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Love in War

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The Second World War was a huge disruption of American life. People from farms, small towns, and cities, from all regions and classes now found themselves suddenly uprooted and thrown together. People who had never traveled more than 5 miles from home now found themselves in the South Pacific or flying over Central Europe. This was true, not just for soldiers, but for civilians on the home front. The war created desperate labor shortages in factories contracted for war production. Those jobs were filled by women, African Americans, and other minorities. Like the soldiers, many of these workers left home and found themselves living together, sometimes in close quarters in alien environments. Time honored customs and beliefs about class, gender, region, and race came under unprecedented strain. While this created incredible stress for many, for others, this created unexpected opportunities and raised expectations.
 
Gays and lesbians were an invisible minority; not only invisible to society at large, but to each other. Most of the American population at the start of the war still lived in small towns and on farms. A lot of gay men and lesbians from those backgrounds who previously felt very isolated now found each other in the military or in wartime production. Within the ranks of the military, a huge underground gay culture began to flourish. Gay soldiers in the South Pacific would create “gay beaches” for gathering sometimes within days of capturing an island from the Japanese.
 
A gay soldier from rural America recalled visiting Paris within days of liberation in 1944. He sought out a once famous Parisian gay night spot thinking it may still be closed for the duration. When he arrived, the place was wide open and packed with soldiers from a dozen different countries. He described American and Free French soldiers dancing together with Polish and Italian partisans and British troops. Not only did this soldier no longer feel isolated, he also began to see a certain potential. Gay men may have been a minority, but they were not a small minority. Formerly isolated gay men and lesbians discovered that there were lots and lots and lots of people like them. This caused a lot of people to rethink some things and to get some ideas.
 
Regulations and anti-sodomy laws had limited gay service since the Revolutionary War, leading to dishonorable discharge, courts-martial, or imprisonment for men found having sex with other men. The massive manpower needs during World War II and the growing influence of psychiatry in America led the military to classify some homosexual troops as psychologically unfit for service. Still, among the sixteen million Americans who served in the Armed Forces during World War II were hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian military personnel who proudly served. Only about 5000 of the eighteen million men called before draft boards and medical inspectors during World War II were screened out initially because of homosexuality.  As Charles Rowland, a gay draftee from Arizona explained, “We were not about to be deprived the privilege of serving our country in a time of great national emergency by virtue of some stupid regulation about being gay.”
 
The military’s policies toward gays and lesbians became increasingly aggressive and more punitive as the war drew to a close.  The American military only used the ban against LGBT service members when it was convenient; times of war, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, were not convenient times for the American military.  They often overlooked homosexuality because they needed the manpower.   However, just as African- American servicemen saw freedom abroad, so did LGBT service members.  The Stonewall Riots of 1969 are often credited with being a watershed moment that fundamentally altered the course of gay history. This, of course, is true. But it was not the watershed moment. Long before gay bar patrons rioted against the NYPD and gave momentum to the largest political mobilization of gays and lesbians in history, World War II was setting the stage for Stonewall.  This emerging gay culture continued to flourish, and it survived the war’s end. Large American port cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco found themselves with huge populations of gays and lesbians at the end of the war; people who couldn’t or wouldn’t go home again. Friendships and communities formed during the war would quickly become useful for resisting and pushing back as an increasingly paranoid Post War America tried hard to put the genie of expectations for women, African Americans, and LGBTs back into the bottle.
 
A particular letter of love and loss between two World War II soldiers is making its rounds on the Internet, and the heartbreakingly beautiful story it paints for the reader will have you reaching for the tissues.
 
Long before the days of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and its subsequent repeal, the two men appear to have met and fallen for one another while on duty in Africa. However, their idealistic romance seems to have been cut short.
 
An excerpt reads,
 

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 — curtains made from barrage balloons — spotlights made from cocoa cans — rehearsals that ran late into the evenings — 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…

 
The heart-rending love letter was written by American World War II veteran Brian Keith to Dave, a fellow soldier he met and fell in love with in 1943 while stationed in North Africa. It was penned on the occasion of their anniversary and reprinted in September of 1961 by ONE Magazine, a groundbreaking pro-gay magazine first published in 1953.  The original is supposedly preserved in the Library of Congress. Read the rest of the letter below, and have a somber glimpse inside the mid-century romance of Dave and Brian.
 

