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Loose Lips Don’t Sink Ships: World War II’s Effect on American Culture and LGBT History

By Michael Bronski

WWII Recruitment Poster

The announcement that the U.S. Navy was going to name a ship after LGBT activist Harvey Milk, a Navy veteran, has drawn applause and boos from the usual quarters. LGBT activists and allies have praised the idea while the American Family Association has condemned it in no uncertain terms. The Village People have yet to make a comment. They are probably still annoyed that their 1978 sailor hook-up hit “In the Navy”, optioned by the Navy as a recruitment ad, was ultimately discarded, even though the Navy allowed the music video to be filmed on the USS Reasoner.

The naming process began in 2012 with the San Francisco Broad of Supervisors passing a resolution calling for the Navy to honor the openly gay former Board of Selectman member who was assassinated in 1977. Milk is already one of the most publically acknowledged LGBT activists with his image on a 2014 U.S. Postage Stamp, an Oscar winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and a critically well received 2008 film biography Milk starring Sean Penn.  

The USS Harvey Milk is a Fleet Oiler, a ship that carries fuel and dry cargo and can replenish ships at sea. (Battleships are always named after states, and Air Craft Carriers are named after geographic places with a few token insects—Hornet and Wasp—tossed in.) Historically, Fleet Oilers have been named after towns, cities, geographic regions, and rivers. More recently, they have been named after individuals: the USNS Henry J. Kaiser was named after industrialist Henry J. Keiser in 1984, and a year later, Benjamin Isherwood, a navel engineer and rear admiral had fleet oiler named after him. In 2016, Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis’s name was bestowed on a ship.

Despite what the American Family Association thinks—or would like us to think—the connection between LGBT lives and the military is a long one, going back to the American Revolution. In my book A Queer History of the United States, I discuss how the U.S. military in World War II completely altered gender roles and sexual expectations for millions of American women and men, and as Allen Berube argues in Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, set the stages for the birth of the Gay Rights Movement. 


It is impossible to overestimate the effect of World War II on American culture, and in particular on lesbians and gay men. The United States entered World War II, which had been ongoing since September 1939, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. This decisive turning point in U.S. history reordered American social life and mores, public and private space, and virtually all social interactions having to do with gender and sexual behavior.

The country’s entrance into the war radically transformed the domestic economy into a booming war economy, ending the Depression. The war economy not only provided much-needed jobs for Americans—the unemployment rate dropped from 17.2 percent in 1939 to 4.7 percent in 1942 and 1.2 percent in 1944—but also stimulated production of manufactured goods and increased farm production. As military-related industries such as shipyards, munitions plants, and aircraft manufacturing factories thrived, they provided employment for millions of women and men and drew workers to move from their towns and cities of birth. Between 1941 and the late 1960s, more than five million African Americans moved to urban areas, a shift that greatly helped facilitate the work of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

These changes posed fundamental questions of citizenship. Throughout American history, full citizenship—the ability to fully partake in the obligations of governance, including voting and defending the nation, as well as to receive entitlements, such as equal protection under the law and access to state-sponsored programs—was influenced by a variety of factors. These included race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation as well as gender, gender expression, and sexual behavior. The enormous challenges that the United States had faced since the turn of the century, including waves of immigration, the rise of cities, the Great Depression, and World War I, had redefined citizenship. It was now a society more tolerant of racial, ethnic, and religious differences and one that was striving, however imperfectly, to embrace social and personal freedoms.

War, Gender, Sex

Although new freedoms in the early twentieth century centered increasingly on gender and sexual behavior, social anxiety about homosexuality remained. In some cases, it became more prevalent. Margot Canaday documents how a fear of the single man, the nonfamily man, was conflated with male homosexual behavior by the Federal Transient Program (FTP) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Both of these single-gender New Deal programs gave work to displaced adult men. Men living together generated anxiety, as did the imagined possibility of younger men being sexually exploited. This anxiety eventually caused the federal government to focus less on programs aimed at unattached people, and ultimately to avoid implementing policies that might be seen as enabling “sexual perversion.”

Ironically, the first major change that occurred after Pearl Harbor was the massive relocation of men into the armed forces, where they would be living together. After the war began and conscription started, most Americans supported the war effort. By the end of the war in 1945, more than sixteen million United States citizens and residents had joined the armed forces. Ten million of those had been drafted. Although the armed forces accepted men up to the age of thirty-eight, the majority in all branches were in their twenties; 35 percent of navy personnel during the war years were teenagers.

