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Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two

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During World War II, as the United States called on its citizens to serve in unprecedented numbers, the presence of gay Americans in the armed forces increasingly conflicted with the expanding antihomosexual policies and procedures of the military. In Coming Out Under Fire , Allan Berube examines in depth and detail these social and political confrontation--not as a story of how the military victimized homosexuals, but as a story of how a dynamic power relationship developed between gay citizens and their government, transforming them both. Drawing on GIs' wartime letters, extensive interviews with gay veterans, and declassified military documents, Berube thoughtfully constructs a startling history of the two wars gay military men and women fough--one for America and another as homosexuals within the military.

Berube's book, the inspiration for the 1995 Peabody Award-winning documentary film of the same name, has become a classic since it was published in 1990, just three years prior to the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which has continued to serve as an uneasy compromise between gays and the military. With a new foreword by historians John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, this book remains a valuable contribution to the history of World War II, as well as to the ongoing debate regarding the role of gays in the U.S. military.

384 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1990

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About the author

Allan Bérubé

5 books14 followers
Alan Berube, founder of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, is best known for his 1990 book about homosexual life in the military during World War II.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 83 reviews
Profile Image for Kaje Harper.
Author 73 books2,498 followers
February 24, 2023
This was a fascinating, and sometimes heartbreaking and infuriating, look at the LGBTQ 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, gay and bi men (and closeted trans women of that era) 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? (And now, as I reread, in the US as a nation, although conservatives are doing their best to undermine that, with tactics that mirror some of this bigoted past.)

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.
Profile Image for laurel [the suspected bibliophile].
1,370 reviews376 followers
July 23, 2019
An extensive and detailed history of the gay and lesbian experience in World War II.

At times it was fairly repetitive and tried to wrap the entire gay and lesbian experience into a single narrative, but it was incredibly detailed, thoroughly researched and understood the limits of its own research (as in, there is no way to tell how many gays and lesbians served).

While it doesn't talk about any transgender or bisexual service members (at least, it mentions servicemembers who did have partners of both sexes but called them either "experimenting" with their sexuality or releasing tension), it did do a pretty good job detailing the lives of gays and lesbians in the US military.

The book really stands out with the personal narratives of various servicemembers detailing their experience—from camping to camp shows, to the queer stockades and gay clubs, to living openly and having to hide everything, to being jailed for sodomy to being given a blue discharge for homosexuality.

The haphazard enforcement of the "no-homosexual" rules in the military really broke my heart, along with the queer stockades—where men were kept in cages in open areas as examples for other servicemembers to gawk and stare at—and those men who were jailed for homosexual acts and kept completely segregated in the jails and treated as sexual perverts. Additionally, there were queer witch hunts, where individuals suspected of homosexuality were interrogated at length and forced to betray their friends and themselves—often without the benefit of legal counsel (and if they confessed their feelings to a doctor, psychologist or chaplain their secret had to be reported to the command).

As a queer veteran who served during the repeal of DODT and DOMA, this entire book was eye-opening and made me appreciate how much things have changed, and how much more inclusive the military has become over the years (and how much further we need to go, particularly in terms of homophobia in the ranks and the transgender ban). I feel so badly for the hell those men and women who were caught and drummed out faced, because the repercussions of the blue discharge lasted their entire lives, and carried into the Lavender Scare of the 1950s.

Definitely a must-read if you're interested in gay and lesbian military history.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
865 reviews835 followers
June 8, 2019
Groundbreaking study of the American LGBT experience during World War II. Drawing on dozens of interviews with veterans, Berube shows how traditional gender roles were confused and complicated by mass military service. The military officially spurned homosexuality, subjecting suspected gay and lesbian enlistees to psychological exams, imprisonment and dishonorable discharge. Yet the homosocial climate and extreme value placed on wartime camaraderie (from the "buddy system" encouraged by officers to male drag revues) forged extremely close bonds between service members, which often led to either casual sexual encounters (what Berube terms "situational homosexuality") or long-term relationships among GIs, WACs and others. Ironically, the need for discretion forged a shared identity among servicemen and women who'd been previously reticent about their sexual orientation. For many, it was their entry to a distinct community, albeit an extremely marginalized one. Berube doesn't restrict himself to exploring wartime gender roles, however; he shows that gay and lesbian soldiers served just as honorably as heterosexual GIs, saving the lives of comrades, winning decorations and performing dangerous jobs (from combat medics to frontline infantry) under fire. Many were imprisoned, stripped of medals or denied veterans' benefits after the war, forcing them to fight back - resulting in one of the earliest gay rights movements in America. A fascinating study that honors men and women who served a country that often failed to honor them - a dilemma that, unfortunately, remains unresolved seven decades later.
Profile Image for Mareike.
Author 3 books53 followers
September 2, 2020
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.

