Friday, May 3, 2013
Book Review - Coming Out Under Fire
I'm currently reading, "Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II," by Allan Berube. It's a fascinating narrative of the WWII generation in American history. I'm a bit of a fact nerd so I like the details and chronology he provides. My only complaint is that he could have provided more detailed narratives about the lives of some of the gay and lesbian GIs that he writes about. It can be a bit dry at times.
But my objective in writing this post is more to comment on what I've learned from reading it. I was aware that sodomy, etc., has generally been considered a crime in the military since the founding of the US and that prior to WWII guilty persons were subject to lengthy prison terms. I was also aware that this changed from prison sentences to dishonorable discharge during WWII. I was less aware of the reasons for the change. According to Berube, the volume of gay service members during WWII was such that the resource demand required for the courts martial and prisons for gay service members required a change in policy.
The huge number of soldiers drafted for the war brought together a vast number of similar aged men in newly created training bases. Gays naturally found each and formed social circles beyond what most previously known. Most gays served undetected but the number who were found out, tried and discharged was large. Despite the hunt to eradicate them, gays were able to leave their small towns and experience a gay and lesbian culture they never knew existed.
I was shocked to learn that queer stockades were constructed at military bases around the world to hold discovered homosexuals who were labeled as "sexual psychopaths". Often these stockades and brigs were similar to concentration camps without the starvation and gas chambers. The men were forced to live for months caged in terrible conditions and to wear labels of "D" for deviant or other marks indicating their homosexuality.
Many soldiers, including straight ones, developed near romantic or even sexual relationships with other soldiers to fulfill their need for love and intimacy. Some commanders ignored the rules about confining and expelling gay soldiers because they provided important stress relief to combat soldiers in the form of campy drag queens, theater and comedy. In the stress of war many were accepted by their comrades who took care to look after them in battle.
In short, the war created both increased tolerance and increased persecution of gays. It helped solidify gay and lesbian identity and solidarity. World War II spawned many gay activists and allowed many men and women to live more openly about their sexuality than they could in their hometowns. The war helped set the stage for Stonewall and the resulting gay liberation movement.
It's a fascinating book and I recommend it if you are interested in history or especially gay history.