The story of the men and women who were the first targets of the U.S. military’s antigay discriminatory policies during World War II. [ Coming Out Under Fire credits: Dir: Arthur Dong/ 71 min/ Documentary-Educational/ Government as Bigot, Sexual Liberty]
“Over the years, the military has given different reasons for treating homosexuals as if they were a separate group. At first they were labeled criminals, then mentally ill, then security risks, and in 1993 they were considered threats to unit cohesion. Underlying these shifting rationales was an unchallenged contempt for homosexuals and a belief that they contaminated society with their very presence. This is the story of the men and women of World War II who were the first targets of a military policy that sought to identify, reject, and discharge them as ‘undesirables.’” So begins this remarkable documentary, Coming Out Under Fire.
It reveals, through first-hand accounts from gay and lesbian veterans, the genuine heroism and patriotism that motivated these individuals to join the war effort as well as the often life-shattering treatment they received in return at the hands of the military. These soldiers functioned just as well as others, in some cases earning military distinction. Nonetheless, those suspected of being gay were subjected (variously) to relentless interrogations, forced confessions, inhumane prison treatment, and ultimately, long prison sentences at hard labor and dishonorable discharges.
The dishonorable discharge had serious consequences at the time. It meant difficulty in finding employment, no veterans benefits, and disgrace. Many who were so expelled were too ashamed to return to their own families.
But you didn’t have to serve, or even be gay, to have your life ruined by the military. Ill-conceived, pseudoscientific tests were used to screen out gays and lesbians. In one test, the new recruit was asked to draw a picture of a man and a woman. If the masculine and feminine features seemed inappropriately switched, the recruit was subjected to further similarly insightful tests, and if ultimately found to be “gay,” was sent home officially labeled a “sex pervert.”
Interestingly, the military seems mostly to have focused on male homosexuality. Lesbians received lighter treatment, partly because their sometimes masculine qualities were considered useful. But lesbians too were spied upon, interrogated, and intimidated.
The strength of this documentary is the quality of its interviews. In one, an African-American gay veteran tells of his nightmarish experience with the double whammy of being discriminated against because he was black, while at the same time being unremittingly investigated for being gay. In another, a gay veteran tells with some emotion how he has tried for years to get his dishonorable discharge changed to honorable, his pleas always falling on deaf ears. In another, Marvin Liebman, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement and an Army Air Corpsman in World War II, tells of his painful experience of being dishonorably discharged for being gay.
Woven together with these narratives are lots of original photos, newsreel footage, military training films, and other material. Coming Out Under Fire is an entertaining, well-made documentary, told with sympathy and sometimes humor, and it drives home several points. It reveals the shameful treatment that patriotic gay and lesbian veterans have received at the hands of the U.S. government. It helps to undermine arguments for military antigay discrimination by revealing the absurd roots of such a policy. And it proves, once again, that (then as now) government has far too much time and money on its hands.