This is a deeply researched account of - primarily - the lives of lesbian women and gay men in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII. Bérubé draws on archival research and interviews with former service members to paint a comprehensive picture of how anti-homosexual policies were drafted, instituted, and changed over time and how they affected individual people. It's a tough read because of that (the last chapter, detailing how much persecution of LGBTQIA people increased after the war is especially upsetting). At the same time, the book shows the resilience of the community and, indeed, how the persecution by Military and government officials contributed, in some ways, to the formation of a distinct community during and after the war and how this sense of community - and a growing anger about being treated like second-class citizens after fighting in the war - contributed to the formation of the Gay Liberation Movement.

While the book is dated in some ways, it is still a fundamental text for understanding the lives of LGBTQIA (but especially lesbian and gay) service members during WWII as well as the history of their persecution.
Profile Image for saïd.
5,872 reviews544 followers
March 26, 2023
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 mobilisation against them.
This is one of those books that’s difficult to review, because who am I to give an opinion on something so culturally important? But I did like it, I did enjoy reading it.

Allan Bérubé draws on extensive archival research as well as numerous interviews with queer (and straight) military veterans to support his hypothesis that traditional gender roles and sexual expectations were confounded by mass military service. Despite the US military’s official stance against homosexuality, that did little to stop queer men and women from enlisting and, indeed, serving, whether their sexuality was known or kept closeted. Although the military often subjected queer men and women—or even those suspected of being as such—to unethical physical and psychological exams, including those where the (usually male) person in question would be forced to strip naked and shown erotica to gauge the physical reaction. It was believed that queer men had softer or larger lips as a result of performing oral sex on other men, so any enlistee with those physical characteristics would be under suspicion. Individuals, typically men, found out to be queer were often disciplined, imprisoned, fined, or dishonourably discharged, typically through a process known as “blue ticketing,” which was also disproportionately applied to African-American soldiers; although the blue ticket (or card) would not outright state that the soldier had been discharged for confirmed or suspected homosexuality, it was an open secret what the ticket meant, which resulted in discrimination, lack of employment, and frequently worse, to those given one.

And yet, despite this seemingly hostile environment, homosocial relationships flourished. In part this was thought to be a result of the sex-segregated barracks and value placed on wartime camaraderie, something Bérubé notes frequently, saying:
Some gay soldiers and officers, particularly those with a college education, carried with them a mythology, developed from reading the classics and in conversations with other gay men, about “armies of lovers,” such as the “Sacred Band of Thebes” in ancient Greece, and heroic military leaders, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Lawrence of Arabia, who like themselves had had male lovers. This folklore provided them with romantic historical images that could help allay self-doubts before their first combat missions. It confirmed that there had always been gay warriors who fought with courage and skill, sometimes spurred on by the desire to fight bravely by the side of their lovers.
There was also the fact that, with sex-segregated troops, entertainment amongst men was primarily provided by other men. This often took the form of comedic stage performances, which would today be considered more or less identical to drag shows. A similar pattern—male actors playing female roles onstage—can be traced back millennia, all the way to ancient Greek theatre and earlier. Bérubé also acknowledges what he calls “situational homosexuality,” where soldiers would engage in sexual relationships with one another regardless of their romantic interest in other men (it was also believed by a majority of GIs that venereal diseases could only be contracted from heterosexual intercourse, and—given that condom rations were often used on rifle-barrels to prevent weather damage—this was in no small part one of the reasons behind these “situational” sexual relationships; conversely, enlisted women were not told that venereal disease could or could not be contracted from lesbian sex, but based on essentially every reliable report, this did nothing to stop them from engaging in it). This type of “situational” relationship was also prevalent amongst WACs and army nurses—many of whom were either away from their husbands or partners for long periods of time and therefore turned to other women for sexual gratification—or single women curious about lesbian experiences. Of course, queer spaces were hardly nonexistent prior to the war, even in the US (which, compared to pre-war countries such as Germany, the undisputed hub of queer sexual expression and acceptance, was relatively conservative about such matters); Bérubé explains at length how the need for discretion birthed its own discreet community amongst queer servicemen and -women within the context of the war, often forming relationships and connections that would last the length of the war if not even longer after.

But the focus is not exclusively on the sexual and gendered dynamics amongst service members: Bérubé dedicates a significant portion of the book to spelling out, in detail, the manifold ways queer servicemen and -women served just as honourably as their heterosexual counterparts during the war, providing examples of queer soldiers, medics, etc. who saved lives, won medals, performed dangerous and excruciating tasks, took on crushingly difficult roles, and lost their lives during the fighting. Bérubé takes a darker tone when discussing the treatment these people faced during and after the war, where queer veterans were imprisoned, fined, disciplined, stripped of decorations, demoted, denied veterans’ benefits, and ostracised, resulting in the first tangible roots of the American queer rights movement that would hit its stride in the 1960s and continue in force through the 1980s.

