Coming Out Under Fire

Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II

Allan Bérubé
John D’Emilio
Estelle B. Freedman
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Coming Out Under Fire
    Book Description:

    During World War II, as the United States called on its citizens to serve in unprecedented numbers, the presence of gay Americans in the armed forces increasingly conflicted with the expanding antihomosexual policies and procedures of the military. InComing Out Under Fire, Allan Berube examines in depth and detail these social and political confrontation--not as a story of how the military victimized homosexuals, but as a story of how a dynamic power relationship developed between gay citizens and their government, transforming them both. Drawing on GIs' wartime letters, extensive interviews with gay veterans, and declassified military documents, Berube thoughtfully constructs a startling history of the two wars gay military men and women fough--one for America and another as homosexuals within the military.Berube's book, the inspiration for the 1995 Peabody Award-winning documentary film of the same name, has become a classic since it was published in 1990, just three years prior to the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which has continued to serve as an uneasy compromise between gays and the military. With a new foreword by historians John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, this book remains a valuable contribution to the history of World War II, as well as to the ongoing debate regarding the role of gays in the U.S. military.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0459-6
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-xiv)
    John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman

    WhenComing Out Under Firewas first published twenty years ago, gay and lesbian history had barely passed beyond its infancy. Jonathan Ned Katz had produced two enormous and rich documentary collections demonstrating that same-sex love was a topic with a history and that there was sufficient evidence to write about it. John Boswell had composed a major study of Christianity and homosexuality in Europe from the Roman era to the Middle Ages. Lillian Faderman had written a broad survey of romantic love between women in Western Europe and North America from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. There were...

  4. Preface and Acknowledgements
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. Introduction: “Why We Fight”
    (pp. 1-7)

    When German tanks and bombers invaded Poland in September 1939, the United States was not prepared to enter a war in Europe. Years of isolationism, neutrality acts, military budget and pay cuts, and competition from New Deal social welfare programs had left the peacetime Army and Navy backward, neglected, and unable to fill their ranks with volunteers. The Army (which included the Air Corps) was a small organization that between the wars did not exceed two hundred thousand soldiers and officers; the Navy (which included the Marine Corps) barely reached an active-duty strength of one hundred thousand. In 1939 the...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Getting In
    (pp. 8-33)

    Early in 1943 Robert Fleischer, who lived with his family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, went down to the Grand Central Palace induction station for his physical. When he reached the psychiatrist’s office at the end of the line, he was scared to death of being found out. This nineteen-year-old draftee wanted desperately to get into the Army to avenge the death of a cousin who had been killed at Pearl Harbor, but he had heard that the Army was rejecting gay men for military service. Carefully planning to hide his homosexuality from Army examiners, Fleischer was surprised when the...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Fitting In
    (pp. 34-66)

    Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Winfred Overholser realized that, despite psychiatric screening, the demands of war would force the military to accept and integrate most gay selectees. “I have an idea,” he wrote, “that the Army will take the ‘boys’ . . . in, unless they are extremely persistent offenders. Apparently the Army is likely to relax somewhat its attitude toward these cases, although I speak entirely off the record in this matter.”¹ Throughout the war, Overholser and other psychiatrists, as well as a few military officials, privately acknowledged that gay men had become vital members of the armed...

  8. CHAPTER 3 GI Drag: A Gay Refuge
    (pp. 67-97)

    In May 1943, toward the end of his basic training at Camp Hulen, Texas, where he was attached to the 473rd Antiaircraft Artillery (Automatic Weapons) Battalion, Robert Fleischer tried to persuade his commanding officer to approve an all-soldier variety show. “A lot of the guys from the theater world in New York were in the outfit,” Fleischer recalled, “and we decided to write our own musical comedy. You had to get permission to do it, and the colonel decided we could. So we titled our show,The Colonel Wants a Show.” Fleischer’s civilian experience as a fashion designer in Manhattan...

