Before McCarthy, the Pentagon
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 26
Published Feb 13, 2005 8:53 PM
Even before McCarthyism menaced gays and
lesbians in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Pentagon
brass had ratcheted up an anti-homosexual witch hunt in the ranks of the
military that left its impact on civilian life, as well.
Bérube's book "Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in
World War II" makes a great contribution towards understanding this particular
period of repression.
From the time of the Revolutionary
War, the Navy and Army had
criminalized same-sex acts, not
homosexuals themselves. But in
World War II the Pentagon's
policy changed drastically. GIs
suspected of being gay or lesbian
faced witch hunts, humiliation,
brutality, dishonorable discharges
and being locked up in
'queer stockades,' like the
one shown above.
World War II was a period of great exodus--voluntary
and involuntary. Sixteen million men were conscripted into the military, leaving
their farms and towns, campuses and cities behind.
An estimated equal
number of civilians, mostly women, left their homes to find war time employment.
Millions more moved from rural areas and smaller towns to the burgeoning port
cities and industrial hubs.
Women, Bérube notes, "filled jobs in
heavy industry and other defense work, widely expanding their presence in the
paid labor force and increasing their ability to live independently."
African American women and men migrated from the South to Northern and
West Coast cities where jobs were available in the military industries.
Bérube stressed that the uprooting of such a large segment of the
population "disrupted the everyday lives of a generation of young men and women,
exposing them to the power of the federal government and the vast expanse of the
United States, the great variety of its people, and ways of life they had not
In particular, "The massive mobilization for World War II
relaxed the social constraints of peacetime that had kept gay men and women
unaware of themselves and each other, 'bringing out' many in the process.
Gathered together in military camps, they often came to terms with their sexual
desires, fell in love, made friends with other gay people, and began to name and
talk about who they were.
"When they could get away from military bases,
they discovered and contributed to the rich gay nightlife--parties, bars, and
nightclubs--that flourished in war-boom cities."
But, Bérube points
out, gay and lesbian GIs caught in sexual acts, netted in methodical roundups at
stateside or overseas bases, or seeking medical or religious advice about their
sexuality, found themselves fighting another war.
"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
their sex lives, locked up, physically abused, and subjected to systematic humil
iations in front of other soldiers."
Some 10,000 gays and lesbians were
forced to endure this harsh repression--a fraction of their estimated total
numbers in the ranks, but proof of a climate of terror.
brave individuals took on the military establishment. Bérube concluded,
"Those veterans who fought to upgrade their undesirable discharges for
homosexuality began to define their struggle with the government as one for
justice and equal rights, ideas that became a prerequisite for a political
After World War II, with the
ascendancy of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the campaign to
demonize homosexuality and transsexualism and to enforce Dick-and-Jane gender
conformity became essential components of the anti-communist witch hunt.
In fact, McCarthyism inseparably linked sexual and gender "queerness"
with commu nism, making them virtually synonymous.
reactionary titans of capital tried to define the Cold War as a battle between
capitalist democratic "freedom" and communist "totalitarianism." These spin
doctors even tried to equate German fascism with workers' states in the Soviet
Union and East Germany (German Democratic Republic).
is itself a form of dictatorship--of the class that owns the pro ductive
apparatus over the class forced to work for wages. During the 1950s, however,
even the limited democratic features of this form of state rule were seriously
eroded under the weight of political reaction.
While the period of
political reaction in the U.S. during the 1950s was not fascism--it did not try
to crush all the workers' organizations or carry out the systematic genocide of
millions--the epoch does carry with it this lesson.
As long as the social
relationship of capital rules, with exploiter against exploited, oppressor
versus oppressed, hard-won social and economic gains can be quickly wiped
In order to understand the domestic repression during the 1950s,
it's necessary to look at the international relationship of
Global class war
The Cold War was fundamentally a
class war against the socialist countries as well as oppressed peoples in this
country and around the world.
World War II had so weakened most of the
colonial powers in Europe and Japan that oppressed peoples in Asia, Africa and
the Middle East seized the historic moment and rose up for real independence.
The U.S. imperialists hoped to gain from this against their imperialist rivals,
but in many countries, liberation movements led by communists defeated
pro-imperialist puppet governments.
The triumph of the Chinese Revolution
sent the U.S. capitalist class into an enraged frenzy.
The ruling class
in this country was also deeply worried about the developing relationship
between China, the Soviet Union and those fighting colonial domination.
By 1952, the Pentagon was mired in a war to keep Korea under its
Does this look like 'freedom'?
the U.S. didn't look much like an ad for "freedom," either.
apartheid-like conditions predominated, not only in the South but in many
Northern cities, as well.
Post-war "Father Knows Best" campaigns were
designed to push "Rosie the Riveter" out of the factories and back into the
Sen. Joseph McCarthy was empowered to hunt down communists and
progressives, and to crush or intimidate dissent or resistance. Gains in civil
liberties, union organizing and political expression were
Jewish revolutionaries and progressives who had been in the
forefront of movements for social and economic justice bore an onslaught of
anti-Semitism and anti-communism, unleashed in relative tandem.
It was in
this political context that a wave of anti-homosexual and anti-transsexual
rhetoric and repression reached a fevered pitch.
transsexuals in McCarthy's sights.
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