The book is by no means an easy read—Bérubé spares no unpleasant or uncomfortable detail—but it’s also a meticulously crafted portrait of resiliency, acknowledging and honouring these people not only for the hardships and persecution they endured but also the incredible courage they displayed. It is an incredible book, a testament to both Bérubé’s exhaustive queer scholarship as well as the remarkable individuals portrayed within. Bérubé’s research predates the don’t-ask don’t-tell era of the US military, something that is frankly difficult to believe, but its cultural resonance and relevance remain barely diminished by the passage of time.
Profile Image for Alicja.
277 reviews81 followers
March 8, 2014
rating: 5.5/5

This nonfiction history work presents a complex analysis of the intersection of homosexuality and society, culture, military rules and regulations, and soldiers (drafted and volunteered alike) during World War II. It doesn't paint gays and lesbians as victims but delves deep into history to find the battles fought outside of the battlefields; battles between culture and military need during wartime, imprisonment and need for practicality, vice squads and soldiers, military hierarchy and psychiatrists, soldiers within their ranks, young men and women and themselves/their identity, sub-culture formation and finding a place within the mainstream culture, freedom to be oneself and service/self-sacrifice, fear and courage, enemies and allies, culture wars, etc.

It is an extraordinary history hidden deep within official documents and personal stories. The author interviewed dozens of soldiers, using their words to describe their experiences. He also searched for letters lost in attics; letters between lovers, friends, comrades. He allowed us to enter this fascinating and previously little known secret world, a mere few years in history that had profound impact on gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals for decades after the war that created ripples which can be still felt today.
27 reviews11 followers
June 17, 2020
3.5, really. A little dry at times, but an incredible treasure trove of stories about American gay men and some women (all cis, almost all white) who served and fought during WW2. Particularly enjoyed the image of all the straight guys submitting questions to medical and psychiatric lecturers during and after the war about what, exactly, those fellas were getting up to in their bunks.
Profile Image for Rebecca Crunden.
Author 16 books470 followers
Shelved as 'research'
June 3, 2021
⤑ research tag: in an effort to organise my shelves, I'm going to be labelling the books I'm using for study purposes as I tend to dip in and out of these.
Profile Image for carlageek.
272 reviews21 followers
July 26, 2018
In chronicling the range of experiences of gay men and lesbians who served in the US military in WWII, Bérubé argues that the military's treatment of homosexuality was a crucial catalyst in the subsequent development of the notion of gays as a political class with rights to fight for, and thence for the gay-rights movement.

Prior to the war, the military dealt with homosexual acts via criminal codes and court-martial. With the Selective Service and the induction of hundreds of thousands of men to fight in the new war, though, a need arose to screen out draftees who were undesirable or thought to be unsuited for combat. This, combined with some time-honored stereotypes about gay men, led to the notion of homosexuality as a personality trait (or mental disorder, depending upon whom you asked) to be screened for and excluded. This shift of focus from homosexual conduct to homosexual persons, Bérubé argues, was a crucial change of attitude that extended beyond the war into civilian life, and changed both the way society at large thought about homosexuality and the way gay people thought about themselves.

Bérubé also argues that the progression of the war saw a general liberalization of policies toward homosexuals, borne mostly out of necessity; court-martial or administrative hearings for every gay soldier would have been a tremendous drain on resources, and discharging them all would have reduced the available pool of soldiers at a time when every one was badly needed. Different soldiers received vastly different treatment, depending upon where they were (big administrative posts tended to be harsher toward gay soldiers than deployed units in active combat, where tightly-bonded groups depended upon tolerance for survival), which psychiatrists examined them, who their commanding officers were, and other vagaries.

After the war, though, after a brief period of gratitude and tolerance in which many public voices decried discrimination against soldiers discharged for homosexuality and agitated to make them eligible for GI Bill benefits, the general cultural trend toward conformity and strict enforcement of gender roles swung the pendulum back and drove a new wave of discrimination which in turn furthered the development of the fledgling political movement for gay rights.

Bérubé chronicles all of this with a readable blend of pieces of the historical record and the oral histories of gay servicemen and women. If that "and women" sounds like a bit of an afterthought, it sort of is. Bérubé tries to include the stories of lesbians in his discussion, but the book is really 90% about policies toward, and experiences of, men. This is partly because the vast majority of soldiers were men; millions of American men served in the war and only a couple hundred thousand women. And it's partly because lesbian sexuality often flies under the radar among male policymakers who have no concept of female sexuality independent of the presence of and desires of men. But it's only partly so. What Bérubé offers of the stories of lesbian WACs, WAVES, and nurses is rich and fascinating. And the policy considerations that pointed toward or away from excluding lesbians from service were quite different from those that drove the treatment of gay male soldiers, an equally fascinating point that Bérubé treats only briefly. One does have the feeling that Bérubé could have balanced his focus more if he had wanted to.
397 reviews24 followers
May 28, 2011
Coming Out Under Fire is a thoroughly fascinating, detailed study of a crucial transitional period in American society. It's extremely well-documented throughout, and although the author's style might be considered dry, the pages come to life because of the words and lives of the people portrayed. Berubé really did a great job of finding and putting together diverse material, and the quotes from the people he interviewed are always illuminating.

