This week Charlotte Bignell looks at the relationship between homosexuals and the armed forces.
The unique experience of war and gender-segregated military conditions have emerged in the studies of homosexuality as being some of the greatest opportunities for homosexuality to flourish, as researched by John D’Emilio and Allan Bérubé. Militaries tend to have strong connections with their history, which may make them lean toward conservatism; this has led some critics to suggest that the US military’s views on homosexuality are archaic and backwards. This essay will focus mostly on the experiences of male homosexuals in the US military since the beginning of World War Two. In addition, the historiography on Britain by Emma Vickers and World War One by Margot Canaday will also be explored briefly to provide a wider picture and demonstrate the scope for future academia. Whilst the essay focus may just represent one aspect of gay military history, it raises interesting ideas about the leader of the Western World’s military being outdated and out of touch with mainstream society; homosexuality has been legalised in America for some time and is arguably widely accepted, yet the military ban on homosexuals was lifted only in 2011. The topic’s contemporary relevance makes the emerging history significant as earlier experiences may been seen to have shaped today’s society and the progression over recent times can be tracked to an extent, particularly with the interesting links between scholarship. The theory of World War Two as the trigger of modern homosexuality, the impacts of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ campaign, the importance of oral histories and the issues that arose because of the Vietnam War will all need further research to illustrate the ways in which it is significant that studies of homosexuality in the history of the military have emerged.
War has been described as a unique experience; one reason for this is because of the sense of detachment from reality. For example, individuals were only surrounded by members of the same-sex for long periods of time and had to confront death daily. Such circumstances make it is possible to see why homosexual opportunities are seized and bonds are formed which are unlikely to be possible in ‘normal life’. The intimacy, closeness and comradeship are felt by both gay and straight men which obviously poses difficulties with defining homosexuals in the military. Homosexual activity may not necessarily equate to the participant being gay; the prevalence of intimate contact and affection when threatened with death is not an uncommon practice. Leon Podles notes that “in our society, men aren’t supposed to show that kind of affection except under such stress as this.” It is important for history to look at this unique topic as it has such a precise focus, perhaps unlike previous gay histories, but also because it holds a wide range of consequences and outcomes in the military and the greater society too.
The work of Bérubé has focused on the significance of World War Two as a nationwide ‘coming out’ experience for gay Americans and for many, their military experiences during this time became “the foundation upon which they built a post-war life.” This counteracts the thoughts of many scholars who have placed emphasis on the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969 as the trigger of the modern gay identity. The construction of urban gay communities in the 1940s owes much to the experiences of World War Two; homosexuals had had a taste of freedom and did not want to return to normal life or succumb to the post-war pressure of practising heterosexual and conventional family norms. The urban gay centres of the US we know today, such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles all have strong links to the experiences of gay men in the war, who were consciously realising their own identity and searching for a like-minded community.
To address the theory of D’Emilio and look at why the US experience of World War Two led to the acknowledgement of gay identity and the formation of homosexual communities, the policy of homosexual screening at the draft boards needs to be explored. Bérubé developed on from D’Emilio’s earlier work on homosexuality in the history of the military by using oral histories, this demonstrates the significance of this topic as there is area for scope and the ability to expand on the scholarship. Bérubé’s oral methodology has gained considerable praise and has proved to be of huge significance to the subject because of the value of first-hand accounts which belong to a generation soon to die out; its aim is for the history not to be lost. With the increasing authority of psychiatrists in the armed forces, the homosexual screening process became mandatory for those wishing to enter the US army. By simply asking blunt questions about one’s sexual orientation, it was necessary for men to face their own sexual status which they may have not done previously in their lives. Looking at World War Two as a time where conscious homosexual identity emerged is significant to the history of the military as it represents a turning point in the lives of many Americans and thus in post-war life, where urban gay communities increased dramatically.
The use of psychiatry in identifying homosexuals in the US military supported the notion of homosexuality as some form of mental illness. This had been a long-standing view of psychoanalysts, such as Sigmund Freud and sexologists, such as Magnus Hirschfield, but its application in military draft policy raises serious morality issues about one’s patriotism and not being accepted or wanted to represent and fight for one’s country. This will be discussed later when focusing on Vietnam and the work of Justin David Suran.
