Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, by Allan Bérubé
Edition of Gerry B’s Book Reviews
If you never read another historical account of this era, read this one! Outstanding!
Story blurb: This major study chronicles the struggle of homosexuals in the U.S. military during WW II who found themselves fighting on two fronts: against the Axis and against their own authorities who took extreme measures to stigmatize them as unfit to serve their country. From 1941 to 1945, more than 9000 gay servicemen and women purportedly were diagnosed as sexual psychopaths and given “undesirable” discharges. Based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, augmented by 75 interviews with gay male and female veterans, social historian Berube recounts the purges in the military into the Cold War era when homosexuality was officially equated with sin, crime and sickness. The book reveals that the first public challenge to the military’s policy came not from the gay-rights movement but from military psychiatrists who studied gay servicemen and women during World War II. This evenhanded study brings into sharp focus an important chapter in American social history.
About the author: Allan Ronald Bérubé (December 3, 1946 – December 11, 2007) was an American historian, activist, independent scholar, self-described “community-based” researcher and college drop-out, and award-winning author, best known for his research and writing about homosexual members of the American Armed Forces during World War II He also wrote essays about the intersection of class and race in gay culture, and about growing up in a poor, working class family, his French-Canadian roots, and about his experience of anti-AIDS activism.
Coming Out Under Fire earned Bérubé the Lambda Literary Award for outstanding Gay Men’s Nonfiction book of 1990 and was later adapted as a film in 1994, narrated by Salome Jens and Max Cole, with a screenplay by Bérubé and the film’s director, Arthur Dong. The film received a Peabody Award for excellence in documentary media in 1995. Bérubé received a MacArthur Fellowship (often called the “genius grant”) from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1996. He received a Rockefeller grant from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in 1994 to research a book on the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, and he was working on this book at the time of his death. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Review by Gerry Burnie
If I were asked to design a definitive course on the history of Gays and Lesbians in North America, I would include three books as required reading: Gay American History, by Jonathon Katz; From the Closet to the Courtroom, by Carlos Ball; and Coming out Under Fire, by Allan Bérubé [Free Press, 1990]. Moreover, I think the students would thank me afterward for choosing books that are authoritative, informative and relatively easy to read.
For me personally, Allan Bérubé’s seminal work represents an eye-opener like few others I have read. Indeed, I was moved from profound sadness to outright rage when I learned the systematic
persecution that these innocent men and women had to endure in the service of their country. That, perhaps, is the greatest benefit that this retrospective can provide, for those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
The following is a précis of Bérubé’s thesis, but it is by no means complete or in depth. To really appreciate the full story of coming out under fire I urge you to read the original.
When the war clouds started to descend over Europe in the 1930s the United States military did not exceed two hundred thousand soldiers, and so to overcome this Congress passed the nation’s first peacetime conscription act. Consequently, conscripts began to fill the Army’s ranks in astonishing numbers (16 million in 1940-41).
With so many men available, the armed forces decided to exclude certain groups, including women, blacks, and—following the advice of psychiatrists—homosexuals (although this term was not yet widely used). Traditionally the military had never officially excluded homosexuals, but in World War II a dramatic change occurred. Seeing a chance to advance their prestige, influence, and legitimacy of their profession, psychiatrists promoted screening as a means of reducing psychiatric casualties before they became military responsibilities.
In 1941, therefore, the Army issued a directive which disqualified “homosexual proclivities” as a “psychopathic personality disorder.” This was in keeping with the prevailing belief that homosexuality was a neurological disorder—i.e. the first signs of a brain-disease caused by heredity, trauma, or bad habits such as masturbation, drunkenness and drug addiction.
Moreover, the military encased this idea in “characteristics that were considered inferior or “degenerative” by virtue of their deviation from the generally white, middle-class, and
native-born norm.” (Location 536).
“The framers of the Army’s interwar physical standards listed feminine characteristics among the “stigmata of degeneration” that made a man unfit for military service. Males with a “degenerative physique,” the regulation explained, “may present the general body conformation of the opposite sex, with sloping narrow shoulders, broad hips, excessive pectoral and public adipose [fat] deposits, with lack of masculine hirsute [hair] and muscular markings.”” (Location 536).
