbians from service. This continued throughout the 1930s.

Then, Pearl Harbor happened and the United States went to war. Suddenly, excluding gays and lesbians from military service wasn't as important. After all, every warm body was needed to win the war. Women were allowed to enlist in the Women's Army Corps (WAC), and every patriotic American was expected to join in the war effort in some way. This isn't to say that gays and lesbians were well-treated or allowed to be open in the military. But, from 1939 to 1945, they were policed much less and, in many cases, allowed to flourish within the confines of the military.

World War II was quite unusual in the way that it so fundamentally changed American society. Over fifteen million Americans moved to urban centers to work in defense jobs, and just about as many men were drafted. Women entered the job market en masse. African Americans moved to the North. Ethnic Mexicans were shipped into California to replace the "relocated" Japanese-Americans. Normalcy was turned on its head as just about every facet of life, from family structure to gender roles, changed. The war also had quite an effect on American gay life, even if we don't talk about that as much when we discuss World War II.

Like many other Americans, gays and lesbians flocked to the military. Some simply wanted to serve their country in its time of need. Some lesbians saw WAC life as a way to meet and live with other lesbians. Some joined the military not realizing they were gay or lesbian until they were exposed to others of their kind. Whatever their individual reasons, many gays and lesbians rushed to enlist after Pearl Harbor. As I said above, policing of gays and lesbians did not end during World War II, and this extended to the recruitment process. Medical professionals were "trained" to spot homosexuals based on physical characteristics, behavior, and vocabulary. The interview screening process that each man and woman entering the military had to go through took all of three minutes, during which time homosexuality was supposed to be spotted by the interviewer. As you can imagine, not many were "spotted." Bob Ruffing, a gay man who enlisted in the navy, recalls:

I walked into this office, and there was this man who was a screaming belle--lots of gold braid but he was a queen if ever I saw one. And he asked me the standard questions, ending up with, "Did you ever have any homosexual experiences?" Well, I looked him right in the eye and said, "No." And he looked right back and said, "That's good." Both of us lying through our teeth!
Getting in was easy. And the reality was that, once in, it was not that easy to be discharged for homosexual activity, especially in the WAC. WAC policy was made clear in a secret lecture given in 1943 which warned against "indulging in witch hunting or speculation." The lecture also acknowledged:
Sometimes [a relationship] can become an intimacy that may eventually take some form of sexual expression. It may appear that, almost spontaneously, such a relationship has sprung up between two women, neither of whom is a confirmed active homosexual.
This policy became all the more clear in an incident that took place in 1944. After a complaint from the mother of a WAC recruit, the Inspector General's office sent a team to investigate. Witnesses testified:
...women having the appearance of perverts have been observed at Fort Oglethorpe;...these women affect mannish appearance by haircut, by the manner of wearing the clothing, by posture, by stride, by seeking "to date" other girls such as a man would, and when with other girls pay all the bills...These addicts have certain signals by which they recognize each other...The signal is said to be a whistle of the "Hawaiian War Chant."...Expressions common between them are said to include, "We're going to have a gay time tonight"; "Are you in the mood?" and "Messing around."
Yet, despite this "damning" evidence, the team concluded that no homosexual "addicts" existed in the WAC, and an effort was made to retain all of these women. The need for bodies trumped the need for purity.

Gay men had a slightly less easier time in the military. If a man was caught having sex with another man, it was treated as a very serious crime. The guilty could be sent to the brigs, where guards enjoyed beating gay prisoners. They also faced discharge (covered in more detail below).

In spite of this, gay male culture, in many ways, flourished in the military. Drag shows were quite popular during the war, and many men gladly dressed up in women's clothing to put on a good show for their comrades. Homoerotic behavior was prevalent in the barracks. One wartime psychiatric study of barracks life noted:

In the barracks, usually when the men are getting undressed...various persons will "kiddingly" assume the role of overt homosexual. One soldier, returning from the shower in the nude, will be greeted with catcalls, salacious whistling, comments like "Hey Joe! You shouldn't go around like that--you don't know what that does to me!" Joe will respond by wriggling his hips in feminine fashion after coyly draping a towel around himself...Others act the part of active solicitors for sexual favors. "How much do you want for sleeping with me tonight?"; "Come into my bed and I'll give you the time of your life."
In addition to the blatant homoeroticism in barracks life, there were ample opportunities for gay men to meet other gay men and form queer social networks and even romantic and sexual relationships. Such networks were often referred to as the "fruit corner" or the "fruit salad." As derogatory as these terms seem, there was not much discrimination perpetrated against gay soldiers by their fellow comrades. Long before DADT, it was very much a "don't ask, don't tell" environment. If you were gay and in a sexual relationship, nothing could be proven unless you were caught.