Besides the story of how gay soldiers tried to make a place for themselves in the army, find each other, and survive hostility, this book is illuminating as to a shift in social attitudes that was largely started off by the psychiatric profession. Psychiatrists, by trying to shift the military procedures from criminalization of sex acts to the medical handling of "latent" or "confirmed" homosexuals, began (whether they realized it or not) to create the basis for recognizing the homosexual person as a problem, independent of what they did. In a hostile society, this could lead to a person's positive achievements being entirely discounted. Some (a few) psychiatrists started with the idea that homosexuality was a personality trait that didn't necessarily cause any problems, and ironically, a few who were tasked with interviewing large numbers of soldiers for discharge came to that conclusion -- their completely ineffective protests against the army's punitive attitude were some of the earliest defenses of homosexuality in the US.

Gay soldiers often came out of the war with a better sense of themselves as gay, whether because of the chance that cameraderie had given them to feel "normal", because of meeting many others like themselves, or precisely because of the segregation and discrimination imposed on them if they were caught up in anti-homosexuality policies. Challenging their undesirable discharges encouraged some to speak up for themselves, as did the experience of those who went home unwilling to hide their new sense of themselves. For the first time, they began to think of themselves as a minority and speak in terms of rights and justice. The controversy over blue discharges even led to public discussion that was not always unsympathetic to homosexuals. This was a remarkable transitional period before the hysterically conformist crackdown of the fifties.

This book gave me a new perspective on a decade of American history that I had wrongly thought familiar, and made for a vivid picture of the social life of the people concerned.
Profile Image for Sineala.
706 reviews
April 20, 2021
This is one of those books that always gets recommended if you're looking for information on being gay in the US during pre-Stonewall portions of the 20th century. And now that I've finally finished it, I can see why it gets recommended so much. Sure, at this point it's over 30 years old -- which means that, yes, it actually predates DADT -- but as far as I know nothing better has come along. And there are definitely ways in which I wish it could have been more informative -- more lesbians, maybe? -- but it is very very good for what it is.

So, yeah, if this is a topic you are at all interested in, you will want to read this. You probably already have. But if you have not, you should.
Profile Image for Ai Miller.
576 reviews35 followers
March 10, 2017
Hoo boy. I want to start this off by first acknowledging the important work Berube did in this book; this book was definitely groundbreaking when it was published, and importantly, legitimized the service of gay and lesbian veterans of World War II. Berube's work here also served a materially political purpose, which is something that many academics cannot say.

That being said, if you, like me, are suspicious at best of the citizen-soldier construct, this book can be difficult to get through. I found myself drowning in homo-nationalism so frequently that I had to put the book aside for weeks at a time. (You'll notice it took me ~six months to finish it, and that wasn't just because grad school got in the way.) The introduction to Berube's My Desire for History gives some context for his need to honor these veterans this way, but it still was difficult to grapple with as a reader who might have appreciated a little more nuanced look into the service of these individuals.

The best parts of the book for me were those centering around lesbian women in the military--they were mostly free from the horrifying culture of masculinity that Berube described with gay men serving, and so I enjoyed them much more. I will, as always in books like this, point out that though Berube pays lip service to bisexual and transgender people in the text, their actual appearances are minimal at best (which is to say that some of the folks interviewed or talked about might have identified as bisexual, though Berube is not explicit in identifying any,) and, in the case of transgender people in particular, are wholly absent (which is really interesting, given the rich history of particularly transgender people serving in the military.) Though I understand that wasn't Berube's intention per se, I am going to note it for potential readers.
Profile Image for Garrick Jones.
Author 14 books32 followers
April 4, 2022
My go-to bible of the lives and experiences of American LGBT servicemen and women during WW2. It's a researcher's best friend and without directly saying it, comparing the experience of men enlisting in the US forces to those in Commonwealth countries (where questions of sexuality were never posed) is a revelation into the direct persecution of gay men and women who fought for their country.

It's surely not everyone's cup of tea, mainly due to the amount of factual information, but it's delivered well, concisely and written in a manner that's both informative and easy to read.

My third reading of this book. I find new facts every time.
167 reviews
November 6, 2018
This is the key text for homosexual experience in WWII and it remains so. Berube did a great job of seeking out information from homosexuals and government documents. If one spends time seeking out those documents one can appreciate the time and effort necessary for creating this book. There is great breadth covered from the role of psychiatrists, military leaders, the experiences of gays and lesbians in the US military, repression as well as acceptance that does not seem to have too much uniformity during the war. Well worth the read.
Profile Image for Emmett.
135 reviews
July 20, 2022
super interesting and amazingly researched book about a very important topic. i had no idea of how important WWII was for the visibilization and development of the gay community as such, and even though it was a rough read at times, i think it's very important to keep in mind this part of the history of the lgbt community as well as not forgetting how gay people have always played a part in history and their experiences and their fight is not something that we can allow to be forgotten
Profile Image for Sean Mobley.
37 reviews3 followers
December 3, 2020
An amazing, eye-opening history of queer soldiers in World War II. The book relies on a wealth of original research to tell a variety of forgotten stories. Sections of the book focus on the individual experiences of soldiers in training and combat, the legal and policy changes that took place involved LGBT individuals over the course of the war as a reaction to the queer presence in the ranks, the fall and rise and fall again of drag in the 1940s, and the evolution of the psychological and social understanding of what it meant to be homosexual.

