The massive mobilization for World War II propelled gay men and lesbians into the mainstream of American life. Ironically the screening and discharge policies, together with the drafting of millions of men, weakened barriers that had kept gay people trapped and hidden at the margins of society. Discovering that they shared a common cause, they were more willing and able to defend themselves, as their ability to work, congregate and lead sexual lives came under escalating attack in the postwar decade.
Long before the war, a chain of social constraints immobilized many gay men and women, keeping them invisible, isolated, silent, ignorant and trivialized. As young people, they learned to hide their homosexual feelings in fear and shame, helping to perpetuate the myth that people like them didn't exist. Locked in a closet of lies and deceptions, many people with homosexual desires mistakenly believed they were the only ones in the world--often not even knowing what to call themselves.
When publicly acknowledged, they were caricatured as "fairies" and "mannish" women, freaks whose lives were trivialized as silly, so that many lesbians and gay men learned not to take themselves or each other seriously. Such insidious forms of social control worked below the surface of daily life through unspoken fears and paralyzing shame, coming into view only in sporadic acts of violence, arrests, school expulsions, firings or religious condemnations.
Ironically, the mobilization for World War II helped to loosen the constraints that locked so many gay people in silence and self-contempt. Selective Service acknowledged the importance of gay men when it drafted hundreds of thousands and broke the silence when examiners asked millions of selectees about their homosexual tendencies.
The draft, together with lax recruitment policies allowing lesbians to enter the military, placed a generation of gay men and women in gender-segregated bases where they could find each other, form cliques and discover the gay life in cities. Classification officers assigned even the most "mannish" women and effeminate men to stereotyped duties, recognizing that these previously marginal people were useful and even indispensable to the war effort.
Changes in policy brought similarly dramatic effects. Military officials intensified the significance of homosexuality by building a bureaucratic apparatus to manage homosexual personnel. In the process, they inadvertently gave gay inductees and soldiers the option to avoid compulsory military service by coming out. Psychiatrists gave soldiers, as well as military officials, a biased but useful new language and set of concepts--such as the word homosexual and the idea of a "personality type"--that some used to categorize homosexuals, understand homosexuality and even define themselves.
During purges, interrogators terrorized suspects into breaking their protective silence, forcing them to describe their homosexual lives, make confessions and name friends and sexual partners. Officers who aggressively rooted out homosexuals and exposed them further destroyed their ability to hide in the closet, forcing them to lead new lives as known homosexuals.
As these soldiers were thrown together into psych wards and queer stockades, they endured the same hardships and were better able to see themselves as compatriots victimized by the same persecution. When they were discharged as undesirables--without benefits and without being charged with any crime--gay men and women gained a cause, a target to attack and new avenues of appeal to defend their rights as gay GIs and veterans.
Disrupted and exposed by the war, gay life in the postwar years seemed to expand at an unprecedented rate. The proliferation of gay bars, the broadening of public discussion of homosexuality, the formulation of the idea that homosexuals constituted a minority, the widespread acceptance of the psychiatric model of homosexuals as sexual psychopaths, the emergence and growth of federal anti-homosexual policies and the new avenues for gay citizens to appeal government injustices were some of the many legacies of World War II. These changes had a powerful impact on how a nation would respond to homosexuality long after the war.
World War II veterans were the first generation of gay men and women to experience such rapid, dramatic and widespread changes in their lives as homosexuals. They felt a growing sense that, as veterans, they were being treated unfairly when singled out for persecution; they should be able to live their lives in peace as long as they did their jobs and didn't hurt anyone else. Under heavy attack during the postwar decade, however, most gay male and lesbian citizens refrained from publicly standing up for themselves or even talking about their lives.
But the postwar years were also a period of new possibilities that strengthened and developed gay culture. Despite the mounting political war against them, the generation of World War II gay veterans responded to a hostile environment by expanding their "closet"--making it a roomier place to live.
Previous generations had invented the closet--a system of lies, denials, disguises and double-entendres--that enabled them to express some homosexuality by pretending it didn't exist and hiding it from view. A later generation would "come out of the closet," learning to live as proud and openly gay men and women and demanding public recognition. But the World War II generation slowly stretched their closet to its limits, not proclaiming their homosexuality in public but not willing to live lonely lives.
In increasing numbers, these men and women went to gay and lesbian bars that proliferated despite new state laws designed to put them out of business. In the late 1940s, gay bars opened for the first time in such medium-size cities as Kansas City, Mo.; Richmond, Va.; Worcester, Mass., and San Jose, Calif. Another gay institution, the bathhouse, also proliferated after the war.
It was in this social climate that the first signs of a continuous gay political movement and press emerged in the United States. In 1950, the Mattachine Society was organized in Los Angeles--primarily by war veterans--in response to the anti-homosexual campaigns in Washington, police arrests in Los Angeles, the treatment of homosexuals by the military and the crackdowns on gay and lesbian bars. In 1955, women in San Francisco started the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian-rights organization in the United States.
The generation of gay men and women who served in World War II grew into adulthood fighting one war for their country and another to protect themselves from their government's escalating mobilization against them. When they returned to civilian life, some fought for their right to be treated fairly as patients, veterans and citizens. For others, a quiet sense of belonging was victory enough, to have the chance to fit into the country they fought for, leading ordinary but unapologetic lives.
As they grow into old age and once again face death, most still blend into the world around them, while some have come out--either under fire or on their own. Today they witness an expanding public debate over the military's exclusion of homosexuals. To be serious, that debate must include a sense of history--not only of how the military established its anti-gay policy during World War II, and then suppressed all internal dissent, but also of how the men and women who were the policy's first targets fought and died for their country with the rest of their generation.
BOOK REVIEW: A review of "Coming Out Under Fire" appears in the Book Review section. Page 4