In "Coming Out Under Fire," Allan Berube's fascinating history of the lives of gays and lesbians during World War II, a Marine corporal recalls the night his division, stationed on a South Pacific island, was strafed by Japanese planes in a surprise attack. As part of his duties, the corporal, along with two of his mates, would sometimes entertain fellow GIs with drag impersonations of Carmen Miranda and the Andrews Sisters. When the Japanese aircraft appeared on that occasion, the men were in the middle of their "Three Little Sisters" routine. "(We) three guys in dresses jumped into this gigantic foxhole with about 500 Marines in it," the corporal told Berube many years later. "The three of us stood there looking at these guys saying, 'I don't know how the hell we got into this!' "
There were other gay and lesbian GIs who probably wondered how they "got into this," as well, but for different reasons. Among this group were the 9,000 men and women dishonorably discharged on the grounds of being homosexual. Many--in some cases despite distinguished military service--wound up spending part of the war in psycho wards or in "queer" brigs or stockades. When they returned home, they faced social stigma and found themselves ineligible for GI loans and other benefits.
If one accepts the accuracy of the Kinsey reports, somewhere between 650,000 and 1,650,000 gay male GIs (and a smaller number of lesbian WAACs and WAVES) served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Nonetheless, the subject of homosexuality has been almost entirely ignored in documentation of the period. (Studs Terkel's oral history, "The Good War," is a notable exception.) Self-educated historian Berube, who has been involved in the community-based San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, spent 10 years interviewing homosexual veterans, unearthing letters between gay GIs, and rummaging through government archives. (In this last effort he often encountered resistance if not outright denial of access to material.)
The result is a rich social history that argues that much of contemporary homosexual identity, sense of community, and activism had its origin in the experience of gay men and women in World War II. At the same time, the book is a bureaucratic and political history that methodically traces the evolution of the U.S. military's policy that to this day excludes homosexuals from its ranks.
According to Berube, the U.S. military's World War II policy regarding gays and lesbians was originally put forth as humane and reformist in nature. The U.S. Armed Forces had traditionally no official policy of excluding homosexuals. Regulations simply labeled the act of sodomy as criminal, and military personnel convicted of that offense could be sent to prison.
But at the begining of the war--on the advice of psychiatrists eager, Berube believes, to increase the influence of their profession--the armed forces introduced the notion of the homosexual as a personality type unfit for military service. Gays and lesbians were viewed as "sexual psychopaths," a threat to morale and discipline; they were to be screened out or discharged dishonorably without trial. As a result, the military services developed "an expanding administrative apparatus for managing homosexual personnel that relied on diagnosis, hospitalization, surveillance, interrogation, discharge, administrative appeal, and mass indoctrination."
Despite this approach, the military's record was characterized by ambivalence, especially in view of manpower (and womanpower) needs. Berube notes that lesbians were generally left alone. No processes were adopted to screen them out until late in the war. The 1944 complaint of the mother of a WAAC private, about goings-on at Fort Ogelthorpe, Ga., resulted in a month of secret hearings on homosexuality in the Women's Army Corps. In thousands of other cases, GIs assumed to be lesbian or gay were steered to stereotypically homosexual jobs--the women to duties such as motor vehicle operation and mechanics; the men to service as clerks, medics, hospital corpsmen, chaplains' assistants, and female impersonators in musical revues and morale-boosting shows.
Acceptance in stereotypical roles was not the only kind of acceptance homosexuals received. For men, the dangers and pressures of combat forged close relationships that transcended sexual orientation. In one particularly moving account, a combat veteran recalls a man embracing and kissing his wounded lover who was being shipped back to the States, as other soldiers looked on sympathetically. The parting was "a little distilled moment out of time," the vet noted, "when the men's prejudices were suspended."
But the reality was that wartime did not always mean a suspension of prejudices, especially when orders came from the top. Soldiers told of being locked in gay stockades and forced to walk past thousands of jeering soldiers on their way to the mess hall, of having to wear tags that read, "Psychopathia sexualis." Transcripts uncovered by the author reveal a military investigator at Fort Ogelthorpe voyeuristically asking a lesbian corporal: "Do you (and your lover) kiss long clinging kisses?" and "Do you feel various parts of one another's bodies?"
"Coming Out Under Fire" is a passionate book without ever being a polemical one. Berube does an admirable job of portraying the wartime period and supporting his theories with official documentation and colorful eyewitness accounts. He is less successful depicting the many veterans he interviewed for the book; they largely fail to come alive as distinct individuals. And it might have been helpful to give the reader a better sense of the prewar experiences of gay men and lesbians as a context in which to place the wartime years.
Nonetheless, Berube makes a convincing case that by bringing large numbers of previously isolated gays and lesbians into contact with one another, establishing port cities as concentrations of homosexual bars and social life, even by labeling homosexuals as a "personality type" and persecuting them, World War II created the climate in which the gay liberation movements of the '60s and '70s were able to emerge. The Mattachine Society, the first U.S. gay rights organization, was formed by a group of veterans in 1950.
Ironically, the one institution where gay and lesbian activism has failed to make much of an impact has been the armed forces. There, little, if anything, has changed since 1945. With the military's exclusionary policies under mounting criticism, "Coming Out Under Fire" is an especially timely and important book. One wishes the Pentagon top brass would read it.
America's mobilization for World War II created the conditions for the gay liberation movements of the '60s and '70s. See excerpt from "Coming Out Under Fire" in the Opinion section, Page 4.