The biggest fault, and it is a big one, is that Bérubé focuses almost entirely on cisgendered gay men. The experience of queer women is given a decent, though inadequate, amount of space, and the experience of non-Caucasian queer GIs is relegated to a few paragraphs scattered throughout the story. There is no mention of transgender GIs at all. There are a number of very plausible reasons for this that had he been more up-front about would have made the book a stronger read (for example, acknowledging that history has tended to record white male experiences and ignored others). I don't think this should stop anyone from reading this book.
Profile Image for David.
68 reviews9 followers
May 18, 2019
Very well written and researched and fairly enlightening to how the military developed and enforced its anti-gay policies. I admire the amount of work this must have taken. Its also a lot less “academic” than the other gay history book Ive read was- Gay New York- and was easy to follow and understand.

You can tell this was originally written even before Dont Ask Dont Tell was implemented, but thats less a criticism and more an observation. Overall an important and worthwhile read if you are trying to learn more gay history
Profile Image for Brianna.
453 reviews10 followers
November 25, 2012
This book was fantastic, and never a dull moment (including the Introduction). It begins with the military's policy on "screening" for homosexuals in the draft (and how psychologists thought gays and lesbians could be identified by brief Q&A or physical attributes).

The stories from those who served, interviewed by the author, were told brilliantly to keep the story moving but still bring us the personal anecdotes.
Profile Image for Gerry Burnie.
Author 8 books27 followers
November 10, 2011
Gerry B's Book Reviews - http://gerrycan.wordpress.com

If I were asked to design a definitive course on the history of Gays and Lesbians in North America, I would include three books as required reading: Gay American History, by Jonathon Katz; From the Closet to the Courtroom, by Carlos Ball; and Coming out Under Fire, by Allan Bérubé [Free Press, 1990]. Moreover, I think the students would thank me afterward for choosing books that are authoritative, informative and relatively easy to read.

For me personally, Allan Bérubé’s seminal work represents an eye-opener like few others I have read. Indeed, I was moved from profound sadness to outright rage when I learned the systematic
persecution that these innocent men and women had to endure in the service of their country. That, perhaps, is the greatest benefit that this retrospective can provide, for those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The following is a précis of Bérubé’s thesis, but it is by no means complete or in depth. To really appreciate the full story of coming out under fire I urge you to read the original.


When the war clouds started to descend over Europe in the 1930s the United States military did not exceed two hundred thousand soldiers, and so to overcome this Congress passed the nation’s first peacetime conscription act. Consequently, conscripts began to fill the Army’s ranks in astonishing numbers (16 million in 1940-41).

With so many men available, the armed forces decided to exclude certain groups, including women, blacks, and—following the advice of psychiatrists—homosexuals (although this term was not yet widely used). Traditionally the military had never officially excluded homosexuals, but in Word War II a dramatic change occurred. Seeing a chance to advance their prestige, influence, and legitimacy of their profession, psychiatrists promoted screening as a means of reducing psychiatric casualties before they became military responsibilities.

In 1941, therefore, the Army issued a directive which disqualified “homosexual proclivities” as a “psychopathic personality disorder.” This was in keeping with the prevailing belief that homosexuality was a neurological disorder—i.e. the first signs of a brain-disease caused by heredity, trauma, or bad habits such as masturbation, drunkenness and drug addiction.

Moreover, the military encased this idea in “characteristics that were considered inferior or “degenerative” by virtue of their deviation from the generally white, middle-class, and
native-born norm.” (Location 536).

“The framers of the Army’s interwar physical standards listed feminine characteristics among the “stigmata of degeneration” that made a man unfit for military service. Males with a “degenerative physique,” the regulation explained, “may present the general body conformation of the opposite sex, with sloping narrow shoulders, broad hips, excessive pectoral and public adipose [fat] deposits, with lack of masculine hirsute [hair] and muscular markings.”” (Location 536).

Bérubé then goes on to explain, “The reason for excluding these as psychopaths was that, like other men in this “wastebasket” category, they were considered to be irresponsible troublemakers who were unable to control their desires or learn from their mistakes and thus threatened the other men.” (Location 568).

To make matters worse, this sort of quackery was widely promulgated in training seminars for recruiters and physicians throughout the United States, and even published in medical journals for wider distribution.

