Friday, August 8, 2008

World War II and the Birth of American Gay Politics and Culture

Ensign David Leavitt and friend

The Second World War was a huge disruption of American life. People from farms, small towns, and cities, from all regions and classes now found themselves suddenly uprooted and thrown together. People who had never traveled more than 5 miles from home now found themselves in the South Pacific or flying over Central Europe. This was true, not just for soldiers, but for civilians on the home front. The war created desperate labor shortages in factories contracted for war production. Those jobs were filled by women, African Americans, and other minorities. Like the soldiers, many of these workers left home and found themselves living together, sometimes in close quarters in alien environments. Time honored customs and beliefs about class, gender, region, and race came under unprecedented strain. While this created incredible stress for many, for others, this created unexpected opportunities and raised expectations.

Gays and lesbians were an invisible minority; not only invisible to society at large, but to each other. Most of the American population at the start of the war still lived in small towns and on farms. A lot of gay men and lesbians from those backgrounds who previously felt very isolated now found each other in the military or in wartime production. Within the ranks of the military, a huge underground gay culture began to flourish. Gay soldiers in the South Pacific would create "gay beaches" for gathering sometimes within days of capturing an island from the Japanese.
A gay soldier from rural America recalled visiting Paris within days of liberation in 1944. He sought out a once famous Parisian gay night spot thinking it may still be closed for the duration. When he arrived, the place was wide open and packed with soldiers from a dozen different countries. He described American and Free French soldiers dancing together with Polish and Italian partisans and British troops. Not only did this soldier no longer feel isolated, he also began to see a certain potential. Gay men may have been a minority, but they were not a small minority. Formerly isolated gay men and lesbians discovered that there were lots and lots and lots of people like them. This caused a lot of people to rethink some things and to get some ideas.
Even when the military's policies toward gays and lesbians became increasingly aggressive and more punitive as the war drew to a close, this emerging gay culture continued to flourish, and it survived the war's end. Large American port cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco found themselves with huge populations of gays and lesbians at the end of the war; people who couldn't or wouldn't go home again. Friendships and communities formed during the war would quickly become useful for resisting and pushing back as an increasingly paranoid Post War America tried hard to put the genie of expectations for women, African Americans, and LGBTs back into the bottle.

I strongly recommend Alan Berube's book mentioned in the previous post, and John Loughery's The Other Side of Silence, Men's Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth Century History. Loughery's book fills in some more details about the experiences of gay men in World War II, and tells a splendid account of their experiences after the war and into the 1950s.


it's margaret said...

Hi Counterlight --
Have you seen the documentary "Paragraph 175" ?

Very sobering.

Grandmère Mimi said...

New Orleans was a Port of Embarkation during WWII, but I believe there was a rather numerous gay population there, even before the war. The armed services needed every relatively healthy man for the war effort, so they could not be picky about who served until the war was nearing the end.

I've seen old films and photographs of men dancing with men and women with women at parties and clubs in Europe during the war.

Counterlight said...

Indeed, Grandmere, in 1942 the darkest year of the war (people forget how close we came to losing) the military was taking anyone and everyone. The purges of gay soldiers didn't start until after the middle of 1943 when the tide of the war had clearly turned, and accelerated after 1944.

The same was true of New York. It already had a large gay lesbian population. That population expanded greatly after the war (not only veterans, but emigrants from other parts of the country). I wonder if the same might be true of New Orleans.
I've always wondered about San Francisco. I could be wrong, but I've always had the impression that their gay community was created almost entirely after WWII.

Anonymous said...

I have several photos of my dad and his Navy buddies that you wouldn't (well, yes, you would) believe. It has taken me a long while, but I'd like to share why I am proud of dad. I'll not name his probably sexuality in the process. You can guess it.

Dad was chief radioman on the USS Appalachia (the press ship of the Navy for the Bikini Atoll tests - every pic that came back to the newspapers passed through his hands). God forgive me for the tirades against nuclear weapons I launched at him when I was a teenager. I still hate the weapons, but I didn't know what I was doing to my dad until after he was gone (when I discovered the pics and the newspaper articles - you know, those guys never talked about anything).

Dad was also a signal man on the USS Indianapolis when it transported the Hiroshima bomb to Guam (and I so hate what that voyage meant, grandmere). He was on shore leave on Tinian when she went down - or I wouldn't be here to tell about it. The most he ever said to me about it was that the thing that bothered him most was that his "dress whites went down with the ship." Uh huh, and what about his buddies?

Thanks, Doug. I didn't have a clue that I was going to "go here" when I stumbled upon your blog cross-wise. But it's good for me to say these things out loud for the first time.

You know what he said to me when I came out to him and mom? Listen to this amazing response from a man in the late '60s (when I was well on into my college years);

"I'm sorry you had to go through that alone." (He meant high school, when I was discovering things and suffering the consequences with my peers.)



Grandmère Mimi said...

Scott, I don't blame those who served in the military, I blame the leadership. As much as I was against the Vietnam War, I never blamed the soldiers, and I did not agree with those who treated them badly when they came home. I thought it was terrible. It seems we're doing better with that in our present wars.

Anyway, World War II was the "good war". Nearly everyone supported that one.

I'm glad you told your dad's story here. You were blessed. He was a mensch.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, grandmere. Yeah, and he was very kind, too. This also gives me the opportunity to clear up the timeline. As is usual with trauma, I mixed it up a little. Dad said his supportive line to me in the early '70s, not the late '60s. The late '60s is when I was "discovering things in high school". Not that you needed to know that. I just needed to say it.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I can't even imagine having to come to terms with being gay, along with the usual angst of adolescence. It was hard enough without that complication - at least for me.

Anonymous said...


You, too, are very kind, and this will be my last for the evening.

When the same dad stood behind me at my ordination, and when I turned around just before the point in the rite where objections are asked, expressing my anxiety that someone would say something (I was the first "certifiably gay candidate for the priesthood in the Diocese of CT" - that doesn't mean, of course, that there weren't many others who had prepared the way), he said to me the second thing I remember coming out of him toward me, "If they do, I'll punch 'em!"

Dear heart. I still love him for that one.

Counterlight said...

Wow! Scott, what a great dad! You were so very lucky.
And you were so very brave to come out when you did at the age you did. I was well into my 30s before I came out to my parents (it turns out that they had figured things out at the same time I had).

I'm very gratified that you shared that on this blog.