It is important to observe that the US military did address homosexuality in World War One, but did not have the resources to implement the sophisticated screening and surveillance as they did in World War Two. Margot Canaday focuses on the dramatic change from the traditional law of sodomy as a punishable offence in the military to World War Two where the homosexual status became punishable and a reason for discharge or not recruiting in the first place. This demonstrates significance in the emergence of studies of homosexuality in the military as it has the ability to track the transformation of the U.S over time into a more sexually conscious and sexually aware society. The change in punishment in the law from acts to status illustrates the wider society’s progression to ideas about acknowledging what you are with names and labels. The historiography suggests that to be a homosexual in World War One would have been easier than in World War Two because of the ability to go undetected and avoid trouble with the officers, compared to World War Two were homosexuals were actively sought out.
Relating back to the significance of oral histories in the study of homosexuality in the military, Vickers, who was researching homosexuality in the British Armed Forces in World War One, appeared to cause great insult to some veterans she wished to discuss the subject with. John Clarke was outraged with the claim that any of his fellow soldiers in the war may have been homosexual, as it was illegal and “un-British” . She was accused of disrespecting the sacredness of war and those who died for their country. With the abundance of research and evidence that many homosexuals did serve in the British Armed Forces in World War One and elsewhere, these accusations are likely to represent the continuance of heterosexual tradition and sexual stigma within the military. The apparent dishonour of claiming homosexuals served in the military relates back to the morality issues surrounding one’s patriotism and right to die for one’s country. The outdated beliefs of some military officials have significance to current debate, particularly relating to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) policy. The continuance of social stigma toward homosexuals in the military is demonstrated by a retired Army chaplain, Ron Crews’ notion that DADT is a radical sexual experiment threatening the US military.
In order to identify ways in which the emergence of homosexuality in the history of the military has been significant, the contemporary relevance of the DADT policy and Bérubé’s scholarly influence cannot be ignored. DADT, implemented under President Bill Clinton in 1993 as a compromise with traditional military leaders, barred openly homosexual men and women from military service. To some, this may have appeared to be a success for the homosexual community; they were being allowed to serve in the military, as long as they didn’t discuss their sexual orientation or engage in any homosexual activity. Yet, DADT raised many issues and, it could be argued, was an even greater hindrance to the gay movement than previous policies. The experiences of gay servicemen were not improved and by essentially being forced to remain in the closet, there would have been great “costs to the individual’s identity and sense of human value.” Joseph Rocha, who served in the US Navy from 2004 to 2007, spoke of the daily fear and anxiety of being discovered but also the grave unhappiness of lying about one’s true identity; “in order to be protected by DADT, it would require such a level of deceit and deception and such a removal of everything that is beautiful in your life – of relationships, of meaning, of friendships…that’s not human.” Derek Burks finds that DADT serves only to highlight homosexuality undesirably in the military environment which is already characterised by heterosexuality and conservative gender norms. This augments homosexual victimisation and diminishes the feeling of safety and confidence in one’s troop, resulting in an absence of victim reports and help seeking. The general consensus of Steve Estes’ interviewees was that DADT “changing nothing or even made matters worse.” The repeal of the policy and the emergence of these histories allowed gay servicemen the long-awaited feeling of acceptance and the ability to be open about one’s sexual identity without fear of discharge and the end of their military career.
By bringing homosexuality into the political sphere, DADT highlighted the outdated tradition of military law. The US military were backwards compared to US society. The implementation of this policy saw a resurgence of gay political activity, similar to the 1970s gay liberation movements. It is significant that the history of homosexuality in the military has emerged because, as seen here, it ties in with other aspects of social life, such as political protest. Another important aspect to consider is the credibility of the scholarship of homosexuality on this topic, highlighted by Bérubé’s work becoming part of contemporary debate in the 1990s. Being considered an expert on the topic, he himself was caught up in the political storm of DADT and was consulted on the issues of it.
