By Sherry Wolf Sixteen million young American men and women enlisted or were drafted for duty during the Second World War. Almost as many millions more–mostly young women–left home for military or industrial jobs in new cities, often living in boarding houses and dorms, as part of the war effort. Never before had there been this many young people mobilized into sex-segregated living situations, often under life-and-death conditions where bonds between people can be intense and long lasting. The impact on sexuality overall, and on homosexuality in particular, was astonishing. Among the famous gays who served were actors Tyrone Power and Rock Hudson and writers Gore Vidal and John Cheever. But a wealth of evidence exists to prove that the war created conditions for sexual experimentation and the development of a gay identity among hundreds of thousands, if not more. If researcher Alfred Kinsey’s wartime studies are accurate and can be applied to the military population, then at least 650,000 and as many as 1.6 million male soldiers were gay.33 D’Emilio writes, In releasing large numbers of Americans from their homes and neighborhoods, World War II created a substantially new “erotic situation” conducive both to the articulation of a homosexual identity and to the more rapid evolution of a gay subculture. For some gay men and women, the war years simply strengthened a way of living they had previously chosen…. At the same time, those who experienced strong same-sex attraction but felt inhibited from acting upon it suddenly possessed relatively more freedom to enter into homosexual relationships. The unusual conditions of a mobilized society allowed homosexual desire to be expressed more easily in action. For many gay Americans, World War II created something of a nationwide coming out experience.34 The First World War, by comparison, only mobilized 4.7 million Americans over a nineteen-month period.35 One major, if indirect, impact that the First World War had on gays in the military was the one billion-dollar cost incurred for the care of psychiatric casualties–half of all veterans’ hospital beds were still filled with them by the start of the Second World War.36This enormous cost was used as an incentive by the newly emerging psychiatric profession to promote the necessity of psychiatric screening for the millions of military inductees in the lead-up to the new war. One of the chief advocates for psychiatric screening, Harry Stack Sullivan, was a psychologist who lived discreetly with his male lover in Bethesda, Maryland. Sullivan did not believe that gays should be banned from military service nor discriminated against in any way and had no intention of including any reference to homosexuality in the screening. But in May 1941, the Army Surgeon General’s office for the first time included “homosexual proclivities in their lists of disqualifying deviations.”37 There were–of course–no scientific means of determining who was gay; therefore, crude guidelines called for excluding any man who displayed “feminine bodily characteristics,” “effeminacy in dress and manner,” or “a patulous (expanded) rectum.” As historian Allan Bérubé notes, “All three of these markers linked homosexuality with effeminacy or sexually ‘passive’ anal intercourse and ignored gay men who were masculine or ‘active’ in anal intercourse.”38 What this amounted to in practice was hardly scientific. Millions of young men were forced to stand naked in front of physicians, or their assistants, and asked–often with great embarrassment–whether or not they liked girls. Given the years of propaganda for a coming war against the Nazis, the stigma of being deemed unfit for service, and the fact that nearly a whole generation was being mobilized to fight, ample incentive existed for those who knew they were gay to lie and go to war with their peers. The armed forces segregated men in crowded barracks or in close ship quarters. The fear of death in a war that killed more than four hundred thousand Americans was ever-present and created harsh and extraordinary circumstances in which the norms of civilian life were often suspended. Men on leave in port cities danced together, an offense that would have brought arrest during peacetime; soldiers performed in popular drag shows with explicit homosexual themes to rapturous applause in Europe and the Pacific; GIs shared beds in crowded YMCAs and slept wrapped in each others’ arms in public parks while waiting to be shipped overseas; and intense emotional bonds were formed between soldiers who were often physically demonstrative in ways that American male culture in peacetime condemns.39 This created an atmosphere in which homosexuality was often ignored or accepted by peers, and gay veterans, such as Long Island native Bob Ruffing, recall how easy it was to cruise other men in the military: When I first got into the navy–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, some through outright cruising. They could get away with it in that atmosphere.40 Nearly 250,000 women served in the armed forces, most of them in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and few, if any, were rejected for lesbianism. In fact, the physical rigors of war and long hours of hard labor often worked to the advantage of a large number of WACs who were physically strong or had a somewhat masculine appearance–the characteristics most associated with lesbianism to this day. Working as mechanics, drill instructors, and motor vehicle operators, women in the armed services were recruited with posters showing muscular, short-haired women wearing tight-fitting tailored uniforms. Training manuals praised the female comradeship and close bonds between recruits, two-thirds of whom were single women under the age of twenty-five. There is evidence to suggest that a disproportionate number of women who joined the WAC were lesbians looking to meet other women and to get the opportunity to do “men’s work.”41 Even a popular Fleischmann’s Yeast advertisement during the war, showed a uniformed WAC riding a motorcycle beneath the heading: “This is no time to be FRAIL.”42 More than a few WAC veterans recall women showing up for their inductions wearing men’s clothing with their hair slicked back in the classic butch style of out lesbians