Dark And Deadly Valley

War, like every other change to human society, creates a dualistic reaction. On one hand, it demands that society retain the same structure it had before the war…because war is enough change without a complete restructuring of both politics and society. On the other hand, wars which are as devastating and as far reaching as the Second World War inevitably create new social and political structures…particularly in terms of minority rights. The Second World War, and its aftermath, created a changing society for gay rights: in some areas, decriminalisation and open discussion; in others, steadfast adherence to moral laws.

By 7 January 1940, rationing had begun in the United Kingdom. The impact of the Second World War on the UK was such that laws, society, and politics stayed much the same until the 1950s. Between the massive man power involved in the war (which stretched from France to Russia, south through parts of Africa and east into the Pacific), and the Blitz during the early part of the war, society and politics took a back seat to the immediate impacts of war time.

Iceland, which had criminalised sodomy in its infancy, repealed its sodomy laws. Although not the first nation to do so, the repeal of its Sodomy laws during a time of war is interesting. Iceland, which was a sovereign kingdom in personal union with Denmark had, up until 1940, kept Danish law for most things, including sodomy and age of consent. Both Denmark and Iceland had declared neutrality upon the outbreak of WWII, but once Denmark was invaded by Germany on 9 April 1940, Icelandic defence was necessary for the allies. Britain invaded Iceland on 10 May 1940 and declared that national laws were to be obeyed by the occupying troops. This meant that, although sodomy was illegal in the UK, it remained legal in Iceland.

In early 1940, the Nazis passed a new directive which required that any man arrested for homosexual activity with multiple partners was to be sent directly to a concentration camp upon completion of his prison term. This directive was grandfathered into German law, which meant that any man who was already in prison for multiple counts of sodomy would also be sent to concentration camps upon the completion of his prison term. In 1943, Himmler, commander of the SS, issued an order allowing any man imprisoned in a concentration camp as a homosexual to be released provided he underwent castration. There are very few records which have survived, and it’s unknown how many men actually underwent the procedure. In reality, it didn’t matter. Those who were castrated and released were immediately sent to fight in the Dirlewanger Brigade, which was akin to a death sentence.

Although the United States wouldn’t enter the war until December 1941, the US government was already creating a screening process. Two psychiatrists, Harry Stack Sullivan and Winfred Overholser, created guidelines for the psychological screening of recruits. The guidelines do not specify that homosexuals should be excluded from induction into the US military, but both Sullivan and Overholser believe homosexuality to be a mental affliction. In May 1941, using the guidelines and knowing Sullivan and Overholser’s personal beliefs, the US Army Surgeon General classified homosexuality as a disqualifying reason for military service. The US Navy and Selective Services adopted the same guidelines.

In 1942, Switzerland, a neutral country, decriminalised sodomy. In 1943, as the allies pushed further into German territory and began liberating concentration camps, American and British military leaders concluded that concentration camps were not prisons, and therefore any man in a camp for being a convicted homosexual had not been serving any time for violation of Paragraph 175, and could be returned to prison to complete serve his sentence. Again, documentation is often hard to find, particularly related to homosexuals and concentration camps. It is unknown how many men were re-arrested and sent to prison to serve the required term under Paragraph 175.

The Second World War saw, once again, a reorganised map of Europe. The Second World War’s impact would last into the 1950s, particularly in Europe. In the United States, returning soldiers found themselves embraced as heroes, and the creation of the GI Bill allowed for a university education. However, in 1945, the Veterans Administration created a policy which denied all GI benefits to any veteran with a blue discharge (which was used, primarily, to purge homosexuality from the ranks). Although the GI Bill explicated stated that benefits could only be denied for a dishonourable discharge, the policy was renewed in 1946 and 1949. In 1946, the House Committee on Military Affairs finds that blue discharges were discriminatory, and reprimands the VA for using them as a reason to deny GI benefits, but doesn’t order the VA to rescind its policy.  In response, Congress voted to discontinue the blue discharges and replacing it with a general and undesirable discharge. Internal Army and Navy policies are amended to ensure that anyone being discharged for homosexual activity is ineligible for a general discharge. This would eventually evolve to a dishonourable discharge for Conduct Unbecoming. In October 1949, the newly created Department of Defense standardised the military policy on homosexuals: Homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to serve in any branch of the Armed Forces in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces is mandatory.

The 1940s ended on a positive note: war was over, the Nazi threat eliminated (the entire party banned in most of Europe), and Europe was coming out of the conflict mostly stable. The United States was, officially, a world power, complete with a standing army and an invested  interest in Europe. The Cold War had only just begun, and technological advances were changing society. The Civil Rights movement would gain momentum in the United States starting in the 1950s. Europe would see the rise of socialism. As in all cases of immense change, some change would be slower…and more painful. By 1949, homosexuality was still, in most places, considered both a mental affliction and a sin. Especially in the United States, the moral impact of homosexuality would remain firmly entrenched in society, politics, and the law.

Part XV: Homosexual Politics and the 1950s


[History Note: I, once again, literally flew through 5 years of history. It was war.. there were battles and death and technological advances and a lot of other horrific things. If you’re curious about the causes/battles of WWII, I could gladly suggest some books. However, those things are entirely unimportant for progression of gay rights in the 20th century. ALSO: If you live in SoCal, USC has a pretty spectacular collection at the ONE archives (online here, some of it anyway: http://www.onearchives.org). It’s where this is from:]

o-LETTER-570

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