Kaje Harper's Reviews > Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two

Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Bérubé
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's review
Mar 25, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: historical, f-f, m-m, memoir-nonfic
Read from March 08 to 25, 2012

This was a fascinating, and sometimes heartbreaking and infuriating, look at the GLBT men and women who came out while serving in the armed forces during WWII. It includes information on being gay on the home front as well.

In the 1940's, sodomy was a criminal act in the United States. Although there were many people who were openly gay, and who were often ignored or tolerated by society as long as they kept their preferences discreet, it was a precarious existence. At any moment someone might object to a gesture or even a look, report you in the wrong quarters, and the result could be a long prison sentence.

In the armed forces, things were no less precarious. With the draft, GLBT men were given no choice about joining up. Many also volunteered, wanting to protect their homes and loved ones from the threat overseas. The war brought those men, and the women volunteers in female units, into close contact with members of their own sex under conditions of stress, fear and isolation from home. And then forbade them to fall in love, or in lust. Naturally, many of them did anyway.

Military reactions were unpredictable. Being gay was still considered a mental illness (sexual psychopathy) and was a reason for rejection from the armed services. Psychiatrists even talked about two other forms of homosexuality - paranoid personalities who suffered "Homosexual panic" and schizoid personalities who displayed "homosexual symptoms." Recruits who admitted to being gay at intake might be just rejected, or they might be labeled psychotic and psychoanalyzed, or even disbelieved as malingering and sent off to basic training. And those who did not come out at their intake interview received almost as mixed a reaction once they began to serve.

With large same-sex groups living together, some homosexual behavior was condoned. The shows that were put together to entertain the troops almost all included performers in drag, and camping it up might be taken with amusement. Or it might not. There was often a gay subculture where men or women in the know could meet and interact. But there was always the risk of being found out.

Many of the men and women were confused and afraid of their own sexual leanings. Some only became aware that they were gay from the enforced same-sex contact they experienced after enlisting. Some consulted Armed Forces psychiatrists. They received little in the way of real help in understanding themselves, given that homosexuality was considered a pathology. At best they might find a sympathetic ear. At other times the psychiatrists, who were charged with reporting a man's or woman's fitness for duty, might betray and report them.

The stress had to have been extreme. On the front, men saw their lovers maimed and killed. Some were fortunate enough to have a blind or even sympathetic eye turned by the "normal" men around them. In forward units, camaraderie between the men often overrode other considerations. Other men who lost lovers felt unsafe even admitting their pain and forced themselves to carry on as if their heart hadn't just been ripped to shreds. And they never knew when some zealot might accuse and expose them. Which might result in a commanding officer looking the other way and telling them they were valuable to the unit and to just keep it under wraps. Or which might end in a formal charge.

Once trapped in the machinery of a sodomy charge, conditions could be brutal. Men were sometimes put in chains, transported under the guns of soldiers who might be bigoted enough that the gay man wondered if he would get out of the transport alive. They were imprisoned, sometimes under severe conditions, often in a form of solitary confinement to prevent them from having contact with any other men. They were lumped together with all the other criminals. Article 93 called for similar treatment for "manslaughter, mayhem, arson, burglary, housebreaking, robbery, larceny, embezzlement, perjury, forgery, sodomy, assault (including rape)..." Gay men might be treated even more harshly than the criminals, in some cases forced to sleep with the lights on 24-7 to theoretically prevent sexual acts. Some were abused, or forced to provide blow jobs to their supposedly heterosexual guards. The women were similarly treated, sometimes even more extremely reviled by their comrades in arms and their officers.

In a vicious cycle of feedback, some of the gay men under arrest became more campy than they had ever been before, perhaps to show that they could not be broken or made less gay by the treatment. That raised distaste in some straight officers and men. Gay men still in the closet in the forces were both painfully sympathetic and embarrassed. Visiting a man arrested for sodomy was risky, as you might end up suspect yourself. Arrestees were asked to report on everyone they had encountered in situations where homosexual activity was taking place, and were sometimes made to sign dictated confessions of sodomy and homosexual activity with other named individuals.

Despite all this, many gay men and women served throughout the war with distinction. Some high level officials objected to the stigmatization of the gay soldiers under their command. But many did not. After the war, arguments continued to rage over the release of Armed Forces personnel records to organizations like the FBI, which was charged with "ensuring public safety by identifying the homosexual menace". As the post-war climate became even more hostile to gays, some records, personal letters, confessions and medical files were passed to the FBI and the police, especially from the offices of Naval and Army intelligence. Men and women who had passed through the war unscathed might find themselves the target of law enforcement.

This book is long, well referenced, and painful to read. The one light at the end of the tunnel is the realization of how far we have actually come in half a century. Gay marriage is legal in several US states - how sweet that is, coming from a position where being gay was considered insane and criminal?

I was left with a sense of awe. These men and women risked so much, just for being who they were. That they lived and fought and served, and also loved and laughed and danced, is a tribute to the human spirit. Humans have such capacity for cruelty to each other, and such capacity for love. Please God, that we are moving away from one toward the other.

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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Heidi (new)

Heidi Cullinan Research?

message 2: by Kaje (last edited Mar 09, 2012 10:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kaje Harper Yes, my M/M Romance group short story (for their new anthology project) was a request for a WWII-to-present-day arc, and the WWII stuff is taking some research. Fascinating stuff though. (On the downside, I have somehow written 20K already and the story is only about half done...)

message 3: by Heidi (new)

Heidi Cullinan This is good. I like long books. Oh, except it's supposed to be a short. Well, just do it on your own....

Kaje Harper Nah, they have no word limit (one story was 35K last time and it wasn't mine.) So they get what they get.

message 5: by Heidi (new)

Heidi Cullinan woot

message 6: by Oco (new)

Oco what a great review Kaje, thanks for writing it.

message 7: by Kaje (last edited Mar 25, 2012 11:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kaje Harper Oco wrote: "what a great review Kaje, thanks for writing it."

This was a fascinating book - I did want to cause bodily harm to a lot of people who are most probably dead by now. And to shake the hand of a lot of people of amazing courage and persistence. I'm glad my research pushed me to read this - there was a ton of perspective to be gained.

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