Not to mention, there were numerous opportunities for gay men to explore the queer nightlife on weekend passes and furloughs in American urban centers. Gay servicemen could be found in gay bars, cruising parks, and hooking up with queer civilians. Despite the rhetorically anti-gay policies of the military, there were many ways for gay soldiers to fly under the radar during World War II.

Of course, not everybody was so fortunate. Many gays and lesbians were discharged for homosexual activity. These were called "blue discharges"--a sort of middle ground between honorable and dishonorable, since homosexuality was considered a psychiatric condition. But the blue discharges ruined many lives. They were reserved for "undesirable" men and women and were often marked "HS" or some other code for homosexual. This would effectively disqualify the veteran from receiving any GI rights or benefits, and it barred many discharged soldiers from getting civilian jobs. In addition, during the discharge proceedings, accused gays and lesbians were often locked away in military psychiatric wards, where psychiatrists performed experiments on them to develop new techniques for identifying other gays and lesbians. One such "discovery" was the "Gag Reflex Test," which was said to identify a gay man by sticking a tongue depressor down his throat. If his gag reflex did not kick in, the study concluded, it was because he had performed fellatio so many times that the reflex would no longer work. These are the kinds of sick studies the government paid for to keep as many gays and lesbians out of the military as possible.

After World War II ended, life returned to "normal" in many ways. Women were forced from the job market in great numbers and expected to return to being housewives. Men returned to civilian jobs. And gay and lesbian witch hunts resumed in the military, in greater force than ever. Without the urgent need for bodies, authorities made every effort to weed out as many homosexuals as possible. At a WAC unit in Tokyo, 500 women were discharged at once. Gay men stationed in Europe were loaded onto "queer" ships and sent home with dishonorable discharges. The anti-gay backlash after the war was swift and vicious.

This backlash, of course, extended to the civilian world. State legislatures cracked down on homosexuality. Congress held hearings on gays and lesbians in the government, leading to the purge known as the Lavender Scare. Gay and lesbian bars were placed under surveillance. Anti-gay crusades were launched in towns and cities across the United States. The semi-tolerance of the World War II years was short-lived indeed.

In spite of this, World War II and the ensuing anti-gay backlash had a profound impact on gay and lesbian life in America. Rural gay men and lesbians were able to leave their small towns and experience a gay and lesbian culture they never knew existed. Military life enabled many men and women to accept themselves as gay and lesbian and to devote their post-war lives to working for their rights. Among the first gay rights activists in twentieth-century America were those affected by the blue discharges. Many gay and lesbian veterans--discharged for homosexual activity or not--came out completely. Some participated in homophile organizations such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. In short, the war and its semi-tolerance--as well as its more repressive side--helped solidify gay and lesbian identity. World War II spawned many gay and lesbian activists, allowed many men and women to live openly about their sexuality, and laid the groundwork for the homophile movement. It is not an exaggeration to say that the war helped lay the foundation for Stonewall and the resulting gay liberation movement. We gays and lesbians have much to owe to World War II.

The material in this diary was taken from two sources, both written by gay historian Allan Bérubé. His chapter in the edited collection Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past entitled "Marching to a Different Drummer: Lesbian and Gay GIs in World War II" is a useful brief overview of the subject. For a more detailed account, I wholeheartedly recommend his incredible book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. If you're interested in this subject, you should definitely read this book, as there is so much material that I was not able to adequately cover in this short diary.

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Originally posted to Remembering LGBT History on Fri May 25, 2012 at 02:33 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, LGBT Kos Community, Angry Gays, Milk Men And Women, and Community Spotlight.

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