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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.

Historian Allan 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 imagined."

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.

However, some 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 movement."

Witch hunt!

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.

Mouthpieces for 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).

Capitalist democracy 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 away.

In order to understand the domestic repression during the 1950s, it's necessary to look at the international relationship of forces.

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 capitalist dominion.

Does this look like 'freedom'?

Life in the U.S. didn't look much like an ad for "freedom," either.

Jim Crow 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 kitchen.

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 overturned.

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.

Next: Homosexuals, transsexuals in McCarthy's sights.