Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two - Allan Bérubé

Coming Out Under Fire is a thoroughly fascinating, detailed study of a crucial transitional period in American society. It's extremely well-documented throughout, and although the author's style might be considered dry, the pages come to life because of the words and lives of the people portrayed. Berubé really did a great job of finding and putting together diverse material, and the quotes from the people he interviewed are always illuminating.

Besides the story of how gay soldiers tried to make a place for themselves in the army, find each other, and survive hostility, this book is illuminating as to a shift in social attitudes that was largely started off by the psychiatric profession. Psychiatrists, by trying to shift the military procedures from criminalization of sex acts to the medical handling of "latent" or "confirmed" homosexuals, began (whether they realized it or not) to create the basis for recognizing the homosexual person as a problem, independent of what they did. In a hostile society, this could lead to a person's positive achievements being entirely discounted. Some (a few) psychiatrists started with the idea that homosexuality was a personality trait that didn't necessarily cause any problems, and ironically, a few who were tasked with interviewing large numbers of soldiers for discharge came to that conclusion -- their completely ineffective protests against the army's punitive attitude were some of the earliest defenses of homosexuality in the US.

Gay soldiers often came out of the war with a better sense of themselves as gay, whether because of the chance that cameraderie had given them to feel "normal", because of meeting many others like themselves, or precisely because of the segregation and discrimination imposed on them if they were caught up in anti-homosexuality policies. Challenging their undesirable discharges encouraged some to speak up for themselves, as did the experience of those who went home unwilling to hide their new sense of themselves. For the first time, they began to think of themselves as a minority and speak in terms of rights and justice. The controversy over blue discharges even led to public discussion that was not always unsympathetic to homosexuals. This was a remarkable transitional period before the hysterically conformist crackdown of the fifties.

This book gave me a new perspective on a decade of American history that I had wrongly thought familiar, and made for a vivid picture of the social life of the people concerned.