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Here is the full transcript:
Dear Dave,
 
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’ve ever known. Memories of a GI show troop — curtains made from barrage balloons — spotlights made from cocoa cans — rehearsals that ran late into the evenings — and a handsome boy with a wonderful tenor voice. Opening night at a theatre in Canastel — perhaps a bit too much muscatel, and someone who understood. Exciting days playing in the beautiful and stately Municipal Opera House in Oran — a misunderstanding — an understanding in the wings just before opening chorus.
 
Drinks at “Coq d’or” — dinner at the “Auberge” — a ring and promise given. The show 1st Armoured — muscatel, scotch, wine — someone who had to be carried from the truck and put to bed in his tent. A night of pouring rain and two very soaked GIs beneath a solitary tree on an African plain. A borrowed French convertible — a warm sulphur spring, the cool Mediterranean, and a picnic of “rations” and hot cokes. Two lieutenants who were smart enough to know the score, but not smart enough to realize that we wanted to be alone. A screwball piano player — competition — miserable days and lonely nights. The cold, windy night we crawled through the window of a GI theatre and fell asleep on a cot backstage, locked in each other’s arms — the shock when we awoke and realized that miraculously we hadn’t been discovered. A fast drive to a cliff above the sea — pictures taken, and a stop amid the purple grapes and cool leaves of a vineyard.
 
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.
 
We vowed we’d be together again “back home,” but fate knew better — you never got there. And so, Dave, I hope that where ever you are these memories are as precious to you as they are to me.
 
Goodnight, sleep well my love.
 
Brian Keith
 
I recommend Alan Berube’s book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. Bérubé argues in Coming Out Under Fire, “the massive mobilization for World War II relaxed the social constraints of peacetime that kept many gay men and women unaware of themselves and each other.”  

Ignorance

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Yesterday, one of my fellow teachers asked me how I dealt with students who believe in the literalness of the Bible. As someone who teaches history, I teach about prehistoric man, who was believed to have developed around 200,000 years ago, according to fossil records. However, biblical literalists believe the world is only a little over 6,000 years old, and they do not believe in the accuracy of radiocarbon dating. I told her that the term “day,” as it is translated in the Bible, is actually a Hebrew word that means a period of time. So we began discussing how so many things can be misconstrued especially when people have a closed mind.

Ignorance always saddens me, and most of the time, makes me angry. Such was the case when Pat Robertson delved into a discussion about AIDS during a recent episode of “The 700 Club,” in which he suggested that infected individuals in cities like San Francisco purposefully infect others by cutting them with special rings.

On Tuesday, Robertson and co-host Terry Meeuwsen responded to a question from a viewer about the disclosure of an AIDS status. Apparently, the viewer had been driving a nursing home patient to church and came to find out he has AIDS. The viewer was angry no one disclosed the man’s health condition to her.

Robertson said he “used to think it was transmitted by saliva and other things, now they say it may be sexual contact.” So, he advised the woman not have sex with the man.

“There are laws now… I think the homosexual community has put these draconian laws on the books that prohibit people from discussing this particular affliction,” he continued. “You can tell somebody you had a heart attack, you can tell them they’ve got high blood pressure, but you can’t tell anybody you’ve got AIDS.”

“You know what they do in San Francisco? Some in the gay community there, they want to get people. So if they got the stuff they’ll have a ring, you shake hands and the ring’s got a little thing where you cut your finger,” he said. “Really. It’s that kind of vicious stuff, which would be the equivalent of murder.”

Right Wing Watch reported that particular comment from the broadcast was edited out of the clip the Christian Broadcasting Network later posted online. The Huffington Post could not immediately reach a CBN representative for comment.

Back2Stonewall writer Will Kohl dubbed Robertson’s statements “the worst and most horrible lie that has come out of Pat Robertson’s mouth in his history of anti-gay hate.” He asked for supporters to call CBN headquarters and demand the network force Robertson to apologize for his “outrageous lies.”

In an email to the Huffington Post Kohl added, “It’s well past time that members of not only the LGBT community but real Christians everywhere stand up to the anti-gay religious extremist like Robertson and say enough.”

Tuesday’s segment was certainly filled with fallacies.

AIDS develops from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is transmitted via infected persons by blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids or breast milk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These fluids must either come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into the bloodstream for someone to be infected.

In addition, the gay community has not put “draconian” laws on the books like the televangelist claimed. In fact, many states have partner-notification laws that make an HIV-positive person legally obligated to tell his or her partner or partners, according to AIDS.gov. In some states, the omission of this information could result in a criminal charge.

Finally, HIV/AIDS is not a “gay” thing. The diseases affect people of all races, genders, sexualities and creeds.

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