by Hanna Bobrowicz
It has been 75 years since the Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, and 50 years since the riots at the Stonewall Inn, yet these events remain unconnected in popular consciousness. To commemorate the Normandy invasion, images of young male soldiers are abundant, and gallant stories of tragedy, danger, and heroism abound. Yet, as these young soldiers were facing danger and potential death, many were also making key discoveries about their sexual identity. As Pride celebrations continue throughout the month of June, this article will revisit the influence the Second World War had on defining queer communities in the United States.
The war provided a unique opportunity for queer men and women to meet one another for the first time. One veteran reflected; “in the recreation hall, for instance, there’d be eye contact, and pretty soon you’d get to know one or two people and kept branching out. All of a sudden you had a vast network of friends, usually through this eye contact thing...you could get away with it in that atmosphere.” It is the migratory aspect of the war that allowed a reckoning of gender conformity to occur. Upon the outbreak of war 15 million people crossed state lines, while millions of men also enlisted in the army. Independence and migration granted self-discovery and because of this many began to understand their sexuality and find communities of people similar to them.
When Lisa Ben left her small town for the larger city of Los Angeles during the Second World War, she hadn’t come out as gay. It wasn’t until she rented her own room, and began to socialize with her neighbors that she embraced her sexuality.
Lisa reflected on this time, “They asked me ‘do you like boys, or do you go out strictly with girls?’ And I said, ‘If I had my rathers, I’d go out strictly with girls,’ they said, ‘Have you always felt this way?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and they said, ‘Well, then you’re like we are’ and I said, “You mean, you’re like that?”’ This moment of similarity and acceptance solidified a larger movement of change. As people began to form bonds during the Second World War, the concept of queerness was being articulated and defined in mainstream America for the first time.
A similar occurrence of exploration and acceptance was facilitated by the American military. A soldier’s induction into the military began with a physical, in which they were asked if they were homosexuals. This question not only demonstrates how important sexual orientation was to the United States government but also forced men joining the war to label themselves. Suddenly those who were unsure of their sexuality began to contemplate their sexual identity for the first time. This, in combination with camaraderie, traumatic experiences and a release from conventional society created kinship between soldiers that were often loving.
James Lord, author of My Queer War reflects that the US army had a ‘gay world built into it.’ For example, a queer culture was created in a US camp in New Caledonia. Men who often identified as feminine would call themselves ‘belles’ and go by alternate names, like ‘sea biscuit’, or ‘Canteen Mary.’ Others simply conducted their affairs in public, refusing to live in the shadows with their male partners. It wasn’t until rumors started to spread back to the United States that the army began to forcibly remove gay men from the military. These men, known as blue angels, were discharged and often mandated into psychiatric hospitals as homosexuality was considered a mental illness.
Despite being desperate for men, and exploiting the labor of gay soldiers the United States Army was only tolerant of queer behavior when it was hidden. Officially, the United States Army deemed homosexuality to be an illness that prevented effective service. Therefore, many gay men were forced out of the military and excluded from the narrative of heroism that is still celebrated today. In addition to discrimination and exploitation, gay soldiers also experienced personal tragedies that went unrecognized by the popular public. Couples were separated into different units, if they were killed in combat, gay soldiers had no legitimate means to mourn. This meant many men grieved in solitude, forced to internalize their sadness in order to prevent themselves from being outed.
Though the Second World War has been enshrined into popular culture, the narrative of the gay soldier is still not included. Instead contemporary books, documentaries, and feature films continue to portray the World War II soldier as the emblem of masculinity; straight, white and courageous. Therefore, despite the growing support surrounding Pride month, history still remains empty of queer narratives. While Pride and D-Day celebrations appear to inhabit different spheres, queer people and their stories exist in all corners of history. We at Pacific Atrocities not only want to acknowledge the brave heroes and heroines who served their country and their communities, but also to include the remarkable achievements of queer people in this narrative. They deserve to be honored and respected by their communities for the brave and courageous contributions they made to ending the Second World War.
"Coming Out Under Fire." In My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, edited by D’Emilio John and Freedman Estelle B., by BÉRUBÉ ALLAN, 100-12. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. doi:10.5149/9780807877982_berube.9.
"Marching to a Different Drummer: Lesbian and Gay GIs in World War II." In My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, edited by D’Emilio John and Freedman Estelle B., by BÉRUBÉ ALLAN, 85-99. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. doi:10.5149/9780807877982_berube.8.
‘Belles in Battle: how Queer US soldiers found a place to express themselves in World War II.’ The Conversation, by Yorick Smaal. Griffith University. https://theconversation.com/belles-in-battle-how-queer-us-soldiers-found-a-place-to-express-themselves-in-wwii-88019