On the other hand, because of women’s marginal status in the military prior to WWII, neither the Army nor the Navy had developed policies and procedures concerning lesbians. Therefore, women
recruits were never asked the homosexual question, and were therefore able to enter the military undetected.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed, however, the rules were relaxed to accommodate the demands of war, and the military was forced to accept and integrate most gay selectees. In fact, it was privately acknowledged that gay men had become vital members of the armed forces. Moreover, the gay recruits found ways to fit in and even to form close and lasting relationships with “buddies.”

Sexual activity was at a minimum until the recruits learned the rules, and then discrete opportunities could be found where there was a will.

“Not all trainees who approached other men for sex were gay. Heterosexual recruits who had had the most sexual experience with women or who felt strong sex drives could initiate sex without being afraid that they were queer, especially if their partner was gay and played the “passive” role. Teenage recruits who were just fooling around with each other, especially if they had been drinking, found themselves unexpectedly becoming sexual. Some older soldiers with more sexual experience in the military taught younger men how to have sex without getting caught. On the other hand, recruits who knew they were gay before entering the service were sometimes the most reluctant to have sex.” (Location 1103).

Meanwhile, Army and Navy officials struggled with how to manage the homosexual behaviour, and several approaches were developed. When challenged from the outside, particularly by concerned
parents or clergy, their public stance was to condemn behaviour considered to be immoral in the wider culture, including profanity, drunkenness, erotic pictures, extramarital sex, lesbianism, homosexuality, and prostitution. Within the organization, however, military officials took a more understanding approach—forced into it by the need to hang onto trained personnel.

Trainees usually learned on their own how to put up with one another’s differences in order to get through basic training. They also received pleas for tolerance from the war propaganda which
portrayed American soldiers as defending the ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom against the totalitarian Axis. But inspired more by necessity than idealism, male trainees responded to the demands of basic training by developing their own pragmatic ethic of tolerance: “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.”

One of the areas where blatant effeminacy was tolerated—even applauded—was in the “all-soldier variety show.” These began as a diversion, but soon became a popular form of frontline entertainment even under fire. These were all-male shows for each other that almost always featured female impersonation, and coincidentally provided a temporary refuge for gay males to let their hair down and entertain their fellows.

“The impulse to put on shows and perform in dressed generally came from the men themselves—soldiers without women, as well as gay men, had long traditions of spontaneously dressing up in women’s clothes. But during World War II, the military officials, pressured by GIs, their own morale personnel, and leaders in the civilian theatre world …found themselves not only tolerating makeshift drag but officially promoting female impersonation.” (Location

In 1941, strained by the demands of a massive war mobilization that included a large influx of gay soldiers, the military could no longer handle its homosexual discipline problems by sending all offenders to prison as required by the Articles of War.[1] Therefore, based on the belief that homosexuality was a mental illness, there was a concerted effort to discharge homosexuals without trial while retaining those whose services were deemed essential. However, this policy ran contrary to the common law that held homosexuality as “an infamous and unspeakable crime against nature,” and that the military had a responsibility “to prevent such crimes with severe punishment
and to protect the morals of the nation’s young people under their

Underlying all this was a sort of political upmanship among various factions of the military bureaucracy. For example, having sodomites released into the care of psychiatrists would greatly enhance the standing of psychiatry as a legitimate science, and for their part the generals resented the interference of the legals in the Judge Advocate’s office. Therefore, the unfortunate men and women awaiting jusice were helplessly caught somewhere in the middle.

There was also the question of what sort of discharge would apply–i.e. honourable medical discharge or dishonourable? An honourable discharge, it was argued, might lead to homosexual activity or declaration in order to escape compulsory service. Dishonourable discharge (so-called “section eights” or “blue cards”), on the other hand, were used only for men who had been convicted of a crime and who had served their sentences. These had been used successfully to eliminate social misfits–alcoholics, chronic liars, drug addicts, men who antagonised everyone—but technically did not include homosexuals. In the end (1943), however, the military issued a directive that steered a compromise inasmuch as sodomy was still deemed a criminal offence, but allowed for an exception where force or violence had not been used. These individuals would be examined by a board of officers ”with the purpose of discharge under the provisions of Section Eight.

It was intended as a more humane way of dealing with “offenders” but, as gay men and women would soon find out, it was fraught with difficulties of its own.

As officers began to discharge homosexuals as undesirables, the gay GIs who were their targets had to learn how to defend themselves in psychiatrists’ offices, discharge hearing rooms, hospital wards, and in “queer stockades.” There they were interrogated about their sex lives, locked up, physically abused, and subjected to systematic humiliations in front of other soldiers.

“The discharge system could drag any GI whose homosexuality became known or even suspected into seemingly endless maze of unexpected humiliations and punishments. Some gay male and lesbian GIs first entered the maze when they voluntarily declared their homosexuality, fully expecting to be hospitalized and discharged. But others, following the advice in basic training lectures to talk over their problems with a doctor, psychiatrist, or chaplain, were shocked when medical officers betrayed their confidences by reporting them for punitive action ad “self-confessed” homosexuals, or were disappointed and frustrated when more sympathetic psychiatrists could not help them at all. Caught during their processing for discharge in battles between friendly and hostile officers, they found themselves thrown around like footballs in a game over which they had no control.” (Location 4442).