of the day. The realities of the war and the dire need for servicemen and women trumped all other concerns of the War Department. Despite the official hostility to homosexuality in the military, very few gays were actually rejected. Out of eighteen million men examined for service, only 4,000—5,000 were officially nixed for being homosexual.43 The most famous example of how central many gays and lesbians were to the war effort and the impact that had on forcing an unofficial wartime suspension of the witch-hunt is recounted by historian Randy Shilts. General Dwight Eisenhower, acting on a rumor, ordered a member of his staff, WAC sergeant Johnnie Phelps, to draw up a list of all lesbians serving in the WAC battalion for him to dismiss from service. After informing him of the medal-winning service of the battalion and the vast number of lesbians in it, Phelps said: “I’ll make your list, but you’ve got to know that when you get the list back, my name’s going to be first.” The secretary of the battalion then interrupted to say, “Excuse me General, but MY name will be first, because I’m going to be typing the list.” General Eisenhower promptly tore up the order.44 With millions of men gone from the workforce, jobs in aircraft and shipbuilding, as well as clerical and consumer industries, opened up to women for the first time. Many women had to relocate in order to take these jobs and found housing in same-sex dormitories, boarding houses, and trailers. Aside from working and living in close proximity with other women, many had a chance to socialize in all-female environments. Despite persistent anti-homosexual bias in society, the unprecedented mobility afforded to many working-class women during the war loosened previous sexual constraints. As D’Emilio argues, The war temporarily weakened the patterns of daily life that channeled men and women toward heterosexuality and inhibited homosexual expression…. For men and women conscious of a strong attraction to their own sex but constrained by their milieu from acting upon it, the war years eased the coming out process and facilitated entry into the gay world.45 The social upheaval created by the Second World War has had a long-lasting impact on gay life in the United States. Some men and women who had been pulled from small-town life at an early age were attracted to port cities, such as San Francisco, which presented the opportunity to be openly gay among a community of others like themselves. San Francisco, in particular, became a gay mecca toward the end of the war, when fighting was most intense in the Pacific, and official policy turned up the heat on gays, discharging gay men by the hundreds into the picturesque port town. Denver, Kansas City, Buffalo, and San Jose, California, among other cities, opened their first gay bars after the war and developed the beginnings of gay enclaves. During the postwar period, there was a flood of new gay- and lesbian-themed books in which, unlike past works, gay characters accepted their sexuality, even if these books still portrayed gay and lesbian characters as tragic figures. Like many Black soldiers who were emboldened to fight against racial segregation at home after their participation in a war they were told was about fighting for democracy, gays returned from the war with a greater sense of entitlement to rights and benefits. Tellingly, while the U.S. government attacked the barbarism of the Nazis, it managed to avoid any discussion of Adolph Hitler’s treatment of homosexuals. While gays were “coming out under fire” in the American armed forces, the Nazis went on a campaign of terror against homosexuals in Germany. Beginning in 1938, gays and lesbians were sent to concentration camps and were forced to wear pink triangles. Berlin, which had been home to one of the world’s largest gay subcultures, became a nightmare for gays. “Indecent activities” between men and women–a touch, a kiss, or handholding–were enough to be sent to the camps. The head of Hitler’s storm troopers, Heinrich Himmler, said, “We must exterminate these people root and branch…the homosexual must be entirely eliminated.”46 The Nazis claimed to be doing all of this in the name of the sanctity of the family and motherhood. In Germany, a country wracked by unemployment and destitution and gearing up for war, Hitler imposed a complete lockdown on dissent of every kind, including the inferred dissent of homosexuality. Among the many crimes of the U.S. in that war, one that has remained largely hidden from history is the decision to continue the imprisonment after the war of gays and lesbians who were found in Hitler’s concentration camps.47 Of the fifteen thousand gays sent to the camps, one-third survived, many who remained in prison through the 1960s, when the Nazi-era Paragraph 175 anti-homosexual law was finally stricken from the books.48 Nothing shook up the sexual consciousness of postwar American society like the release of the 1948 and 1953 Kinsey Reports on American male and female sexual behavior. Fifty percent of ten thousand men surveyed admitted erotic feelings at some point toward other men; 37 percent had had sex with men; 4 percent claimed to be gay. Of the women surveyed, 28 percent admitted erotic feelings toward other women, while 13 percent said they’d had sex with women; about 2 percent said they were lesbians.50 Alfred Kinsey commented at the time that, given the predominance of homophobia, his results indicated “such activity would appear in the histories of a much larger portion of the population if there were no social constraints.”50 Kinsey’s study gave public expression to the reality of a growing gay minority in the United States. This was to have a profound impact on gays’ ability to mobilize for their rights. From the beginning, there have been class divisions among gays and lesbians–the ability to lead outwardly gay lives has been, and remains today, far more accessible to middle- and upper-class gays and lesbians. But with increasing numbers of gay spaces–and for some, the experience of coming out–in wartime, gays in the U.S. went from complete isolation to developing an awareness of themselves as an oppressed “class” of people in the immediate postwar period.

The Roots of Gay Oppression, Part 3: The Second World War