Enlisting in an Anti-Homosexual Army
Before World War II, the military had no official procedure to keep homosexuals from enlisting. Soldiers caught having homosexual sex were generally court-martialed, charged with sodomy or sodomy-by-the-mouth, and sent to prison, but there were no measures to keep them out to begin with. During the lead-up to the war, however, a group of psychiatrists who were eager to aid their military and promote their profession convinced the Selective Service System to administer psychiatric exams to potential recruits. In determining what should disqualify men from serving, they decided that homosexuals should be rejected, citing such reasons such as inability to control desires, inability to adjust to regimentation due to introverted natures, the lack of privacy in military life, the potential to be targeted by hostile soldiers, and the inability to be good soldiers due to the belief that gay men were sissies and crybabies. By mid-1941, these psychiatrists had managed to develop screening directives with the Selective Service System, Army, and Navy that included homosexuality as a deviation or psychopathic personality disorder that could preclude entrance to the military. (It should be noted that directives targeting lesbians, who were historically invisible, would not be introduced until the end of the war).
With the directives in place, psychiatric exams that screened for homosexuality and other disorders became the last step in examining potential recruits. There were roughly 6,400 draft boards and 108 induction stations, and most had little in the way of time and personnel. As a result, the psychiatric exams were only a few minutes long at most and were often conducted by local physicians armed with no instruction other than the printed directives. They often varied from draft board to draft board, or induction station to induction station. Some examiners were homosexual themselves and overlooked that part of the exam. Some examiners, embarrassed about the topic and not wanting these young men to be ostracized, only asked a simple question such as, "Do you like girls?" Some examiners questioned the selectee about any homosexual experiences he had had and about his dating history. Proposed signs for examiners to look for in a homosexual were a self-conscious attitude toward his body (for this reason, it was suggested to question the selectee while he was naked), curiosity or embarrassment over masturbation and sex, effeminacy, sensitivity, immaturity, and shyness. Another possible sign was a patulous rectum.
Even during the beginning of the war, the new examination was general knowledge in gay circles, who often debated whether to declare their homosexuality and stay out of the war or lie and serve. Gay men had many motivations for joining to war effort. At the time, a good service record was looked upon highly, and it was considered a privilege to serve the country in a great national emergency. Some gay men, labelled as sissies through their teenage years, wanted to fight in order to achieve validation that they were just as virile as their straight counterparts. Furthermore, while the extent of Nazi treatment of homosexuals was not well known until after the war, rumors of German atrocities against homosexuals circulated among gay circles during the war. There were also gay refugees from the Nazi regime who had experienced what had happened and tried to enroll in the U.S. army to go fight against the people who had persecuted them. Serving the country was considered so important that gay men who declared their sexuality risked being ostracized by their gay friends, who could be angry at the perceived attempt to avoid service.
There was one more reason some gay men would not declare themselves as such: they did not want to be stigmatized as queer. A rejectee's examination record had to be given to his local draft board, and schools and employers had a right to ask for the record. Psychiatric diagnoses could be explicit, humiliating, and punitive, such as a declaration of "sexual psychopath." Some sympathetic examiners tried to word things in a way such that no one would discover the men were homosexual, but if they did not then a rejected selectee might find it almost impossible to enroll in college or get a job.
When war was declared in December 1941 and as the war went on, the military saw the need for more and more men. They lowered standards across the board and, even as documentation on screening procedures to reject homosexuals increased, examiners who had quotas to meet were less and less likely to reject selectees. There were also fears that heterosexual men would pretend to be homosexual to get out of the service. The desperate need for soldiers, coupled with gay men willing to hide their sexuality in order to fight, meant that only somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 men were officially rejected for homosexuality out of roughly 18 million.
Fear of Exposure
Even if a gay man was able to enlist in the military, he still ran the risk of being exposed while he was serving. Gay behaviour was policed in several ways. MPs watched out for bad behavior and even went into town to make sure soldiers, who were required to wear their uniforms at all times, were behaving themselves. MPs would visit or stand in front of known gay nightspots and walk through parks and other public cruising areas. Lists of off-limit establishments were often placed at the exits of military bases and warnings were nailed outside each bar, a measure that, ironically, let soldiers know where to find gay nightlife. In addition to MPs, city governments might run anti-vice campaigns. Gay nightspots usually weren't the primary targets of such campaigns (bars that allowed loose women or served under-age GIs were) but they were frequent casualties, especially if they featured female impersonators or drag shows. There were also occasional and systematic witch hunts for gay soldiers.