Gay anti-Vietnam War protest and the conflicting pro-war stance of the Mattachine Society in the 1960s and 1970s is another area which highlights the significance of political links with homosexuality and the military. Suran studies the Vietnam War’s considerable impact on the lives of homosexual men and women, and criticises the other historiography of this subject for missing the conflict’s unique relevance to homosexuals and the gay rights movement of the era. The Vietnam draft, like World War Two, forced many men to come to terms with their sexual identity because of the US Army’s screening process. Yet, times had moved on since World War Two with homosexual issues discussed more openly in the wider public and with the emergence of the gay liberation movement, homosexuality’s political connections were amplified. The US military’s controversial involvement in Vietnam spurred a split in the gay movement between gay veterans and gay activists. The Mattachine Society, which emerged post-World War Two, was a homophile organisation which sought to improve the rights of homosexuals. They were keen to assert their ability to conform to the conventional norms of society and exist as loyal, hard-working citizens. This led to pro-war attitudes among homophiles as it may have been a perfect opportunity to fit in with society and essentially prove their honour and devotion to their country. At the opposite end of the spectrum were younger, radical gay activists who were entirely opposed to conforming to the heterosexual, capitalist means behind fighting in Vietnam; they wanted no part in the masculine dominance and oppression of war.
Suran criticises D’Emilio for focusing on New York and Stonewall in the history of homosexuality, where he believes greater attention is needed in San Francisco where the anti-war protest and gay rights movements were at their height. Vietnam illustrates the significance of the study of homosexuality within military history as it highlights the individuality of homosexuals and their political views resulting in a division in the gay movement. It continues to track the changes in political views and what their implications were in the military and in wider society. Suran sees the Vietnam War as an unavoidable topic when tracing the history of homosexuality because of its formative influence of gay solidarity and urban, social protest.
In conclusion, it is of considerable significance that studies of homosexuality in the history of the military have emerged because it ties in with other areas and aspects of society, such as politics, protest, medical understanding, employment law and urban life. It provides a new perspective on how to understand the importance of war. The development of military history with new areas of relevance being explored provides historians with a richer understanding of the dynamics and experience of war. The abundance of sources in the form of draft boards, legal documents, letters, oral histories and the high standing of scholarship on the topic serve to promote and exemplify why homosexuality should be included in the history of the military. Bérubé concludes that World War Two was of great significance to the history of sexuality, as well as US and world history. The experience of the military draft boards, and later with the political gay movements of the 1960s and 1970s, homosexuality was finally gaining public acknowledgement. Whilst, this may have excelled effeminate stereotypes as associated with the screening processes, some would argue that any public representation of homosexuality was better than none at all. A final point that should be made is that armies can be used to impose their country’s will on others, in America’s case this would be liberal democracy. Since the majority of American civilians would consider themselves liberal and with the legalisation of homosexuality in America, it could be argued that the US army should have put American values into practice earlier than 2011 in order to be fully representative of US society. Nonetheless it is significant that homosexuality has become legalised within the US military as it represents a marked progress from their archaic laws that existed prior to this.
Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire (North Carolina, 1990)
Bérubé, ‘Marching to a Different Drummer: Lesbian and Gay GIs in World War II’, in Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (eds) Hidden from History: reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (London, 1990)
D. J. Burks, ‘Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Victimisation in the Military: An Unintended Consequence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?’, American Psychologist, Vol. 66, No. 7 (2011), pp.604-613
M. Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, 2009), ch 2, 5
G, Chauncey, ‘Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era’, Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (eds) Hidden from History: reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (London, 1990)
J. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (University of Chicago Press, 1983), ch 1, 2
S. Estes, ‘Ask and Tell: Gay Veterans, Identity and Oral History on a Civil Rights Frontier’, The Oral History Review, Vol. 32, No. 2 (2005), pp. 21-47
R. Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain (Oxford, 2007), ch 6
L. Meyer, ‘Creating GI Jane: The Regulation of Sexuality and Sexual Behaviour in the Women’s Army Corps During WWII’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1992), pp. 581-601
J. D. Suran, ‘Coming out against the War: Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam’, American Quarterly, vol. 53 (2001), pp. 452-488
E. Vickers, ‘The Good Fellow: Negotiation, Remembrance and Recollection – Homosexuality in the British Armed Forces, 1939-1945’, in D. Herzog, (ed.) Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe’s Twentieth Century (Basingstoke, 2008), pp. 109-134
L. J. Podles, review of J. Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York, 1994) <Online> http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=08-02-034-b
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R. Crews, ‘Homosexuals in the Military Demand Special Privileges’ <Online> http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/sep/25/homosexuals-in-the-military-demand-special-privile/ [accessed on 23/11/2012]
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