The following is a guest blog post by Mary Claire Phillips, a recent graduate of University of Texas at Austin. Phillips utilized Veterans History Project (VHP) collections in her journal article and honors thesis examining the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) servicewomen during World War II.
Happy Pride! This month marks the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, when queer people protested a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28, 1969. Comprised mostly of trans women of color, the group of LGBT advocates who risked their well-being at Stonewall would stand in awe of today’s American cities draped in rainbow, while people of all sexual preferences dance in the street. In the spirit of acceptance, it is important to reflect on how this openness came to be, and to honor those who could not always afford to live out their true lives.The further back you reach into history, the more queerness is coded–not out of lack of presence, but as a survival strategy in a society that criminalized non-straight love. For the 2018 edition of the Harvard Kennedy School’s “LGBT Policy Journal,” I delved into the Veterans History Project to find narratives of LGBT servicewomen during the World War II. Currently, there are no oral history interviews in the collection of self-identified lesbian or bisexual servicewomen who served in World War II, but three straight veterans from the era remembered the presence of the LGBT community, so much so that over half a century later included these memories in their interviews. Meaning, I was able to gain a better understanding of queer military life simply by listening to the accounts of straight servicewomen.
Unsurprisingly, not all the testimony demonstrates the openness we are accustomed to in the 21st century. Both Minnie Shipp and Ellenor Rennell recall unfortunate discharges for their lesbian peers, and shed light on how queerness was caught and interrogated. Rennell recalls in her interview how the upper administration of her base handled her discovery of two women in bed on base:
I didn’t think anything of it. There was no harassment or any of that stuff. I was in charge of the barracks, and I went downstairs to check out and these two gals were in the bed together… next thing I knew someone was shaking me, ‘Wake up!’ It was a military police, ‘I want to see you down in the room.’ So I got up, put my bathrobe on, and wandered the hall downstairs. He said, ‘What’s the deal with those two women?’ So I told him. Then he said ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ and I said ‘no’… He said, how’d he put it? He said, ‘Did you ever hear of queer people?’ I said, ‘Well, to me queer is someone who has to go to the state hospital or has a problem’… So the girls were discharged, honorable discharge.
However, amidst sorrowful reminders that sexuality could send a love struck woman home, exist testimonies of acceptance, indications that despite the prejudice of the time, seeds of empathy among straight servicewomen helped create a safety net around their LGBT peers. As Toby Newman recalls:
I’ll tell you about running into a lesbianism problem. I had to, you see that’s the wonderful thing…you get grown up in the army. I was with these two women soldiers, and they ask me if I wanted to go someplace or another. Anyway, one of them brought me a box of chocolates and I notice her hands were around my waist. It dawned on me, and I looked at her and said ‘I’m not one of you.’ I just let it go at that. That was the only time, because they had to be… You know there were lesbians, but who cared?
VHP collections also supplied evidence of cultural trends in the military which directly related to lesbian culture. Around 1943, when the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps switched to the more permanent Women’s Army Corps, the War Department pushed back on lesbianism by cracking down on “butchness,” or masculine gender appearance. Newman’s testimony attests to the military’s growing concerns over women’s appearances:
Our underwear and bras were khaki, by the time they switched it from the Auxiliary to the regular Women’s Army Corps they let us wear our own underwear. The military was learning to deal with us women… We were to be feminine at all times. We were never to wear our hair in a masculine style. The Army made very clear we weren’t substitute men. By the time I went in they were used to that.
While searching for LGBT history, reading between the lines is key. In today’s era of growing acceptance and ever changing vocabulary to encompass the LGBT+ community, it is easy to forget how our identities were once illegal. But despite the sadness and threats of our community’s past persecution, the resilience and bravery exhibited by our LGBT foremothers and fathers makes the celebrations of this month all the more worthwhile.