Even private conversations were used to find homosexuals. Letters to and from soldiers were read and censored to prevent sensitive information from escaping. Gay men and lesbians writing to lovers would either befriend sympathetic censors who they could trust or they would use secret codes, gay slang, and change the gender of names and pronouns. Sometimes gay men might confide in chaplains, psychiatrists, or other officers, all of whom had a duty to report homosexuals. Things soldiers thought was said in confidence might very well lead to discharges, although many psychiatrists who worked with gay patients refused to turn them in and sometimes even openly defended gay soldiers. It was also common for psychiatrists to ignore confessions of homosexuality or to deliberately misdiagnose a gay patient with a condition that would lead to an honorable discharge. Some psychiatric researchers even challenged the stereotype that gay men were poor soldiers and tried to reform antihomosexual policies, but their efforts were largely ignored.
Most gay men were careful to hide their sexuality, and they levelled criticism at other gay people who they felt were too obvious (the queens and the butches). Those that were more obviously gay would sometimes blow a gay group's cover and become scapegoats for trouble with outsiders, and some lesbians would avoid butch women for fear of exposure. The fear was grounded in some very real consequences if they were found out.
During WWII, there was a shift from sending homosexuals to prison to giving them dishonourable discharges. This was supposed to be a more humane system, but it had its own negative repercussions. Dishonorable discharges still led to social stigma. Homosexuals could be forcibly committed to psychiatric wards. Soldiers who wouldn't accept a discharge could still be charged with sodomy, court-martialed, and sent to prison. The new system also widened to net used to catch gay men and lesbiand in the military; before, only being caught in the sexual act could be punished. After, merely having homosexual tendencies or being homosexual could get someone discharged. Between 1941 and 1945 at least 9,000 people were labelled as sexual psychopaths and discharged, while only several hundred people were convicted of sodomy between 1900 and 1941.
Officers didn't always discharge soldiers who were discovered to be homosexual. Some officers didn't want to reward homosexuals by letting them escape military duty, and they would rather assign them punitive duties or send them to prison. Discharging a man, especially in the more undesirable places to be stationed, could cause resentment, envy, and a sense of injustice among the soldiers who had to stay. Other officers didn't want to encourage posing as homosexuals to escape service. Still others didn't want to discharge those useful to the unit, a factor that grew in importance as the war went on and there was more need of men.
When officers did take action, soldiers suspected of being homosexal would be rounded up, often without knowing why or what was going to happen to them. They were held in approved facilities and subjected to a disposition and interrogation process. Dispositions were supposed to be conducted by psychiatrists to determine if the soldier was deviant enough to be discharged, but psychiatrists were often unavailable and surgeons and general practitioners with no psychiatric training were used instead. For this reason, results were not consistent from station to station, although some rather ludicrous tests were devised to determine whether a man was gay. For example, examiners might test to see if the man had a gag reflex or interview the man to see if he derived pleasure from the lips and mouths (one theory was that gay men gave so many blow jobs that their pleasure became localized in the mouth area). Interrogations were often humiliating, with soldiers being brought out naked in front of multiple interrogators and asked very personal questions about their sex lives. They were also manipulated and threatened into naming other homosexuals, usually with false promises of immunity or threats to tell family members about their sexuality.
The interrogation process could be very long, with a day of interrogation followed by weeks of work duty followed by another interrogation and so on. During the process the soldiers were segregated from the rest of the troops. The approved facilities were hospital psychiatric wards. Some men in the wards were able to lead active sex lives with other homosexuals there or even slip out to meet up with friends when security; unluckier men were thrown into "locked wards," sections that were dedicated to dangerous patients such as violent psychotics, suspected criminals, and prisoners of war. When suspected homosexuals couldn't be placed in psychiatric wards they were thrown into so-called queer stockades, also called queer brigs or pink cells. Queer stockades ranged from pup tents to sections of brigs or stockades, were sometimes surrounded by barbed wire fences, and were placed under armed guard in full view of other soldiers.