Nor were things to improve when they were returned home to civilian life. Gay veterans with “blue” or undesirable discharges where stripped of his service medals, rank, and uniform, then given a one-way ticket home where they had to report to their draft board to present their discharge papers. The stigma attached to these discharges was not an accident. Rather, it was intended to punish homosexuals and prevent malingering, and requirement that the GI report to his draft board ensured that his community would find out the nature of his discharge. Therefore, they were forced to come out to their families and communities. Wherever blue-discharge veterans lived, employers, schools, insurance companies, veterans’ organizations, and other institutions could use their bad discharge papers to discriminate against them.

One of the most vindictive punishments meted out to these veterans was the denial of GI benefits that included federally subsidized home loans; college loans with allowances for subsistence, tuition, and books; unemployment allowances; job training and placement programs; disability pensions and hospital care. Top officials at the Veterans Administration were responsible for this denial, contrary to Army policy and Congress, but nonetheless the VA refused to drop its anti-homosexual prohibition. Consequently, many blue-discharge veterans found it difficult (impossible) to find employment, but when they applied for unemployment insurance, or small business loans, or college assistance, they were denied in a Catch-22 situation.

One of the side effects of this discrimination was that having survived fear and death on the battlefield, some gay combat veterans began to cast off the veil of secrecy that so seriously
constrained their lives. For them, “coming out” to family and friends was not nearly as terrifying as facing the enemy in battle. Moreover, the popular press began to take notice of the blue-ticket discharges, and their plight, and started to publish columns on the “Homosexual Minorities,” characterizing them as “anther minority which suffers from its position in society in somewhat the same way as the Jews and Negroes.”

Unfortunately, this period of ‘liberal’ attitude was short-lived, for in the late 1940s a preoccupation with conformity came a fearful scapegoating of those who deviated from a narrow idea of the nuclear family and the American way of life. However, you will have to read this most remarkable book to learn the outcome of this.
Profile Image for Michael.
265 reviews12 followers
January 15, 2018
Review by Elaine Taylor May points out that Berube's is a pioneering work in the social history of gays in World War II. He finds that the experience of WWII was both that of increased surveillance and of a greater solidarity as a gay subculture developed in the military during wartime. In a time when the military needed manpower, the services were ambivalent about what to do about gays in the military. As military's psychiatrists sought to discover the gay personality type, new ways of dealing with gay servicemen included the "queer stockade" and "blue discharges" (less than honorable discharge) as well as rehabilitation for return to duty. A minority of these psychiatrists did not feel that homosexuality affected battlefield performance. The fact that the military did not allow women in combat zones meant that those who entertained the troops returned to the age old convention of men playing the parts of women. Developing a drag performance style designated as "camping," the gay servicemen claimed their own cultural space. Berube also recounts the battlefield performance of gay men, which included many acts of heroism. The period of tolerance in the immediate post-war period quickly yielded to homophobic witch hunts in the cold war.

Among the more interesting sections of this book is the one that deals with medicine's treatment of homosexuality. In "Pioneer Experts: Psychiatrists Discover the Gay GI," he describes the research undertaken by military psychiatrists to better diagnose homosexuality in men. They began by working on tests that determined if a serviceman had a gag reflex, which they assumed disappeared in gay men who had performed frequent oral sex on other men. They moved on to studies which categorized the personality characteristics of gay men -- effeminacy, superiority and fear. One main objective of this work was to weed out true homosexuals from straight men who used homosexuality as an excuse to get out of the military. Though this was not as common as it would be later in Vietnam, malingering was still seen as a problem by military officers. Berube's account also explains how the compassion of many psychiatrists led them to purposefully "misdiagnose" the patient, rather than put "homosexual" on the medical record they made up other diagnoses like "psychoneurosis" to protect the patient. In one of the ironies of history, the first challenge to the military's anti-gay policies was launched by a group of psychiatrists reporting to LTC Lewis H. Loeser at the 36th station hospital in Devonshire, UK. Their research, documented by 450 case histories argued that homosexuality did not make men less capable soldiers and urged the Army to abandon discrimination against homosexuals in the military.
Profile Image for Fenriz Angelo.
413 reviews23 followers
January 29, 2021
This was a fantastic and very informative read about the lives of usian gay men and women who fought in WWII.

The narration starts with some introductory chapters that read a bit repetitive since first it's about how the military and psychologists team up to find a way to detect gay people and reject them from joining the army. Second it's a recollection of how several people discovered they're gay or that there's more people like them in the world when they joined the military and had to move from their small towns to the big cities where there headquarters were. But after that, the book takes you to a roller coaster of emotions by an enthralling narration of the way gay men and women got to find groups and enjoy their sexuality albeit with fear of discovery because the military from the very beginning put in motion a scheme to reject gay people from joining the military and during war run a series of terrifying interrogation onto suspicious homosexual subjects to discharge gay soldiers and put them in psych wards along with mentally ill people, and criminals. Which helped psychologists to observe and analyze the behavior of gay men thus becoming the first advocates of gay rights after realizing how normal they were. Sadly their commentary on the subject wasn't hear and after the war the US military spread a fear mongering campaign against blue discharged soldiers, by not only making them unsuitable to be in the army but also unsuitable to join civil society, get jobs, or join government programs for education for people who fought in the war. Situation that would lead to the future protests for gay rights.

