The United States history survey I'm TAing for just finished covering World War I, which the students really seemed to enjoy. Little do most of them know that, beyond the trench warfare, the Fourteen Points, and the Wilsonian notion of "making the world safe for democracy," there is a rich queer culture to be discovered during this time period. Going over World War I in class made me think back to my diary last May about the importance of World War II in LGBT history. Kossack phonatic posed an interesting and important question about the place of the first World War in the queer historical narrative. I promised another diary. Well, between coursework and TAing, I have had very little time to write for Remembering LGBT History. But this weekend, with World War I in the back of my mind, I pulled a couple of books off my shelf and did some rereading. So, over seven months after my promise, here is that diary.
This isn't just a diary about queer people during World War I. More broadly speaking, this is a diary about the complexity of gay identity in the early twentieth century and about society's changing definitions of queerness. Ultimately, as gay historian George Chauncey notes in his work (which I will be drawing heavily upon), the complex queer subculture found in and out of military life during this time period calls into serious question the fairly prominent notion that gay identity was "invented" by the medical/sexological discourse of the late nineteenth century (see: Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality).
Now, follow me below the fold to find out what the hell a "pogue" is.
When it comes to homosexuality in the military throughout United States history, much attention has been paid to World War II. And, as I note in my diary linked above on the topic, there is good reason for this. Some might argue that, in the American gay and lesbian experience, no event was as transformative as the Second World War. Aside from exposing hundreds of gays and lesbians, many of whom were from rural areas and had little opportunity to form queer social networks, to others like them, it greatly swelled the gay communities of coastal urban areas and cities near military bases. Just as World War II transformed American society at large, so it fundamentally altered gay and lesbian life in America, in ways that set the stage for the homophile movement and then the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. Historian Allan Berube's Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II tackles this subject in-depth and assigns World War II its proper place in LGBT history.
Less examined is World War I. We know quite a bit less about the Great War than we do about the Second World War in terms of sexuality. But we do know some things--and we certainly know enough to draw some significant conclusions about sexual identity during the World War I era.
For example, we know that the military was beginning to take the issue of homosexuality within its ranks seriously during the First World War. Now, to be sure, homosexuality has always existed within the United States military, and military code has long barred sodomy. But, during World War I, something was different. The military was beginning to understand homosexuality as something deeper than two men having sex. The "pervert" problem was seen during this time as something potentially deep and destructive, involving many, many soldiers. But the military did not quite know how to deal with it. Weeding out the "perverts" proved troublesome when officials did not really understand who they were targeting. Nevertheless, military officials were beginning to attempt to target homosexuals as people that could be identified as queer based on certain characteristics. Physical screenings were performed to detect these "queer" characteristics and keep "perverts" out of the military's ranks. Some of these supposed characteristics seem somewhat humorous from a twenty-first-century perspective. For example, consider this excerpt from military screening guidelines during World War I:
...the degenerate male physique as a whole is often marked by diminished stature and inferior vigor.Examiners were warned to watch out for recruits who
present the general body conformation of the opposite sex, with sloping narrow shoulders, broad hips, excessive pectoral and public adipose deposits, with lack of masculine [hair] and muscular markings.Now, these guidelines were only sporadically enforced. For example, after extensive research into the regulation of sexuality during World War I, historian Margot Canaday notes in The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America that one Ohio recruit was inducted even though he was lacking testicles. In Texas, a soldier who could not be identified as either male or female after being examined by several doctors was inducted anyway. Another inductee with "large well developed breasts...feminine pelvis, small male genitalia, testicles the size of beans, large hips...[and] high pitched voice" was photographed by puzzled examiners, but made it into the military nevertheless. It was not until World War II that the process for targeting gays and lesbians became more sophisticated and universally applied (although, because of a vital need for warm bodies, gays and lesbians within the military were generally overlooked during the peak years of the war). However, these guidelines were significant in that they marked the first time the military became seriously concerned with a homosexual culture developing within its ranks. The focus on physical screenings during the Great War soon gave way to an emphasis on personality tests and psychological evaluations (to detect the "psychopathic" homosexual). Very few soldiers were actually ensnared by these archaic and hilariously imprecise methods, but some were, and those who were unfortunate enough to be targeted faced court-martial and discharge.
