Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Independent filmmakers and scholars uncovered the experiences of gays and lesbians who served in the military during World War II. Allan Bérubé’s book Coming Out Under Fire and Arthur Dong’s documentary with the same name told of the lives of gays and lesbians in the military and those labeled sex or psychological perverts by the armed services.

Summary of Event

In his book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (1990), Allan Bérubé detailed the lives of forgotten lesbians and gays who served in World War II. Coming Out Under Fire was one of the first works to explore and document the history of pre-Stonewall gays and lesbians in the United States, tying their sacrifices to the lives of all Americans and allies during World War II. Bérubé’s book highlights stories from interviews, letters, and diaries, and brings to light previously declassified military documents. [kw]Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans (1990, 1994) [kw]Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans, Coming Out Under Fire Documents (1990, 1994) [kw]Lesbian Military Veterans, Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and (1990, 1994) [kw]Military Veterans, Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian (1990, 1994) [kw]Veterans, Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military (1990, 1994) Coming Out Under Fire (Bérubé) Military, U.S.[Military US];and service ban[service ban] Media;documentary film Literature;documentary nonfiction World War II[World War 02];gay and lesbian servicemembers] Film;documentary [c]Civil rights;1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans[2000] [c]Military;1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans[2000] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans[2000] [c]Organizations and institutions;1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans[2000] [c]Arts;1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans[2000] Bérubé, Allan Dong, Arthur Abry, Phyllis Liebman, Marvin Reddy, Tom

Arthur Dong adapted Bérubé’s material for his documentary Coming Out Under Fire (1994) just after the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell] policy was adopted by the U.S. military in 1993. Beginning during World War II, lesbians and gays were labeled and discharged as sex perverts. This policy was made more stringent during the McCarthy era after the war. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was meant to lessen these strictures, but in practice, it has resulted in the discharge of more lesbians, gays, and bisexuals (as well as those presumed to be so) from the military, with a loss of benefits and, at times, with a liability to pay back the government for the costs involved in their training.

Dong’s film uses archival documentary footage and interviews with nine lesbian and gay World War II veterans from many backgrounds who served in a wide variety of military positions. The World War II era, for example, was a time when soldiers could be accused of psychological perversions for writing campy letters in the style of short-story writer and humorist Dorothy Parker, addressing one another as “darling.” Some were able to work the system, while others were drummed out with undesirable discharges, bearing a stigma that likely affected the rest of their lives.

The film documents the experiences of Marvin Liebman, Phyllis Abry, and Tom Reddy, among others. Liebman was investigated and discharged as a “psychological pervert.” He was a Republican policymaker and fund-raiser until he came out in 1990. Abry managed to have a lesbian lover the entire time she was in the military but later married a man and had children. Reddy often appeared in drag Drag shows, in U.S. military in shows to boost the morale of the marines with humor. He received an honorable discharge.

After making Coming Out Under Fire, Dong’s far-reaching interests in the U.S. government’s control over its citizens, and his general interest in fighting homophobia, led him to create other groundbreaking documentary films. Licensed to Kill Licensed to Kill (documentary film) (1997) explores the reasons why some men bash and murder gay men. The film also supports Dong’s, and others’, general thesis that antigay behavior, like any prejudice or hatred, is learned. The convicted men Dong interviewed were not misfits, outcasts, fanatics, or lunatics. Instead, the men’s attitudes and behaviors reflect the deeply disturbing homophobia and hatred held by many Americans. The interviewee’s stories tell of the ways this antigay behavior is nurtured and molded by social conditioning. One interviewee states that his junior-high-school librarian taught him that homosexuality was wrong. Another inmate recalls how he was told that gays were weak and would therefore not fight back. A third said he was supported by words in the Bible.

Significance

Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire was the first opportunity for many of the gay and lesbian veterans of World War II to see in print a history of their accomplishments and their daily lives, as well as an account of how they coped while in the military. The book includes personal testimonies of the many ways gays and lesbians constructed their lives, loves, and social and support groups in a time when living as lesbian or gay was not just challenging but also illegal under various civil and military laws.

Dong’s documentary films are tools for creating change, for they confront and deconstruct not only U.S. government—including military—policy that excludes an entire class of individuals from civil protection and rights but also social and religious proscriptions against same-gender sexuality and couplings.

Bérubé and Dong have been given numerous awards for their works. Bérubé was a fellow of the MacArthur Foundation and received a Lambda Literary Award and an award from the Monette/Horwitz Trust, among others. Dong has received a George Foster Peabody Award, two GLAAD media awards, three Sundance Film Festival awards, and also an award from the Monette/Horwitz Trust, among others. Dong’s work has been nominated five times for Emmy Awards. These accolades have particular, resonant meaning in a society that gets much of its information from visual media. Coming Out Under Fire (Bérubé) Military, U.S.[Military US];and service ban[service ban] Media;documentary film Literature;documentary nonfiction World War II[World War 02];gay and lesbian servicemembers] Film;documentary

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bérubé, Allan. Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. New York: Free Press, 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, C. Tyler, and Edward H. Yeatts. Stars Without Garters! The Memoirs of Two Gay GI’s in WWII. San Francisco, Calif.: Alamo Square Press, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Leisa D. “The Myth of Lesbian (In)Visibility: World War II and the Current ’Gays in the Military’ Debate.” In Modern American Queer Theory, edited by Allida M. Black. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, Patricia. “The Documentary in Action.” http://fundfilm.org/for_grant/for_grant_ article6_ all.htm.

March 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1976-1990: Army Reservist Ben-Shalom Sues for Reinstatement

May-August, 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch Hunt

May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier

August 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams

October, 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians

November 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented

January 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military

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