Life in the stockades was humiliating and harsh. Inmates were given the bare minimum needed for survival. To prevent homosexuals from having sex with each other, they were not allowed to touch, even for innocuous things, and they had to sleep with the lights on. Inmates could also be subject to psychological torture, such as being called the "scum of the fucking earth" in front of murderers, rapists, and thieves, being forced to walk between the stockade and mess hall while other soldiers taunted them with words like "fruit," "fairy," and "cocksucker," and having their lives threatened. Some guards used the inmates for their own sexual pleasure, demanding oral sex. There were those that were sympathetic to the treatment of homosexual inmates and officers that tried to curb the mistreatment, but visiting or defending the inmates could put someone at risk of being accused of being a homosexual himself.
Thousands of soldiers were subjected to this treatment, but they still formed a minority of homosexuals who served in the military. Seeing this treatment or hearing rumors about it was enough to scare gay soldiers into hiding, but most found some degree of acceptance in the military.
Acceptance, Uneasy and Otherwise
The common experience for gay servicemen was an uneasy acceptance. There was generally a "live-and-let-live" attitude, and men were often judged by loyalty, know-how, and teamwork over aspects of their personal life. Pressing war matters meant that some officers simply couldn't be bothered about homosexuality. Some officers knew they had homosexual men under them and kept them on effective duty or moved them to more isolated areas of the post. Classification officers even tried to accommodate obviously gay soldiers, albeit by focusing on stereotypes, placing them in roles that they felt fit homosexuals better (these included non-combat roles such as hospital corpsmen, yeomen, chaplain's assistant, chauffeur, female impersonator, medic, court stenographer, typist, and secretary). When it came to homosexual sex, many officers were content to look the other way as long as it was done with discretion, and there are several stories from the war about men being discovered in flagrante and nothing done about it.
There were even some cases of acceptance that was more than just uneasy. There were effeminate or flamboyant gay soldiers, some who even talked openly about their male lovers back home, who were nonetheless protected by their superior officers and respected by other men because they did their job well. One veteran who served on a Navy carrier noted how many friendships turned sexual, even among those who didn't consider themselves gay, and how it was accepted by everyone. Another officer on a naval vessel was surprised to see men holding hands and necking in the dark during movie nights. Yet another soldier recounted a story of how he was hysterical for three days when his lover died; his fellow soldiers were still very kind to him, and one even asked why he never told him he was gay, assuring him that he would have accepted it.
Many gay soldiers were open but secretive. During the first few months in the army, fear kept most homosexuals from even displaying overt demonstrations of friendship, but as the men progressed through basic they discovered that there were others like them. Service clubs, for example, were popular hangouts for gay men and women, and service club staff could be protective of their gay patrons. Some bases had gay cliques that ranged from tight-knit groups to loose groups with changing members. They were careful not to talk directly about homosexuality or reveal someone else's sexuality and used signals, slang, and nicknames to identify each other.
Soldiers also discovered that they had plenty of opportunity for intimacy. During bivouacs, they slept in two-man pup tents. During troop movements, Pullman cars slept one man on the top bunk and two men together in the bottom bunk. At the end of some train cars was a little compartment that slept four; one soldier recounted an experience where he and three other gay men separately rushed for the compartment once they got on the train. He recalled that "it was something at night when we closed that door." Soldiers found other private areas for gay sex as well, such as ammunition ready rooms on carriers, underwater sound rooms on destroyers, gun turrets at night, linen store rooms, and sections of beaches. In the Solomon Islands, there was an area of the jungle called 'vaseline alley' where gay soldiers could cruise each other. While MPs would sometimes police these areas, the areas were often willfully overlooked by officers.
There was even more opportunity for gay soldiers off base. Hotels and motels could offer more privacy than the base. Due to a scarcity of accommodations, it wasn't uncommon or suspicious for men to get rooms together and sleep two to a bed. Gay couples and groups might get passes into town together and go have alone time or throw small parties together in hotel rooms. Many soldiers hitchhiked into towns, and routes between military bases and cities became cruising areas where civilian men tried (carefully, as not to be beaten, robbed, or blackmailed) to pick up soldiers. Within the city, there were even more cruising areas. Parks were always available, the standing-room section of Metropolitan Opera House in NYC had been a "cruising mecca" for years, balconies of cheap movie theaters were popular, and servicemen's hotels, residence clubs, dormitories, and YMCAs were so notorious that gay civilians sometimes borrowed servicemen's uniforms to gain admission to servicemen-only facilities.
