When thinking about the current stance of the LGBTQ community serving in the United States armed forces we think of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). DADT was the official United States policy on service by gays and lesbians in the military instituted by the Clinton Administration on February 28, 1994 which was repealed by President Obama on September 20, 2011. Although these events seemed recent, gays have always been in the military, it was just never discussed publicly until Allan Berube wrote the book “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men And Women in World War II”. Berube spent ten years interviewing gay and lesbian veterans, dug up hundreds of wartime letters between gay GIs, and obtained thousands of pages of newly declassified government documents. He discovered while some gay and lesbian soldiers collapsed under the fear of being arrested, interrogated, discharged, and publicly humiliated, many drew strength from deep wartime friendships. They survived on their own secret culture of slang, body language, and “camp” to find each other and build spontaneous communities. Allan published his book in 1990.
Four years later filmmaker Arthur Dong turned Berube’s book into a documentary. The documentary features nine gay and lesbian soldiers who fought in WWII. They tell their stories of their daily routine, the ways the community found each other and how gays were treated in the military when out. Those who were out as gay faced humiliating treatment that included dehumanizing interrogations, medical examinations, and incarceration in “queer stockades” and hospitals for the criminally insane. Those discovered were punished with dishonorable discharges that stigmatized them in civilian life and denied them veteran benefits regardless of length or quality of duty served. Footage in this documentary also includes the 1993 Senate hearings on gays in the military and DADT.
What shocked me throughout the entire film was the pride that each man and woman being interviewed had so much pride for their country. Although they were drafted they were all excited to fight for their country as if it was every young person’s duty at that time was to serve their country. Half of the interviewees had found romance and community in the forces but had to lie about who they really were in order to stay in the service. Soldiers had to be psychologically tested for mental illness, homosexuality being listed as a mental illness at the time. If you were caught for being a homosexual you were dishonorable discharged and sent to prison for a minimum of five years. Fear was a common factor in soldiers lives. In this case these gay soldiers weren’t in fear of dying while fighting, but fear of being caught for being who they are. One interviewee commented on the government in regards of how they were treated in the military,
“The United States government wants their citizens to be liars and to be unaccepting of themselves rather than say gay or homosexual… be invisible or shut up.”
Luckily times have changed and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is just a text in a history book. Before learning about this culture I would have never thought that there was a homosexual culture in the military during World War II or in any era before the Iraq war. I could never imagine living in a time where hiding yourself was a norm. It is a shame that these soldiers were giving up their lives for the United States while the government was ready to ruin their lives.