Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy by U.S., British, Canadian, and other allies in World War II. The full Normandy campaign lasted through August and by the time it was over, it was clear that the Germans were pretty much done for.
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.
In war battle, being gay makes no difference. As a married straight WWII vet of the Normandy Invasion said, "There were five gay guys in our unit on the beach that day. And I want you to know, the German bullets did not discriminate. We all took care of each other."
In the year 1946, a gay GI who had recently been discharged wrote in a letter:
I can't change. I have no desire to change, because it took me a long, long time to figure out how to enjoy life. For you'll agree, I'm not going back to what I left.
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. The above excerpt from the 1947 letter is but one example of a gay life that was profoundly changed by the war.
Gay men did not have an easy time in the military. If a man was caught having sex with another man, it was treated as a very serious crime. The guilty could be sent to the brigs, where guards enjoyed beating gay prisoners. They also faced discharge.
D-Day was a turning point in World War II, Allied troops had finally landed in Western Europe, the liberation of France was beginning, and by the time the invasion was over in August, Nazi Germany was well on its way to being defeated. The men of the Normandy Invasion were some of the most courageous to serve in World War II, though once across the English Channel, there was no turning back; however, if the war was to be own, this was the moment. Even more courageous were those gay soldiers who fought for freedoms that most would never know in their lifetime. The believed in the a American dream and the freedom it promised. Seventy years ago, those men couldn't imagine how far America and much of the western world has come in accepting homosexuality. However, they still fought for that freedom. 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.”
Thank you to all those gay men and women who have fought for the freedoms we enjoy today. For too long, they fought in silence, hiding who they were, so that we could have the freedoms we have today. Thankfully, they can now serve as out and proud LGB service members.