Bars and nightclubs that catered to gay crowds increased during the war, and there was an assortment of places for all kinds of soldiers. Cocktail lounges and men's bars at posh hotels catered to a discreet gay crowd, formed mostly of officers and civilians. Gay patrons were covert and policed each other's behaviour so that other patrons might not even realize that there were so many gay men there. They wore conservative clothes, didn't touch, didn't proposition each other in obvious ways, and didn't act campy in any way. These places, which included Astor Bar in Time Square, Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, Biltmore men's bar in Los Angeles, the Mayflower and Statler Hotels in Washington, Royal Lounge in Milwaukee's Royal Hotel, and Hotel Bentley in Alexandria, Louisiana, were so popular that there were sometimes long lines of servicemen to get in.
There were also nightclubs and cabarets that catered to those with less money. Performers with devoted gay followings, such as Hildegarde and Tallulah Bankhead, Beatrice Lillie, Dwight Fiske, and Hope Emerson, attracted a gay crowd whenever they performed at nightclubs. Female impersonation clubs attracted mixed crowds of soldiers, tourists, curiosity-seekers, and gay men and lesbians. And so-called "rough" bars such as the Pink Elephant in Time Square catered to enlisted men and gay civilians. Gay civilians would also sometimes throw wartime parties to entertain new soldiers in town.
It could be harder for minority gay soldiers to find places to get together, since many establishments were "whites only," but those stationed near New York City found a thriving black and interracial gay culture in Harlem. Other cities also held interracial costume and drag balls, and there were even a few bars in some smaller cities that served racially mixed gay crowds.
"The Homosexual Milieu of Military Life"
Military life presented a unique challenge to all soldiers, straight or gay. A strange and lonely environment meant that soldiers would look to each other for comfort and company. Segregation from women and a total lack of privacy (including when showering and using a toilet) forced some men to confront their homosexual desires. The culture that developed to deal with this "heterosexualized everyday activities and brought into the open the recruit's private discomfort with the homosexual milieu of military life"; in other words, soldiers would joke about homosexuality in order to diffuse fears about it. A favorite insult among enlisted men was cocksucker. Terminology such as to have one's ass reamed, to tangle asshols (to argue or fight), and asshole buddies (close pals) were common. A popular nickname that recruits called each other was "Sweetheart." In the barracks, there was also continual joking about homosexual practices, games where recruits took turns being the company queer, and mock-stripteases.
The buddy system was a part of military life that could seem very homoerotic to outsiders. It held great meaning and importance to both straight and gay men. In the Army and the Navy, the buddy system officially organized men into pairs to look out for each other. "Buddies" could also refer to the men in your unit. Male soldiers, gay or straight, often felt a deep love for and bond with their buddies, most likely stemming from the need for closeness in life-threatening situations. The desire to protect their buddies and not let their buddies down was a common motivation for soldiers fighting the war, more so than revenge or hatred for the enemy. To outsiders, the open affection buddies showed each other could seem homosexual in nature. Gay civilians at the time clipped buddy photographs from magazines for a glimpse of male intimacy that was usually absent from mainstream culture.
"The choice of a buddy was as or more critical than that of a bride. You'd be living in a kind of physical intimacy which was unlike any other." ~Stewart Stern
"War binds men more tightly together than almost any other branch of human activity. To share your last crumb with another, to warm your enfeebled body against another's in the bleak and barren mystery of the night, to undergo shame, fear and death with scores of others of your age and mental colouring—who, indeed, would trade these comrades of the battlefield for friends made in time of peace." ~Jack Belden
"The closeness that develops between men is more than love. It's an understanding that unless you've been in combat—it's hard to put into words. I think only being together that way at the very abyss of your life, constantly, can create the closeness." ~Robert Fleischer
Gay lovers could use the buddy system to live, work, and sleep together in the military without raising suspicions. It also allowed soldiers to openly express grief over the deaths of their boyfriends and lovers without raising any eyebrows. Some gay men, however, were still too scared to use the buddy system to their benefit. One gay soldier buddied with another gay soldier because they were determined to stay celibate and not arouse suspicion, and they helped each other abstain from temptations.