The downside is the lack of mention of trans people and very few mentions of bisexuals. Also the title of the book is misleading if you don't read the blurb because it only talks about the U.S military.

The addition of both joyful and sad first hand experiences in the war from gay veterans, along with academic information made it an easy, enjoyable, though heartbreaking and sometimes infuriating read.
Profile Image for Morgan.
218 reviews42 followers
June 25, 2022
Ought to be essential reading. If 50% of this information was common knowledge for high school students, the world would be a different place. The information content is significant and creates an important context for events current in 2022. Three stars for one really difficult chapter and at times being fairly dry.

The difficult chapter: In WWII, sounds like the military establishment encouraged drag shows as comedy events to keep up morale. I don't want to rain on any queer person's enjoyment of drag, but the comedy was intended to be, it sounds like, "haha, isn't it funny men dressing up as women?" which makes women the butt of the joke, because "what, possibly, about women would make you want to even pretend to be one? They're so silly!" No thank you. I'm a woman. It's June 24, 2022. I am tired of being the butt of the joke.

A few take-aways:
+In trying to gain more power/respect for their profession and (sometimes) out of empathy, mental health professionals during WWII managed to get queer sexualities seen as identities or disorders rather than criminal behavior. It took.
+Gay men and lesbians served in all aspects of WWII
+Panics about queer people as pedophiles arose in the 1950s and started witch hunts.
+Gay men and lesbians in the army toward the end of WWII faced major human rights abuses and interrogations.
Profile Image for Maïlys.
17 reviews
February 16, 2022
So I finished this yesterday night, and after my traditionnal "I'll sleep on it", here is what I thought.

I've been meaning to read this book for nearly three years now since I took a course on sex and gender in the US military while studying abroad, and I really enjoyed it!

The paradoxical association of the macho, patriarchal and conservativeness of the military with the LGBTQI+ world and women always puzzled me and Bérubé's detailed rendition and analysis of it was so enlightening and informative.

The interviwees' stories were really touching, almost made me tear up at times and really furthered Bérubé's point. I often found that interviews can be misused, or misinterpreted by the interviewer/historian at times, but I think Bérubé used each of them sensibly.

This book really gave me a new perspective on LGBTQI+ history in the USA, this time period and the gay rights movement that followed the decades after.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested to LGBTQI+ history, WWII and wants to broaden their understanding of queer culture, systematic oppressions and the beginning of the gay rights movement in the US.
Profile Image for Dustin.
95 reviews
April 5, 2018
I was recommended this book during a presentation of some research of mine at a Phi Alpha Theta history conference in 2013, and I am so glad that I finally did. There are a lot of feelings and words that I don't think I can easily articulate at this moment but I want to say a thank you to Mr Berube for helping to shed light on gay, lesbian and other members of the community that, while fighting the visible war of World War II in a variety of specialized combat and non combat roles, proving their capability and ability just as well as their heterosexual comrades, they fought a personal war against the government, country, and institution they proudly served- that by and large sought to strip them of post war benefits , of their dignity, of their privacy, and of their fundamental right to live while being true to themselves.
123 reviews
April 27, 2018
This was a good history book of gay and lesbian soldiers who met other queers or had same sex experiences while serving in WWII. I suspected the military brass looked the other way with regard to gays/lesbians in their ranks when they needed bodies during wartime, turns out they did. The witch hunts, I had heard about. They happened during my service in the 1980s. However, I had no idea of the back and forth policies that were implemented during and after WWII. Being arrested without committing a crime, only because you were gay/lesbian. The lies spoken and fear (sound familiar) propagated by elected officials after WWII used to create discriminatory policy toward gay/lesbians directly affected, not only civilians but veterans. It is shameful. And I didn't know that the "YMCA" song was, well, kind of accurate!
782 reviews5 followers
January 8, 2021
This has taken me a very long time to get through, with multiple false starts, because it is not easy reading.

The last section particularly, is so depressing. Which is not to say that several of the earlier sections were not depressing, but the discussion of gay men and women put into 'psychiatric' facilities and/or forced to sign 'confessions', followed by how horrible the government was to them on their return to civilian life was appalling. Unsurprising, but so hard to read. Particularly the way that the 1950s narrowing of acceptable gender roles was used against people who were gender non-conforming at all.

The whole book is meticulously researched and well put together. Bérubé acknowledges the limitations of their research, specifically mentioning the uneven demographics in who they were able to interview, and what they did to try and account for that.
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