Berube, Allan. Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. New York: Free Press, 1990.
Subject: An examination of World War II’s repercussions on the development of a gay identity and subculture in the United States.
Main Arguments: Berube focuses primarily on military life for gay men and women during the Second World War, and spends less time on the post-war period. One may expect that a history of gays in the military would be one dominated by oppression, but Berube shows that, while there was plenty of oppression to go around, this period was actually a vital stage in the development of a gay identity and subculture. The history Berube tells is one in which the gay women and men acknowledge institutional oppression, but then go on to navigate the system and carve out a niche for themselves.
As other scholars have shown (John D’Emilio in particular), the WWII era was one of mass movement; individuals were shipped off to distant places and forced to interact with people who were different from themselves. But, this movement also allowed for people who may have felt different to meet others who were also “different.” More specifically, Berube argues that the mass mobilization of WWII allowed gay men and women (who had either volunteered or who were drafted into the service) to achieve a level of anonymity by leaving the watchful eye of family and friends. This granted them the courage to act on feelings that usually had to be suppressed, allowing them to experiment with their desires. Moreover, it’s not insignificant that the armed forces were single-sex communities; worlds were created in which men only interacted with men, and women only with women.
Before the WWII period, individual homosexual acts were persecuted by the military. But, Berube argues that reformers and humanitarian psychiatrists were successful in WWII in convincing the military leaders that homosexuality was not a criminal act, but instead a medical disorder. Psychiatrists pushed for this reform because they felt it would lead to more humane punishment, or an honorable discharge from the military instead of prison time or a dishonorable discharge. Instead, what happened was social isolation, dishonorable discharges, times in hospital wings, or even confinement to “Queer Stockades,” where they were forced to eat together under armed guard, sleep with the lights on, and other such conditions. But as mentioned before, this is not a history solely of oppression.
Berube shows that the need for manpower during the war had drastic effects for the military’s treatment of gays and lesbians. First and foremost, the military simply needed soldiers to fight, so leaders were more willing to overlook even cases of blatant homosexuality. In fact, Berube shows that sometimes intimate bonds between the soldiers were seen as helpful to the war effort by forging camaraderie among the men.
But the military’s views towards gays also created a set of unintended consequences. First, because homosexuality was now officially defined as a personality disorder (and therefore potentially affecting a specific set of the population), the military needed a regimented, formal, anti-homosexual policy. But this then helped to create homosexuals as a specific group, helping to form “gay” as a set identity, rather than just a set of acts. Being labeled as member of a group also allowed gay men and women to think of themselves as belonging to a community whose underlying connection was their gayness. Gay men in particular began using “camp” and lingo to develop a semi-secret identity within the military culture. Berube depicts that “drag shows” in the military allowed gay men to openly expand their secret subculture. In a world of only men, female characters had to be played by men as well, and Berube says that, “The joke was on the unaware members of the audience – a subplot about homosexuality was being created right before their eyes and they didn’t even know it” (72).
In the final chapters, Berube shows that changes of discourse during WWII, along with a growing awareness of gay people as a group, set the stage for the heightened scrutiny of homosexuality after the war. But these changes were not all liberating or repressive, but simply changes in policy, language, and social spaces, ultimately leading to the “redefinition of homosexuality as a political issue” (253). Different groups then used this new discourse for either gay witch-hunts or the starts of gay activism.
Gay women soldiers actually get ample attention in his book, though it is less than gay men receive. Berube explains that this stems from differential treatment of male and female homosexuality. For one thing, the stereotype of the masculine dyke often lent itself to the belief that gay women would make good soldiers (unlike the stereotypical effeminate male homosexual). Moreover, the military leadership wanted to keep any discoveries of gay women in its rank as secret as possible, because they were simultaneously campaigning that if women joined the military, they would “remain” womanly, feminine, and thus able to return to being good wives and mothers when the war was over. Berube also notes that female sexuality was also easier to mask because of the greater social acceptance of women expressing physical affection to each other.
My comments: First of all, Berube does an excellent job of showing how World War II was a watershed moment in gay history, essentially acting as a “coming out” moment for countless individuals across America. But more specifically, I like that he shows the power of discourse, the power of words, even to create unintended consequences. While the military sought to repress homosexuality, it first had to define it (and thus create an character type that hadn’t existed as such before). This discourse of “homosexuals” allowed men and women to identify themselves as a homosexual, a specific type of person. Also, in a slightly different context, the psychiatric evaluation of homosexuals that resulted from the shift in identification led to conclusions that 1) not all gay men were effeminate, and that most of them were actually good soldiers; 2) most men identifying as gay liked their own behavior and didn’t want to be “cured”. And lastly, I like that Berube didn’t get stuck in using binary definitions of “gay/straight,” but instead showed that individuals created a myriad of identities in between the two.
This is one of the best history books that I’ve ever read! I simply love it.
For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews.