Monday, September 16, 2013

Love in War


The Second World War was a huge disruption of American life. People from farms, small towns, and cities, from all regions and classes now found themselves suddenly uprooted and thrown together. People who had never traveled more than 5 miles from home now found themselves in the South Pacific or flying over Central Europe. This was true, not just for soldiers, but for civilians on the home front. The war created desperate labor shortages in factories contracted for war production. Those jobs were filled by women, African Americans, and other minorities. Like the soldiers, many of these workers left home and found themselves living together, sometimes in close quarters in alien environments. Time honored customs and beliefs about class, gender, region, and race came under unprecedented strain. While this created incredible stress for many, for others, this created unexpected opportunities and raised expectations.

Gays and lesbians were an invisible minority; not only invisible to society at large, but to each other. Most of the American population at the start of the war still lived in small towns and on farms. A lot of gay men and lesbians from those backgrounds who previously felt very isolated now found each other in the military or in wartime production. Within the ranks of the military, a huge underground gay culture began to flourish. Gay soldiers in the South Pacific would create "gay beaches" for gathering sometimes within days of capturing an island from the Japanese.

A gay soldier from rural America recalled visiting Paris within days of liberation in 1944. He sought out a once famous Parisian gay night spot thinking it may still be closed for the duration. When he arrived, the place was wide open and packed with soldiers from a dozen different countries. He described American and Free French soldiers dancing together with Polish and Italian partisans and British troops. Not only did this soldier no longer feel isolated, he also began to see a certain potential. Gay men may have been a minority, but they were not a small minority. Formerly isolated gay men and lesbians discovered that there were lots and lots and lots of people like them. This caused a lot of people to rethink some things and to get some ideas.

Regulations and anti-sodomy laws had limited gay service since the Revolutionary War, leading to dishonorable discharge, courts-martial, or imprisonment for men found having sex with other men. The massive manpower needs during World War II and the growing influence of psychiatry in America led the military to classify some homosexual troops as psychologically unfit for service. Still, among the sixteen million Americans who served in the Armed Forces during World War II were hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian military personnel who proudly served. Only about 5000 of the eighteen million men called before draft boards and medical inspectors during World War II were screened out initially because of homosexuality.  As Charles Rowland, a gay draftee from Arizona explained, "We were not about to be deprived the privilege of serving our country in a time of great national emergency by virtue of some stupid regulation about being gay."

The military's policies toward gays and lesbians became increasingly aggressive and more punitive as the war drew to a close.  The American military only used the ban against LGBT service members when it was convenient; times of war, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, were not convenient times for the American military.  They often overlooked homosexuality because they needed the manpower.   However, just as African- American servicemen saw freedom abroad, so did LGBT service members.  The Stonewall Riots of 1969 are often credited with being a watershed moment that fundamentally altered the course of gay history. This, of course, is true. But it was not the watershed moment. Long before gay bar patrons rioted against the NYPD and gave momentum to the largest political mobilization of gays and lesbians in history, World War II was setting the stage for Stonewall.  This emerging gay culture continued to flourish, and it survived the war's end. Large American port cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco found themselves with huge populations of gays and lesbians at the end of the war; people who couldn't or wouldn't go home again. Friendships and communities formed during the war would quickly become useful for resisting and pushing back as an increasingly paranoid Post War America tried hard to put the genie of expectations for women, African Americans, and LGBTs back into the bottle.

A particular letter of love and loss between two World War II soldiers is making its rounds on the Internet, and the heartbreakingly beautiful story it paints for the reader will have you reaching for the tissues.

Long before the days of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and its subsequent repeal, the two men appear to have met and fallen for one another while on duty in Africa. However, their idealistic romance seems to have been cut short.

An excerpt reads,

This is in memory of an anniversary -- the anniversary of October 27th, 1943, when I first heard you singing in North Africa. That song brings memories of the happiest times I have ever known. Memories of a GI show troop -- curtains made from barrage balloons -- spotlights made from cocoa cans -- rehearsals that ran late into the evenings -- and a handsome boy with a wonderful tenor voice ... The happiness when told we were going home -- and the misery when we learned that we would not be going together. Fond goodbyes on a secluded beach beneath the star-studded velvet of an African night, and the tears that would not be stopped as I stood atop the sea-wall and watched your convoy disappear over the horizon...

The heart-rending love letter was written by American World War II veteran Brian Keith to Dave, a fellow soldier he met and fell in love with in 1943 while stationed in North Africa. It was penned on the occasion of their anniversary and reprinted in September of 1961 by ONE Magazine, a groundbreaking pro-gay magazine first published in 1953.  The original is supposedly preserved in the Library of Congress. Read the rest of the letter below, and have a somber glimpse inside the mid-century romance of Dave and Brian.



Here is the full transcript:

Dear Dave,

This is in memory of an anniversary — the anniversary of October 27th, 1943, when I first heard you singing in North Africa. That song brings memories of the happiest times I've ever known. Memories of a GI show troop — curtains made from barrage balloons — spotlights made from cocoa cans — rehearsals that ran late into the evenings — and a handsome boy with a wonderful tenor voice. Opening night at a theatre in Canastel — perhaps a bit too much muscatel, and someone who understood. Exciting days playing in the beautiful and stately Municipal Opera House in Oran — a misunderstanding — an understanding in the wings just before opening chorus.

Drinks at "Coq d'or" — dinner at the "Auberge" — a ring and promise given. The show 1st Armoured — muscatel, scotch, wine — someone who had to be carried from the truck and put to bed in his tent. A night of pouring rain and two very soaked GIs beneath a solitary tree on an African plain. A borrowed French convertible — a warm sulphur spring, the cool Mediterranean, and a picnic of "rations" and hot cokes. Two lieutenants who were smart enough to know the score, but not smart enough to realize that we wanted to be alone. A screwball piano player — competition — miserable days and lonely nights. The cold, windy night we crawled through the window of a GI theatre and fell asleep on a cot backstage, locked in each other's arms — the shock when we awoke and realized that miraculously we hadn't been discovered. A fast drive to a cliff above the sea — pictures taken, and a stop amid the purple grapes and cool leaves of a vineyard.

The happiness when told we were going home — and the misery when we learned that we would not be going together. Fond goodbyes on a secluded beach beneath the star-studded velvet of an African night, and the tears that would not be stopped as I stood atop the sea-wall and watched your convoy disappear over the horizon.

We vowed we'd be together again "back home," but fate knew better — you never got there. And so, Dave, I hope that where ever you are these memories are as precious to you as they are to me.

Goodnight, sleep well my love.

Brian Keith

I recommend Alan Berube's book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. Bérubé argues in Coming Out Under Fire, "the massive mobilization for World War II relaxed the social constraints of peacetime that kept many gay men and women unaware of themselves and each other."  

1 comment:

Jason Shaw said...

Beautiful take of the power of love, even during times when one might thing there was little place for love and sentiment.