by Douglas Messerli
Arthur Dong (screenplay, based on Allen Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, and director) Coming Out Under Fire / 1994
Coming Out Under Fire, Arthur Dong’s fascinating and often horrifying documentary about being a gay or lesbian while serving in the military in World War II (based on Allen Bérubé’s book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II) begins in a time long after that war, with President Bill Clinton still arguing in 1993 for a continuation “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be the policy under which soldiers under fire had long been asked to live. The film continues with the rather shocking, if not surprising, agreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all males and over 50, responding to Indiana Republican senator Daniel Coats’ question, each repeating that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.”
As one of the major voices in this film, Radio Technician in the Women’s Army Corps, Phyllis Abry, a lesbian who served as a WAC during World War II, suggests in a follow up to that clip, it was a catch-22: “The only way you could get in [to the military] was to lie. The only way you could stay in was to lie. Man or woman. It was not tolerated. So, they made you live a double life.”
Marvin Liebman, a WWII member of the Special Services, U.S. Army Air Corps continues “The Army. the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the United States Government wants its citizens to be liars. And to be unaccepting of themselves rather than say gay or homosexual [they wanted you to] be invisible, shut up.”
A scroll down of words restates the major presumptions with which these men and a women were faced from World War II and lays out the concerns of Dong’s documentary.
Beginning in World War II the military developed a discriminatory
system that forced homosexuals to hide who they were and punished
them for telling the truth.
Over the years, the military has given different reasons for treating
homosexuals as if they were a separate group.
At first they were labelled criminals, then mentally ill, then security
risks, and in 1993 they were considered threats to unit cohesion.
Underlying these shifting rationales was an unchallenged contempt
for homosexuals and a belief that they contaminated society with their
So the film turns its attention to the early days of World War II. After the events in Europe and Pearl Harbor nearly everyone, we are reminded, wanted to enlist in order to demonstrate their patriotism. The issues that Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and then the warrior culture of Japan had put forward were so obviously opposed to any idea of democracy that it was difficult for anyone with a conscience to not want to serve. And the military suddenly needed a vast number of men and women to join up, young people which included gay men and lesbians and numerous others often still too young to have truly perceived their own sexuality.
New guidelines had already established that homosexuals were among the mentally ill, psychologists suggesting that all recruits be asked whether or not they were homosexual. This clearly put all the loyal young volunteers in a double bind: pass as heterosexual or be sent back home officially labeled as a “sex pervert.”
Even more frightening were the stated Articles of War punitive charges which included “fraudulent Enlistment” and the notorious Article 93 which listed sodomy—defined by the military as “sexual connection by rectum or by mouth by a man with a human being”—both of which were punishable by dishonorable discharge and confinement to hard labor at a US Penitentiary for five years. Young gay men in the prime of their life, unlike their straight counterparts who were basically expected to and even encouraged to seek out sex with local prostitutes in brothels, engaged in sexual activities recognized that what today we perceive as a natural act might lead them to criminal punishment and problems of finding employment for the rest of their lives.
For gay black men such as the one interviewed in Dong’s film who served in the “Colored Units,” being black and gay was a “double whammy,” both seen as detrimental in the military, the one obvious but the other kept hidden. You had to learn how to evade attention, he laments.
When Abry left the military she married a man with whom she lived happily for several years before rediscovering her sexual preference.
Yet despite all of the immediate conflicts the military structure had set up, many young men and women, surrounded by their own sex in numbers of individuals larger than their own home communities suddenly discovered numerous gay men in their midst. As Dr. Herbert Greenspan, Psychiatrist in the U. S. Navy recalls, everyone new that many in our unit were gay, that I was and so was the Captain to whom I reported.
Others describe finding numerous gay friends who kept apart from the straight boys, often using a kind of coded language based on rhyming words and phrases from writers such as Dorothy Parker. Some of them even began underground newspapers, using the company mimeo machines and paper to create gay-lingo news journals such as The Myrtle Beach Bitch and The Bitches Camouflage.
Gay military men wrote numerous letters to others using the so-called Parker-parlance, calling everyone “Darling” and writing witty bon mots about the bad food and group morale.
Even popular cultural works such as the musical South Pacific represent that aspect of military life through the character of Luther Billis whose gay sexuality I discuss in connection with the 1958 movie version. Moreover, we mustn’t forget the importance of the all-male military drag performance of World War I in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937), a work which I do write about, but perhaps should have, in this context.
A couple of interviewees such as the U.S. Navy camp storekeeper David Barrett describe the openness of being gay during the first part of World War II, when everybody knew you were gay and employed that fact for their amusement and a kind of comic protection. One recalled approaching corporals in new units who looked them up and down, saying in slightly campy voice, “Well, who do we have here?” Others asked to be reassigned to units in which they knew were gay officers or other gay friends.