In an environment so charged with homosexual tension, some men turned to situational homosexuality as a means of release. Officers were aware that homosexual behaviour in isolated combat areas was an occupational hazard, and a War Department directive from 1943 excused it by saying the some men in foreign or remote locations "will submit to unnatural practices" and implying that such homosexual relationships should be tolerated. In some cases heterosexual recruits, who weren't afraid of getting caught because they weren't really queer, were more willing to initiate sex than their homosexual counterparts. Some gay men initiated sex by pretending to be horny heterosexuals who were just lonely and desperate. In some places, male soldiers' only sexual outlet was with each other. Even when women were available, for instance at local brothels, there was a fallacy among some soldiers at the time that sex with men was safer. This was due to the fact that military films on venereal diseases only talked about heterosexual sex, leading soldiers to believe that it wasn't an issue in homosexual sex. All these factors combined led to men participating in acts that they probably wouldn't have otherwise.
Military-Sanctioned Drag Shows
Between 1900 and 1920, female impersonation was considered family entertainment and was done in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts. It was not associated with sexuality. During World War I, female impersonation in soldier shows was encouraged in order to keep men from leaving camps and from mingling with female actresses and other women. In the mid-1920s, however, the appearance of talkies led to a decline of interest in vaudeville. The few impersonators remaining on the vaudeville scene developed a bawdier style that incorporated homosexual slang and culture; some called them "pansy" impersonators, and the incorporation of sexuality into the acts made the mainstream public uneasy. By the 1930s, female impersonation was mostly limited to risqué adult entertainment in night clubs, "queer joints," and drag balls, mostly conducted on Halloween or New Year's Eve when police wouldn't arrest those dressed as the opposite gender.
During World War II, the military once again started to promote shows with female impersonation in them. There was a school in Fort Meade, Maryland to teach Special Services (the department responsible for maintaining soldier morale and supervising troop recreation) officers how to assist commanding officers in soldier entertainment. Special Services officers looked through records for soldiers with show business experience and held amateur nights to find talent; organized soldier workshops on scriptwriting, costume and set design, stage managing, directing, and makeup; and published handbooks called "Blueprint Specials" that had scripts, music, lyrics, designs for sets and costumes, and dress patterns (made out of things like salvaged blankets, t-shirts, parachutes, semaphore flags, rope, and mops) for drag routines. Supplies were often lent or donated from the American Red Cross, USO, civilian women near bases, and family members, who were proud of their female-impersonating sons and brothers for helping with troop morale.
Shows were put on both for soldiers and for the American public. Soldiers often put on all-male shows for each other, and these were particularly important for entertainment and morale in places like basic-training camps, remote areas with no local civilian entertainment, and occupied enemy countries where fraternization with locals was forbidden. The military also put on shows for non-soldiers. This Is the Army opened on Broadway on July 4, 1942, was cast with enlisted men, and was an instant hit. It toured the U.S., Europe, North Africa, and Pacific, and was praised by reviewers for its patriotism. Regardless of intended audience, soldier shows featured three basic styles of drag: chorus line or "pony ballets," which were husky men in dresses played for laughs, skilled dancers and singers, and female impersonators who emulated stars such as Carmen Miranda, the Andrews sisters, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Mae West.
When the military decided to bring back shows with female impersonation, they had to fight against its association with homosexuality. Both military PR and the press worked to prevent soldiers in drag from being seen as effeminate or homosexual. They tried to harken back to the "golden age" of female impersonation during World War I and promoted a myth that all the soldiers in shows like This Is the Army would go off to fight after their run. This was untrue; even cast members who applied for transfer to combat units were turned down. The War Department preferred to keep them in shows or in work on motion pictures, theatrical training, or camouflage education.
Perhaps the decisions to keep them away from combat was based on the inkling that many of them were, in fact, homosexuals. Homosexuals had been heavily involved in the theater and cinema world in civilian life for decades. Those with interests in hairdressing, makeup, female impersonating, dancing, and acting were able to find a niche in the wartime theater world. It let them express a side of themselves that they wouldn't have otherwise and gave them a chance to meet other gay soldiers who had also gravitated toward the shows. Some drag performers were flirted with or even propositioned by married men who probably wouldn't be interested in normal situations, although it could be difficult to separate teasing from genuine advances. Some gay men who were interested in drag, however, wouldn't perform in drag in the military because they feared exposure. If officers felt the performers seemed queer, maybe by being too invested in their female impersonation roles, those performers might find themselves discharged or transferred elsewhere.