Physical and psychological abnormalities were blamed for the prevalence of "perverts" in the military, but officials also blamed civilian culture for corrupting soldiers. In 1919, for example, right after the end of World War I, a scandal erupted at a navy training station in Newport, Rhode Island. A naval machinist's mate named Earvin Arnold observed what he thought to be a "perversion ring" involving sailors based in the Newport YMCA and revolving around a civilian minister, Rev. Samuel Kent. Naval officials were approached with warnings that "acts of perversion were being committed on men of the navy by certain civilians." An entrapment operation ensued, and decoys actually allowed civilians to perform sexual acts upon them. The civilians were then arrested, tried, and imprisoned. There was backlash, however, when officials targeted Kent, and local ministers rushed to his aid by accusing the navy of making its sailors "perverts by official order." The Newport affair eventually led to a congressional investigation, and the secretary of the navy and his assistant (a man you may be familiar with named Franklin Delano Roosevelt) were found to be ultimately responsible for allowing the "perversion" of navy recruits.
As the Newport situation shows, there most certainly was a queer culture both in and out of the military during the early twentieth century. What did this culture look like? Well, to begin with, we need to dispel ourselves of the notion that there was a simple homosexual-heterosexual binary during this period. Sexual identity was much, much more complicated than that, as George Chauncey notes in his article on the Newport scandal, "Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion?: Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era." A queer culture did exist, but it was layered in ways that may seem strange to us today, looking at it through a post-Stonewall lens. For example, not everybody who participated in gay sex was considered gay. The focus was on much more on gender roles. Men quite often took on "feminine" behavior to distinguish themselves as queer. These men identified themselves as "fairies" (also known as "cocksuckers"), "pogues" (men who liked to be anally penetrated, or "browned"), and "two-way artists" (men who enjoyed both). These distinctions were extremely important in queer culture, and a high level of conformity in behavior was expected of men who identified as queer. Some were also female impersonators, but even if they weren't, a "feminine" behavior both in and out of sex was expected. Then there were men who did not take on the "feminine" role--men, in other words, who were dominant in anal and oral sex. These men did not assume "feminine" characteristics and, in many cases, were married. And, in Chauncey's analysis of the court transcripts, he finds that these men were generally not considered to be queer (although there was some disagreement about this), and they certainly identified as "straight." These men were also identified by queers in terms of who was most likely to have gay sex. The "straight" men willing to have sex with other men were also known as "trade," a term also encompassing "straight" men who took money for sex. These "straight" men were sometimes quite willing to have sex with other men, but sometimes they brutalized the queer men they had sex with.
This queer culture was quite visible--both to queers and non-queers. "Straight" sailors were very much aware of the homosexual goings-on within the military, and it was even tolerated by many. This culture was by no means invisible. And there is no doubt that military mobilization during World War I had a profound effect on queer culture both in and out of the military, and on homosexual men who had not yet been exposed to this kind of culture. One such man named Rogers came into contact with the queer network shortly after he joined the military. Queer men, known as "the gang," believed Rogers to be a latent pogue. Gang members were successful in convincing Rogers to join them, and he eventually assumed the name "Kitty Gordon" and developed a relationship with another man, whom he called his "husband." Later, when discovered, Rogers made a sad plea to the court:
I got in their company. I don't know why; but I used to go out with them. I would like to say here that these people were doing this all their lives. I never met one until I came in the Navy...I would like to add that I would not care for my folks to learn anything about this; that I would suffer everything, because I want them to know me as they think I am. This is something that I never did until I came in the Navy.World War I, large-scale military mobilization, and military life were bringing many gay men who had felt different their entire lives but never had an outlet to express that difference out of their shells.
Now, what does all of this matter, aside from being fascinating? Well, a few things. First, it shows that World War II--while extremely significant--was not the only military mobilization to shape the lives of gays and lesbians in the United States. Second, it highlights the fluidity of sexual identity in the twentieth century and reminds us that the gay-straight binary with which we are so familiar is problematic when considering other time periods. Finally, as Chauncey notes in his article, it really calls into question the idea that medical discourse shaped the development of gay identity and culture. The men examined here were primarily from working-class backgrounds with busy military lives. Elite medical journals were far from their reading lists, I'm sure. What all of this suggests is that a reverse dynamic might have actually been at play, with medical discourse responding to and attempting to explain already-existing queer subcultures.
As much focus as the post-World War II era has received, understanding the preceding years is vitally important to understanding broader LGBT history.
Material in this diary came primarily from two sources, both of which I would highly recommend for further reading on this topic. First, there is George Chauncey's "Christian Brotherhod or Sexual Perversion?: Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era," which can be found in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, a volume edited by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey.
Second, there is Margot Canaday's masterful book on sexuality, citizenship, and the state, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. The book examines the regulation of sexuality within not only the military, but also immigration and welfare policy in the early twentieth century. I can't recommend it enough.
And, of course, since I'm talking about the early twentieth century, I must also recommend George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, which looks at queer culture in New York in the early part of the century.