LGBT Literature is a Readers and Book Lovers series dedicated to discussing literature that has made an impact on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. From fiction to contemporary nonfiction to history and everything in between, any literature that touches on LGBT themes is welcome in this series. LGBT Literature posts on the last Sunday of every month at 7:30 PM EST. If you are interested in writing for the series, please send a kosmail to Chrislove.
It was 1943, and young Robert Fleischer was eager to join the war effort. But he had a secret:
Early in 1943 Robert Fleischer, who lived with his family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, went down to the Grand Central Palace induction station for his physical. When he reached the psychiatrist’s office at the end of the line, he was scared to death of being found out. This nineteen-year-old draftee wanted desperately to get into the Army to avenge the death of a cousin who had been killed at Pearl Harbor, but he had heard that the Army was rejecting gay men for military service. Carefully planning to hide his homosexuality from Army examiners, Fleischer was surprised when the psychiatrist merely asked him “Do you like girls?” to which he responded with a truthful yes because, he recalled forty years later, “I liked girls!” Fleischer wondered why the psychiatrist hadn’t figured him out. “My God,” he thought, “couldn’t he see my curly platinum blond hair that was partly bleached, the walk, maybe the sissy S in my voice—all the things that I thought would give me away?” But as he left the induction station, he sighed with relief that he had been found fit to serve in the United States Army.
I love the history of World War II, and I particularly love that story from Allan Bérubé’s classic work of gay history, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (1990). I have been rereading the book lately because I am trying to decide which books I want to assign to my summer history classes, and I always lean toward books on topics that I am pretty sure my students haven’t learned about previously. I tend to teach World War II in three days, in what I call my “sandwich” format: First, the origins of the war and the slow entry of the U.S. On the third day, the conclusion of the war. Sandwiched in between is what I consider to be the heart and soul of my World War II lecture—the war experience from the perspectives of several different groups of people, including African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, women, and yes, gays and lesbians. Students are almost always captivated by the gay and lesbian experience, because it is not something that is usually included in a lecture on World War II.
This is why I was drawn once again to Bérubé’s work. I have decided that I probably won’t assign it after all (at least, not this summer), but I’ve greatly enjoyed revisiting it. And since tomorrow is Memorial Day, I thought it would be appropriate to stick to a military theme and cover Coming Out Under Fire this month.
As some may remember, I wrote about this topic six years ago (almost to the day) for the Remembering LGBT History group: How World War II Changed Gay and Lesbian Life in America. In that diary, I used both Coming Out Under Fire and Bérubé’s earlier article titled “Marching to a Different Drummer: Lesbian and Gay GIs in World War II,” which is found in the edited collection Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (1990). I wrote the diary several years ago, so even those who read it probably don’t remember it very well. Therefore, I encourage everybody to read that diary in conjunction with this diary—think of them as supplementary to each other. My older diary was focused on telling the history of the war from the gay and lesbian perspective (in other words, the substance of Bérubé’s work). I’ll be quoting parts of that diary in this one, but this diary will deal more with the book Coming Out Under Fire itself. In particular, I would like to focus on three major things in this diary: the origins of the research that became the book, the broad-strokes overview of Bérubé’s argument and contribution to the field of LGBT history, and the contemporary significance of Bérubé’s work in the 1990s political climate.
Back to Robert Fleischer, whose story begins the first chapter of Coming Out Under Fire. There were many gay men and lesbians who found themselves in very similar circumstances in the midst of national emergency and who wanted to do their part, despite the military’s crystallizing policy of homosexual exclusion.
This patriotic contribution of gays and lesbians to the larger national story of World War II is partly what the book is about. Indeed, that is how the project was conceived. In 1979, Bérubé’s neighbor’s friend in San Francisco gave him a treasure trove of letters written by gay GIs from World War II. Reading the letters one by one, he was plunged into a wonderful and terrifying world, that of gay soldiers finding their way and trying to survive in the Army. That formed the basis of Bérubé’s original project, a slide presentation called “Marching to a Different Drummer,” which in turn uncovered more and more sources and interview subjects. Bérubé, it should be noted, was not a trained historian or academic—he was a self-trained community historian who set out to uncover this hidden history of gay and lesbian contribution to the war effort. But the project became so much more than that. Bérubé sums up the transformation in his preface:
Begun as the story of how gay Americans had served their country, this book evolved into a history of how the military’s mobilization for war made soldiers confront homosexuality in their personal lives and changed the ways that homosexuality fit into American institutions. I realized that the nature of my subject was pulling me from the margins of minority history into the mainstream of American history.
There is a long history, of course, of homosexual exclusion—in one form or another—from the United States military. However, it was during and immediately after World War II that this longstanding policy began to crystallize. Ever since the Revolutionary War, the military had barred acts of “sodomy” (anal and oral sex between men), but homosexuality as an identity had not begun to take form until the turn of the twentieth century. As Margot Canaday explains in The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (2011), it was in these early decades of the twentieth century that the state (of which the military is an arm) began to concern itself with the “new” problem of homosexuality. The U.S. military tried to tackle the “problem” in World War I, but its language and methods were still relatively primitive. By World War II, the military had a more developed language and apparatus to deal with homosexuality in its ranks. Therefore, as Bérubé argues, the military increasingly turned toward targeting the homosexual as a person rather than “sodomy” as a simple sex act:
As psychiatrists increased their authority in the armed forces, they developed new screening procedures to discover and disqualify homosexual men, introducing into military policies and procedures the concept of the homosexual as a personality type unfit for military service and combat—a concept that was to determine military policy for decades after the war. Their success in shifting the military’s attention from the sexual act to the individual had far-reaching consequences. It forced military officials to develop an expanding administrative apparatus for managing homosexual personnel that relied on diagnosis, hospitalization, surveillance, interrogation, discharge, administrative appeal, and mass indoctrination.