  9. CHAPTER 4 “The Gang’s All Here”: The Gay Life and Vice Control
    (pp. 98-127)

    Passes into the bustling war-boom cities promised gay male and lesbian GIs the allures of fun, romance, and sex—a chance to let down their hair, let off steam, and take part in the wartime excitement of civilian life. “There was a hysteria that ran underground,” wrote John Home Burns about Washington in June 1943, “from the Pentagon to the Statler, Mayflower, and Willard hotels. . . . WACs tore efficiently through the streets. Thousands of sailors and marines were on the loose with cameras strapped to their shoulders. . . . Everybody beamed at everybody else, particularly on Pennsylvania...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER 5 The Fight for Reform
    (pp. 128-148)

    In 1941, strained by the demands of a massive war mobilization that included a large influx of gay soldiers, the military could no longer handle its homosexual discipline problems by sending all offenders to prison. Officers certainly had known that there were “queers” in their ranks long before World War II, but they had no mandate or approved procedures for getting rid of them other than by charging them with sodomy. To prevent additional strain on the already overburdened military prisons, an alliance of reform-minded military officials and psychiatrists proposed what they described as a more efficient system for handling...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Pioneer Experts: Psychiatrists Discover the Gay GI
    (pp. 149-174)

    In the Washington offices of the War and Navy Departments, psychiatric reformers had the luxury of discussing and formulating homosexual policies in the abstract. But in the field and aboard ship, psychiatrists assigned to duty in military hospitals had to put these policies into practice. As psychotherapists they were inclined to understand their patients—nearly all of whom were men—as people who needed help. But as military officers having to obey orders, they were called upon to identify homosexuals and report them for discharge. The conflicting roles of therapist and informer presented psychiatrists with difficult ethical dilemmas and frustrating...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Comrades in Arms
    (pp. 175-200)

    On February 28, 1945, Pfc. Robert Fleischer, who had just turned twenty, found himself crossing the English Channel into France. He was to become a replacement in an antitank company in the 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division, which was making its way across France toward Germany. Wading through the icy waters from their landing craft onto the bombed-out beach at Le Havre, Fleischer and his terrified buddies were greeted by French children lined up on the beach offering them bouquets of flowers. From Le Havre the Army transported Fleischer by boxcar and truck to the Harz Mountains, where he joined his...

  14. CHAPTER 8 Fighting Another War
    (pp. 201-227)

    In combat, gay GIs pointed their guns at enemy soldiers. But some gay servicemen also found American guns pointed at them. Those who were caught having sex, or who were rounded up in systematic witch hunts at stateside or overseas bases, or who were asking for help coping as homosexuals in the service, found themselves fighting a war for their own survival. As officers began to discharge homosexuals as undesirables, the gay GIs who were their targets had to learn how to defend themselves in psychiatrists’ offices, discharge hearing rooms, hospital wards, and “queer stockades.” There they were interrogated about...

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  16. CHAPTER 9 Rights, Justice, and a New Minority
    (pp. 228-254)

    Gay male and lesbian veterans returned home having undergone their own sexual revolution during the war. Many had overcome their sense of being alone—they had formed cliques, found the gay life, and discovered the situational homosexuality of their heterosexual peers. At the same time the military had reinforced their gay identity by beginning to manage them as homosexual persons in its screening, antivice, and discharge policies, as well as in the practice of utilizing them in stereotyped jobs, sending them to the fighting fronts, and tolerating them where necessary. Coming home with a stronger sense of themselves as gay...

  17. CHAPTER 10 The Legacy of the War
    (pp. 255-280)

    The massive mobilization for World War II propelled gay men and lesbians into the mainstream of American life. Ironically the screening and discharge policies, together with the drafting of millions of men, weakened the barriers that had kept gay people trapped and hidden at the margins of society. Discovering that they shared a common cause, they were more willing and able to defend themselves, as their ability to work, congregate, and lead sexual lives came under escalating attack in the postwar decade.¹

    Long before the war a chain of social constraints immobilized many gay men and women by keeping them...

  18. A Note on Sources
    (pp. 281-288)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 289-360)
  20. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 361-362)
  21. Index
    (pp. 363-377)