Bérubé then goes on to explain, “The reason for excluding these as psychopaths was that, like other men in this “wastebasket” category, they were considered to be irresponsible troublemakers who were unable to control their desires or learn from their mistakes and thus threatened the other men.” (Location 568).
To make matters worse, this sort of quackery was widely promulgated in training seminars for recruiters and physicians throughout the United States, and even published in medical journals for wider distribution.
On the other hand, because of women’s marginal status in the military prior to WWII, neither the Army nor the Navy had developed policies and procedures concerning lesbians. Therefore, women
recruits were never asked the homosexual question, and were therefore able to enter the military undetected.
After Pearl Harbor was bombed, however, the rules were relaxed to accommodate the demands of war, and the military was forced to accept and integrate most gay selectees. In fact, it was privately acknowledged that gay men had become vital members of the armed forces. Moreover, the gay recruits found ways to fit in and even to form close and lasting relationships with “buddies.”
Sexual activity was at a minimum until the recruits learned the rules, and then discrete opportunities could be found where there was a will.
“Not all trainees who approached other men for sex were gay. Heterosexual recruits who had had the most sexual experience with women or who felt strong sex drives could initiate sex without being afraid that they were queer, especially if their partner was gay and played the “passive” role. Teenage recruits who were just fooling around with each other, especially if they had been drinking, found themselves unexpectedly becoming sexual. Some older soldiers with more sexual experience in the military taught younger men how to have sex without getting caught. On the other hand, recruits who knew they were gay before entering the service were sometimes the most reluctant to have sex.” (Location 1103).
Meanwhile, Army and Navy officials struggled with how to manage the homosexual behaviour, and several approaches were developed. When challenged from the outside, particularly by concerned
parents or clergy, their public stance was to condemn behaviour considered to be immoral in the wider culture, including profanity, drunkenness, erotic pictures, extramarital sex, lesbianism, homosexuality, and prostitution. Within the organization, however, military officials took a more understanding approach—forced into it by the need to hang onto trained personnel.
Trainees usually learned on their own how to put up with one another’s differences in order to get through basic training. They also received pleas for tolerance from the war propaganda which
portrayed American soldiers as defending the ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom against the totalitarian Axis. But inspired more by necessity than idealism, male trainees responded to the demands of basic training by developing their own pragmatic ethic of tolerance: “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.”
One of the areas where blatant effeminacy was tolerated—even applauded—was in the “all-soldier variety show.” These began as a diversion, but soon became a popular form of frontline entertainment even under fire. These were all-male shows to entertain each other that almost always featured female impersonation, and coincidentally provided a temporary refuge for gay males to let their hair down and entertain their fellows.
“The impulse to put on shows and perform in dresses generally came from the men themselves—soldiers without women, as well as gay men, had long traditions of spontaneously dressing up in women’s clothes. But during World War II, the military officials, pressured by GIs, their own morale personnel, and leaders in the civilian theatre world …found themselves not only tolerating makeshift drag but officially promoting female impersonation.” (Location 1677).
In 1941, strained by the demands of a massive war mobilization that included a large influx of gay soldiers, the military could no longer handle its homosexual discipline problems by sending all offenders to prison as required by the Articles of War. Therefore, based on the belief that homosexuality was a mental illness, there was a concerted effort to discharge homosexuals without trial while retaining those whose services were deemed essential. However, this policy ran contrary to the common law that held homosexuality as “an infamous and unspeakable crime against nature,” and that the military had a responsibility “to prevent such crimes with severe punishment
and to protect the morals of the nation’s young people under their jurisdiction.”
Underlying all this was a sort of political upmanship among various factions of the military bureaucracy. For example, having sodomites released into the care of psychiatrists would greatly enhance the standing of psychiatry as a legitimate science, and for their part the generals resented the interference of the legals in the Judge Advocate’s office. Therefore, the unfortunate men and women awaiting jusice were helplessly caught somewhere in the middle.