When women entered the military in fuller capacity, there was a move to incorporate them into shows. In the Navy, women in WAVES performed in navy shows with men and toured in all-female musical shows. In the Army, members of the WAAC tried to put on all-female shows, but this generated controversy. Reviewers made leering comments that were considered detrimental to WAAC's public image, supposedly showing the women as frivolous and not ready for combat. Official policy was quickly issued that prohibited Wacs from being in most shows, although commanding officers would occasionally allowed it. Instead, Wacs were allowed to work as seamstresses, designers, make-up artists, and other backstage roles for the all-male shows. Toward the end of the war, there was a push for more shows to keep morale up for those waiting to go home, and female civilians were recruited to play female roles.
Captain America's Military
It's obvious that Captain America takes place in a fictionalized version of history in both the comics and the movie. For example, in the movie it's shown, through shots of black extras in the basic training and troop scenes that took place at the beginning of the war, that the army was integrated on a higher level than historically accurate. Societal values and attitudes were not necessarily the same in Cap's 1940s as they were in our 1940s. So while it's interesting and useful to know 1940s attitudes about homosexuality in the real world, it's important to keep in mind that Captain America's world is a fictionalized, sometimes idealized one, and some artistic license can be taken when it comes to historical viewpoints.
It's also important not to generalize too much about the 1940s experience, because there were so many 1940s experiences. What one soldier. gay or straight, went through was not going to be the same thing as what another soldier went through. Growing up in New York City (Brooklyn in the movies, the Lower East Side in the comics), Steve would most likely have been exposed to homosexuality, even if he had been too naive to realize it. Whether or not he was fully aware of New York's gay scene is more open to interpretation. What he experienced when it came to homosexuality and how he would react to the modern world's view of homosexuality are even more open to interpretation. The wonderful thing about fanfiction is that it can explore all the different experiences Steve might have had and all the viewpoints he might have held (and hold today).
1940s Gay Slang
camping: a culture among some gay men that embraced the flamboyant or the effeminate
gay, queer, temperamental, interesting, brilliant, belle, girl, auntie: used to describe gay men
tea-room: public toilet
mother superior: flaming queen
sister in distress: gay men in jail
Alice Blue Gown: policeman
drop hairpins: give hints about being gay
swish, queen, swishy queen, nellie queen: flamboyant gay man
In working-class lesbian bars and the military branches at the time, it was the norm for a butch lesbian to pair off with a feminine woman. The masculine partner was called the dyke, lesbian, butch, or (among black circles) dagger. The feminine partner was called the lady, girl, or girlfriend.
sissy, pansy, fruit, fairy, fag, queer: words often used by the general population to describe homosexuals
homosexual: a clinical term that was not always known to the general or gay population, especially at the beginning of the war
queer bashers: hostile men who looked for queers to beat up
section eights, blue discharges, blue tickets: dishonorable discharges
eight balls: people who were given dishonorable discharges
Just some things to look into if you're interested.
Gay Metropolis by Charles Kaiser: A great resource on what gay nightlife was like in the 1940s and beyond, with an emphasis on NYC.
Before Stonewall: A documentary on gay life between the 1920s and 1960s in the US. It's available on instant play on netflix, and has some nice tidbits on the WWII era.
The Invisible Glass by Loren Wahl: This is a fictional novel written by a WWII veteran, but it's pretty accurate when it comes to homosexuality and race issues of the time. It's available to check out as an ebook at openlibrary. An account is free.
This post is mirrored on my site at http://bit.ly/capandhomosexuality.
Also, while this doesn't have anything to do with homosexuality, the book has this great quotes that I thought is really interesting when applied to Captain America and possible dynamics with other soldiers: "While most soldiers would and often did risk their lives to protect their buddies, they shunned heroics and often used the term hero as an insult rather than a compliment. Hero described the undependable man who displayed a foolhardy bravado that could get him killed or endanger the lives of his buddies." (177)
Apologies in advance if I'm slow to reply to any comments, I don't check dreamwidth that often.