From Special Friends to Brothers in Arms

In 1961, a letter would be published in one of the gay periodicals from a veteran named Brian Keith. In it he wrote:

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... 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.

Many shared Keith’s experience. In fact, the military conflict known as World War II had a major transformative effect on the lives and culture of gay men and women. In many ways, the war accelerated the advancement of the gay rights movement.


This global conflict began in 1939, when Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, invaded neighboring Poland. Prior to this, the government had begun militarizing the country and instituting strict policies of institutional racism that saw Germans of Jewish faith, Romani people, Catholics, and socialists arrested and sent to concentration camps, where they were either worked to death or killed in mass executions.

Homosexuals were also victims of the Nazis. The purges started in the mid-1930s when gay bars were shut down, and homosexual men and women were required to wear pink triangles sewn onto their clothes to identify them. This was both so they could be easily rounded up when the camps were ready to accept them and to make them stand out. Individual citizens were not the only victims, as Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute and all of his research were destroyed. Sadly, when the war was over and the camps were liberated, the tens of thousands of gay men and women who had survived were sent to prison, as homosexuality was still criminalized under section 175 of the German penal code.

Many materials that Nazis and Hitler Youth determined to be hostile to the interests of Germany were gathered in a truck and brought to the Opernplatz in Berlin to be burned in public.


The United States entered the war in 1941 (it would end in 1945) when the Japanese air force attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base in Honolulu, Hawaii. Japan was an ally of Germany, so after the attack, Hitler declared war on the United States. The United States was now fighting on two sides of the world in what were called the European and the Pacific theaters of war.

US troops are seen here crossing the German front line in Roetgen, circa 1944. On September 2, 1945, the war ended.

Both men and women were in demand for the war effort. Men would serve primarily as soldiers, pilots, and sailors. Although women were not put into combat, they were vital both at home and abroad. Women were employed in administrative capacities and worked in intelligence analysis for the military and took over what had historically been male jobs in the United States. Many women also ended up working for military intelligence as code breakers who used complex mathematics to decipher enemy communications.


Started in 1916, the blue discharge was used during World War II to remove homosexuals from military service. It was also used under other circumstances.

The demand for women in industry and other jobs offered three things that allowed women, gay and straight, a level of independence they had never had before. First, it gave single women an excuse to leave home and move to another city without having to get married. It also gave them the chance to acquire skills and earn money. Lastly, especially for gay women, it enabled them to form romantic and platonic relationships with other women.

Gay men had similar opportunities, but with greater risks of injury or death from fighting enemy soldiers. For many of them, though, their deployment allowed them to visit big cities like New York and find other gay men in bars and bathhouses.


While big cities offered more venues for gay socializing, the military had been influenced by the growing study of psychology. While homosexuality had been seen as a form of criminal action decades earlier, it was coming to be seen as a mental ailment. Recruits were subjected to psychological examinations to determine if they had gay tendencies. If they were found to have them, they could be discharged as mentally unfit.

Generally, at the end of their service, military personnel were discharged, meaning they were no longer active and could return to civilian status. Most received an honorable discharge, which entitled them to benefits ranging from medical coverage to college tuition. However, if a soldier was found guilty by court martial of a serious crime, he or she would be dishonorably discharged, stripped of benefits, and labeled as a convicted felon in some states.

George Washington issued the first dishonorable discharge in American history during the American Revolution. Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin had been found guilty of sodomy in 1778. A diary account from the time describes him having his coat turned inside out as he was exiled from the military camp in which he had served.

During World War II, because time and manpower were limited, men and women found guilty of homosexual behavior were issued a blue discharge. Blue discharges were considered neither honorable nor dishonorable. Unlike a dishonorable discharge, there was no military trial, so accused individuals had no opportunity to defend themselves. Although it did not include criminal sentencing, it did revoke a soldier’s veteran’s benefits and served as a permanent legal record of his “non-dishonorable offense.” Many gay and bisexual soldiers from small towns or rural areas felt unable to return to their communities, fearing shame because of their discharges, and instead stayed in the big cities such as New York City and San Francisco when they returned from overseas.


Those who evaded being outed while serving in the military didn’t have an easy time, either. In deployment cities like New York City and San Francisco, the military exercised Vice Control Powers (VCP) that allowed military police to follow soldiers off base, as well as stand guard outside and inside of known gay bars. Of course, this also made it easy for gay soldiers to find such places. All they had to do was look for the man in uniform standing guard.

Illegal operations called locker clubs sprang up in the cities. In these places, a serviceman could pay a small fee to store his uniform in a locker and change into civilian clothes to evade detection. Without a uniform, they could walk right past the guards and go enjoy a drink with other gay men—provided the guard didn’t recognize them from the base.

the stockades, which were military jails. By contrast, some commanding officers saw their women and men as more valuable in service than in jail and so looked the other way.

After the war, thousands of gay and bisexual men and women returned to the United States, arriving by the boatload in the same big cities from which they had deployed. Many of them chose to stay where they landed, and almost overnight the gay populations of those cities exploded. Even those who returned to midsized cities were changed by their experience, and smaller cities began to see the opening of more gay and lesbian bars.

This photo shows soldiers in New York City’s Penn Station in August 1942. The United States had entered World War II just eight months earlier.

Drinking establishments weren’t the only new thing to open up after the war. A small group of honorably discharged gay veterans in New York City joined together to form the Veterans Benevolent Association (VBA), an organization designed to provide support for its members while they adjusted to civilian life after the horrors of the war. It closed in 1954, but the VBA was one of the first major progay organizations in the United States—albeit one restricted to military veterans.

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