There was also the question of what sort of discharge would apply–i.e. honourable medical discharge or dishonourable? An honourable discharge, it was argued, might lead to homosexual activity or declaration in order to escape compulsory service. Dishonourable discharge (so-called “section eights” or “blue cards”), on the other hand, were generally used only for men who had been convicted of a crime and who had served their sentences. These had been used successfully to eliminate social misfits–alcoholics, chronic liars, drug addicts, men who antagonised everyone—but technically did not include homosexuals. In the end (1943), however, the military issued a directive that steered a compromise inasmuch as sodomy was still deemed a criminal offence, but it allowed for an exception where force or violence had not been used. These individuals would be examined by a board of officers ”with the purpose of discharge under the provisions of Section Eight.
It was intended as a more humane way of dealing with “offenders” but, as gay men and women would soon find out, it was fraught with difficulties of its own.
As officers began to discharge homosexuals as undesirables, the gay GIs who were their targets had to learn how to defend themselves in psychiatrists’ offices, discharge hearing rooms, hospital wards, and in “queer stockades.” There they were interrogated about their sex lives, locked up, physically abused, and subjected to systematic humiliations in front of other soldiers.
“The discharge system could drag any GI whose homosexuality became known or even suspected into seemingly endless maze of unexpected humiliations and punishments. Some gay male and lesbian GIs first entered the maze when they voluntarily declared their homosexuality, fully expecting to be hospitalized
and discharged. But others, following the advice in basic training lectures to talk over their problems with a doctor, psychiatrist, or chaplain, were shocked when medical officers betrayed their confidences by reporting them for punitive action ad “self-confessed” homosexuals, or were disappointed and frustrated when more sympathetic psychiatrists could not help them at all. Caught during their processing for discharge in battles between friendly and hostile officers, they found themselves thrown around like footballs in a game over which they had no control.” (Location 4442).
Nor were things to improve when they were returned home to civilian life. Gay veterans with “blue” or undesirable discharges where stripped of his service medals, rank, and uniform, then given a one-way ticket home where they had to report to their draft board to present their discharge papers. The stigma attached to these discharges was not an accident. Rather, it was intended to punish homosexuals and prevent malingering, and the requirement that the GI report to his draft board ensured that his community would find out the nature of his discharge. Therefore, they were forced to come out to their families and communities. Wherever blue-discharge veterans lived, employers, schools, insurance companies, veterans’ organizations, and other institutions could use their bad discharge papers to discriminate against them.
One of the most vindictive punishments meted out to these veterans was the denial of GI benefits that included federally subsidized home loans; college loans with allowances for subsistence, tuition, and books; unemployment allowances; job training and placement programs; disability pensions and hospital care. Top officials at the Veterans Administration were responsible for this denial, contrary to Army policy and Congress, but nonetheless the VA refused to drop its anti-homosexual prohibition. Consequently, many blue-discharge veterans found it difficult (impossible) to find employment, and when they applied for unemployment insurance, or small
business loans, or college assistance, they were denied in a Catch-22 situation.
One of the side effects of this discrimination was that having survived fear and death on the battlefield, some gay combat veterans began to cast off the veil of secrecy that so seriously
constrained their lives. For them, “coming out” to family and friends was not nearly as terrifying as facing the enemy in battle. Moreover, the popular press began to take notice of the blue-ticket discharges, and their plight, and started to publish columns on the “Homosexual Minorities,” characterizing them as “anther minority which suffers from its position in society in somewhat the same way as the Jews and Negroes.”
Unfortunately, this period of ‘liberal’ attitude was short-lived, for in the late 1940s a preoccupation with conformity brought a fearful scapegoating of those who deviated from a narrow idea of the
nuclear family and the American way of life. However, you will have to read this most remarkable book to learn the outcome of this.
What I have included above only covers a small portion of this fascinating, sometimes heart rending, story. If you never read another history of this period, I urge you to read this one. Five Bees, and if I could give ten I would!
Under the Articles of War, the maximum penalties for Army enlisted men and
officers convicted of sodomy were five years confinement at hard labour,
forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and dishonourable discharge or dismissal.
Under the Articles for the Navy, the maximum penalties for enlisted men were
same but with ten years of confinement at hard labour.
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