Some young men, not unlike my father, began showing up to camp psychiatrists such as Stuart Loomis, Psychological Assistant in the U. S. Army, confused by their new sexual feelings or concerned about having to encountered homosexuals in their units. Loomis likens it to a sense of “panic” engulfing them. As a gay officer himself he could help the patients he saw, but other so-called professionals had little experience with counseling such young men.
And the military officials were themselves increasingly unsure of how to deal with what they saw to be an increasingly openness to both male and female same-sex relationships. There was currently only one way to get rid of a gay soldier, charge him with sodomy; then he could be court-marshalled and sentenced to prison. Commanding officers claimed that the system was too cumbersome, while psychiatrists argued that it was inhumane and archaic to imprison individuals who they saw to be “mentally ill.” And since women could not be convicted of sodomy there was no way of dealing with lesbianism among the ranks.
By the middle of the war authorities proffered a solution: diagnose them as psychopaths. Or charge them with sodomy and quickly dispose of them as “undesirables.” The more “efficient system,” as the film’s narrator (Salome Jens) describes it, brought new purges upon many of the companies. Indeed the creators of the gay newspapers whose stencils they found among the trash were denounced as gay. Barrett, the writers of Parker-parlance whose letters had crossed the desks of the censors, and even the black soldier trying to avoid the spotlight were rounded up. Many gay men were put in special holding cells not unlike mental wards of hospitals or gathered in what others called gay stockades.
As in the later McCarthy hearings, they were asked to admit to their crimes and name names of their gay compatriots. When they were finally released as “undesirables” they were forced to return home to face families who were embarrassed and hostile, sometimes rejecting their young sons and daughters. Jobs were difficult to obtain.
In the time since the end of the war and the release of film these problems had not improved for LGB men and women, not to even speak of even greater difficulties facing transsexuals. The number of homosexuals discharged since World War II eventually reached over 100,000.
Looking back, given the context that Dong’s and Bérubé’s works provide us, we can now easily recognize that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a brutal policy that demanded the patriot lie not only to their friends and military superiors but to themselves. Such logic represents the hostility of a culture still not able to embrace queer life.
During the 1990s hearings Jack Warner, Republican Senator from West Virginia asked, “Is it too much to ask that you just serve honorably and quietly and efficiently and not profess?”
Margarethe Cammermeyer, former Colonel and Chief Nurse of the Washington National Guard, attempts to answer: “As long as there isn’t the regulation that gives someone the opportunity to threaten me with ‘I think you’re a lesbian and I’m going to ruin your career.’ As long as the regulation is there it says that no matter if we are totally closeted for the duration that means that someone has the power to use that threat.”
“You feel that intensely and patriotic that you want to serve then give up a little something.”
“We have, sir.”
“Give up the right to actively profess your sexuality among your fellow soldiers, then we’ll let you serve quietly and patriotically in every other way.”
But obviously giving up one of the most important elements of what defines a human being is to give up being itself, to deny what it is that one is bringing to the service in the first place, a thinking and loving woman or man. To remain silent is the same as not existing, as denying your identity.
I am sure, given my own feelings about the issues at 17 that, had I been born a generation earlier, I too might have volunteered to serve in World War II, at an age when I was still not sure about my sexuality. I probably would have realized I was gay a year later, at the age when I really did, and might have been court-martialed or even imprisoned, my future destroyed.
I have mixed feelings, nonetheless, about the new and needed changes in military regulations, particularly when it involves induction by draft.
At age 23—soon after I met my husband Howard, with whom, as of today, I have now lived for 51 years—when I was called for the draft for the Vietnam War, a war I adamantly opposed, I was terrified that they might not recognize me as being “undesirable.” After a full physical checkup and a battery of forms to fill out, they asked for anyone who thought they might be gay or have other psychological problems to move on to the induction center psychiatrist.
I’d long heard that psychiatrists had become quite skeptical about anyone claiming homosexuality given the unpopularity of that war. Some rumored they demanded rectal tests or the “Gag Reflex and Fellatio Test” and “Drawing-a-Man Test” which had been required for some volunteering in World War II—all of which I might have failed. I like masculine-looking men, I have always had an immediate gag reflex (just ask my dentist), and, although I had certainly had anal sex I believe that my rectum had not terribly stretched since I was neither exclusively, as gays sometimes describe it, “a top” or a “bottom.” I was shaking as I approached the psychiatrist’s desk.
“Why did you choose to see me?” he asked.
“I’m gay,” I assertively claimed, “and I’m in a relationship.”
I think he looked at me for a moment and quickly stamped my form 4-F, “deemed unfit for military service.” And although I breathed a great sigh of relief even then I knew it was also a lie.
Los Angeles, February 4, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).