But then, Pearl Harbor was bombed. After December 7, 1941, this rather expansive system of homosexual exclusion was relaxed, allowing many gay men (such as Robert Fleischer) and lesbians to enter the military. That is not to say that homosexuality was allowed—however, in spite of explicitly anti-homosexual policies, gay culture found ways to flourish within the military during World War II. From my earlier diary on the subject:
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.
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.
Although, not everybody flew under the radar:
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.
All of this is interesting and important, but beyond the experiences within the ranks of the military, World War II made a massive impact on gay and lesbian life in the United States. Just as the war was a turning point in the history of women and racial minorities, it was also a turning point (indeed, in some ways, a beginning point) in gay and lesbian history. From my earlier diary:
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.
Another legacy of the war, however, was more repressive. Once the war had ended, the urgency to find “warm bodies” also ended, and the anti-homosexual apparatus of the military resumed with even greater intensity. The Defense Department took steps to adopt a policy that “homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to service in any branch of the Armed Forces in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces is mandatory.” In 1950, Congress established the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Between Congress and the Defense Department, a formally established anti-gay policy and discharge procedure took shape, giving way to the more recognizable ban on gay and lesbian service in the military that lasted until 2011. The anti-gay backlash wasn’t just happening in the military, of course—it was in the late 1940s and early 1950s that anti-gay purges in the government began, a part of the Red Scare known today as the Lavender Scare:
The military organization has often served as a testing ground for social policies and programs that later have been adopted by civilian bureaucracies. The military’s expansion of its anti-homosexual policies during and after the war served as such a model for senators who in 1950 launched the most aggressive attack on homosexual employees that had ever taken place in the federal government.
In other words, it is impossible to fully understand the broader scope of gay and lesbian history in the United States without centering the experience of World War II. It is therefore appropriate that Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire was one of the first full-length works of gay and lesbian history, a foundational book upon which the still young field of LGBT history has been built. In the foreward to the twentieth-anniversary edition (three years after Bérubé’s death in 2007), pioneering LGBT historians John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman assess the state of the field when the book was first published, as well as the larger importance of the story Bérubé tells:
When Coming Out Under Fire was first published twenty years ago, gay and lesbian history had barely passed beyond its infancy. Jonathan Ned Katz had produced two enormous and rich documentary collections demonstrating that same-sex love was a topic with a history and that there was sufficient evidence to write about it. John Boswell had composed a major study of Christianity and homosexuality in Europe from the Roman era to the Middle Ages. Lillian Faderman had written a broad survey of romantic love between women in Western Europe and North America from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. There were historical studies of homosexual political movements in Britain and the United States. Some scattered articles, three “special” issues of scholarly journals, and an important anthology filled out the picture. One could read it all in a single summer, yet still have time for a relaxing vacation.
Bérubé’s study, unlike most of the existing gay and lesbian histories, focused on a core topic, central to the narrative of twentieth-century U.S. history, World War II. By inserting gay and lesbian experience right in its midst, Bérubé provided an entirely new perspective from which to understand the importance of the war. Rather than being separate from or marginal to the American story, this narrative of men who loved men and women who loved women implicitly argued that gays and lesbians have been an integral part of the nation’s history.
But beyond all of that, Bérubé’s work had special significance in the early 1990s, when it was fresh off the press. Bill Clinton won the presidential election in 1992, and in the process had built support among gay and lesbian activists by promising to lift the ban on gay and lesbian service in the military. Everybody knows what happened next—facing stiff opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress, a vitriolic national debate ensued, ending with the “compromise” policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was in the midst of this national (and congressional) debate that Bérubé personally demonstrated that gay history was important. More from the foreward:
Considered an expert on the issue by virtue of having written Coming Out Under Fire, Bérubé was pleased to find himself in the middle of this political storm. Journalists sought him out to obtain background information for their articles. The CMS [Campaign for Military Service] asked him to help craft messages that might resonate with the public and with congressional leaders. When Senator Sam Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia who chaired the Armed Services Committee and was vocally opposed to lifting the ban, announced that he was scheduling public hearings on the policy, the CMS brought him to Washington, where he stayed for several weeks preparing his testimony. He worked not only with the CMS, but also with Senator Ted Kennedy’s staff, who sought his advice on the type of questions Kennedy should raise. Although Senator Nunn never allowed Bérubé to testify, the twenty-two-page historical statement that he had prepared was used in drafting the minority reports of both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The final outcome of the six-month-long debate was the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which Bérubé considered a major defeat. As he wrote shortly afterward, it represented “not ‘half a loaf’...not even a crumb.”
On that, Bérubé was right, as thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers continued to be discharged under the policy until its repeal in 2011. Bérubé did not live to see the end to this horrendous policy, but in addition to telling the history of gay and lesbian military service, he also carved out a place for himself in that history.
Today, of course, it is transgender service members who have the target on their backs under the Trump administration. Just as Bérubé pointed in the early 1990s with respect gay and lesbian soldiers, history remains relevant. Thinking back to that Bérubé quote from the preface: Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender service members are not just on the “margins of minority history”—they are “the mainstream of American history.”
LGBT Literature Schedule:
June 24: Youffraita
July 29: OPEN
August 26: OPEN
September 30: OPEN
October 28: OPEN
November 25: OPEN
December 30: OPEN
As always, we are looking for writers! Either comment below or send Chrislove a message if you’d like to contribute to the series and fill one of our open dates.
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule: