June is Pride Month and festivals and parades are happening across the world in celebration of LGBTQA+ Pride. But Pride didn’t start as a parade, it started as a protest with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and many historians posit that the roots of these LGBT activists can be found in the World War II experiences of gays men and lesbians in the American military.
Anti-sodomy laws and regulations had been around since the Revolutionary War, leading in some cases to dishonorable discharge, courts-martial, or imprisonment for military men found having sex with other men. However, until 1942, no specific proviso barred homosexuals from serving in the military. With the growing acceptance of the validity of psychoanalysis in the medical profession in the 1920s and 1930s, attitudes towards sodomy and homosexual individuals had changed. In 1942, the relatively new profession of military psychiatrists warned of the “psychopathic personality disorders” that would make homosexuals unfit to fight. The military’s policy that homosexual acts were a crime that merited discharge gave way to a psychiatrist-controlled theory that homosexuality was an illness, and the sick person, not the act, became the target of anti-homosexual policies and directives.
Military psychologists devised supposedly foolproof guides to ferret out homosexuals who tried to enlist in the military. To help examiners distinguish gay men from other enlistees, psychiatrists wrote into military regulations lists of stereotyped signs that characterized gay men as visibly different from the rest of the population. Some of the signs they were instructed to look for included an effeminate flip of hand or a certain nervousness when standing naked before an officer.
Still, hundreds of thousands of gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women served in the armed forces during World War II. The massive manpower needs during the war created an ambiguous place for gay men and lesbians in military service. And gay men and women, like most groups of Americans, wanted to serve their country. The military officially rejected only about 4,000 to 5,000 men because of “psychopathic personality disorders” after examining nearly 18 million men, according to Allan Bérubé in his book “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II.”
Gay women also enlisted. Officials in women’s branches downplayed the importance of the stereotype that masculine women were lesbians in order to combat personnel shortages. In official spaces, female masculinity, unlike male effeminacy, was not considered to be a disqualifying defect, reflecting the need for women who could perform traditionally male work. Furthermore, even when suspected of lesbian activity, efforts were made to retain all of the women in question. The need for bodies trumped the need for purity.
This did not stop some public anxiety with women’s new roles in society and the effect it would have on traditional, heterosexual relationships. During the war, American society saw a shift in traditional gender roles in the public and private spheres, with women taking on traditionally male jobs outside of the home in unprecedented numbers, both in the military and on the home front. As a result, there was increasing public fear about women’s sexuality and homosexuality. In fact, the formation of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) sparked public speculation and concern about the potential breakdown of heterosexual norms and sexual morality which might result.
The response of the Women’s Army Corps Director, Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, was to challenge this by characterizing enlisted women as chaste and asexual. She also led the WAC to demand more strict screening to determine the motivations of women wanting to join the WAC. But lesbians still joined up and served their country. Once in the military, lesbians created social networks, with mannerisms and coded language aiding them in finding each other. After the war, when women were expected to return to civilian life and resume traditional gender roles, unmarried women who chose to remain in the military increasingly stood out as members of a deviant group.
Gay male culture also flourished in many ways in the military. Homosocial environments and the intimacy caused by life in combat made many in the military practice “don’t ask don’t tell” before it was even the official military stance. Drag shows were quite popular during the war, like “G.I. Carmen,” an all-GI musical stage show produced by the 253rdInfantry Regiment, 63rdDivision of the U.S. Army as a morale booster for Allied troops. There were also queer social networks of gay men.
Still, many gays and lesbians were discharged for homosexual activity. These were called “blue discharges,” a kind of middle ground between honorable and dishonorable. But the blue discharges ruined many lives. They were often marked “HS” or some other code for homosexual, effectively disqualifying the veteran from receiving any GI rights or benefits and barring many discharged soldiers from getting civilian jobs.
While not a lot is known or confirmed about transgender people serving in the U.S. military during World War II, there are some stories of trans World War II veterans. Perhaps one of the most famous trans veterans was Christine Jorgensen, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945. After the war, she heard about sex reassignment surgery and traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, where she obtained special permission to undergo a series of operations starting in 1951. She returned to the U.S. in the 1950s and her transition was the subject of a New York Daily Newsfront page story. She became an instant celebrity, using the platform to advocate for transgender people, and also worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer. Some World War II veterans have told their stories of transitioning later in life, like Robina Asti, Louise Jennings, and Patricia Davis.
While World War II caused many shifts in American culture, including shifts in popular ideas of traditional gender roles, the years following the war saw a return to the expectation that the woman would stay home while the man worked. The tenuous look-the-other-way policy towards gay men and women also came crumbling down during the late 1940s and 1950s, both in the military and in general society. Part of this was because the McCarthy era targeted homosexuals right alongside Communists.
However, just how African Americans experiencing Jim Crow laws after being willing to die for their country during the war contributed to the Civil Rights Movement, gay men and women experiencing persecution and repression after the relative freedom they experienced during the war contributed to the burgeoning gay rights movement. But it wasn’t until the 2010 Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were allowed to serve openly in the U.S. Armed Forces.