The majority of men in the armed forces were white, but other racial groups were also represented. Seven hundred thousand, or 4 percent of the military, were African Americans; they were joined by 350,000 Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans. Throughout the war—until President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948—the American armed forces were segregated. This meant that, with rare exceptions, only white men could become officers or fight in combat. African Americans and other racial groups worked as cooks, truck drivers, stevedores, or warehouse workers. (There were some attempts at integration, and at the instigation of Eleanor Roosevelt, the USS Mason was manned with an African American crew trained to fill all of the ship’s positions, not just cooks and mess hall workers. The Mason was nicknamed “Eleanor’s Folly.”)

A Queer History of the United StatesAs men entered the armed forces, a major shift in gender roles occurred. With men at war, women were hired in occupations and positions that traditionally had been held by men, including office work and factory jobs. Previously, women’s employment was often predicated on class and race. Many working-class women, including minority women, already worked because they had families to support. Now middle-class women were expected to work. When the war began, married women and mothers of young children were urged to stay at home. As the war continued, they too began entering the workforce. Before 1941, women made up less than 25 percent of the U.S. workforce—about twelve million workers. By 1945, that number had reached over eighteen million, a full third of the workforce. (Simultaneously, the number of women employed as domestic workers fell from 17.7 to 9.5 percent.) Over a million women—“government girls”—worked clerical jobs in Washington, D.C.; three million worked nationally in war plants. There was a 462 percent increase of women in defense industry jobs. After initial industry skepticism, women ultimately performed as well as men, and in jobs that demanded manual dexterity, even better. These women were seen as vital to the war effort as the fighting man.

These workplace shifts substantially altered gender roles. Home-front women workers were regarded as independent and strong. Ubiquitous government propaganda posters featured Rosie the Riveter in bright colors, with her masculine factory uniform and a kitchen head scarf, flexing her biceps, with the slogan “We Can Do It!” Images of women working heavy machinery and driving trucks routinely appeared in Life magazine and other publications.

In a decisive break from the past, large numbers of women experienced independence, economic security, and psychological satisfaction. Women were paid less than men for the same jobs, but they were paid better than before and for jobs not previously open to them. In 1940 Los Angeles, 55 percent of nonwhite women worked as help in white homes. By 1950 this number had dropped to less than 40 percent. Fanny Christina Hill, an African American who went to work at a munitions factory, claimed, “The war made me live better, it really did. My sister always said that Hitler was the one who got us out of the white folks’ kitchen.”

Once they entered the workforce, most women liked being able to support themselves or their families, find new communities, and acquire useful skills. Most gained a stronger sense of self. Many lived on their own or with roommates, away from their families, and conducted their social and romantic lives as they pleased. For single women who did not rely on a man to support them, and for lesbians who had never expected a man to support them, this was a major step in economic and social independence.

Conscription into the armed forces was limited to male citizens, but many women enlisted. This was a major change in United States culture since, aside from nurses, women had never before been admitted into the military. Military women were granted a social status and respect not offered them in civilian life. Over 250,000 women served in the war: 140,000 in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and over 100,000 in the U.S. Navy as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). By 1945, 43,000 women had joined the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and 10,000 had enlisted in the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, known as SPARs. Women in the military performed numerous jobs, including nursing, clerical duties, weather forecasting, photography, and air traffic control; most vital was the work of radio and telephone operators and communication directors. Now able to work in jobs from which they were excluded before, women could be viewed as strong, competent, and skilled professionals.

Widespread public support of the war was indicative of a cohesive mid-century American identity. The growing threat of Germany, Japan, and Italy was great enough that Americans, including members of traditionally disenfranchised groups, felt obligated to defend their country. That is not to say the patriotism of minority groups was without critique. Large numbers of African Americans who had moved north for war-related work faced discrimination there, just as they did in the South. In 1942 the Pittsburgh Courier, the oldest African American newspaper in the country, started the Double V campaign, arguing that victory over fascism overseas must be accompanied by victory over racism at home.

The war drastically accelerated the massive movement of people that had begun with the rise of cities. Men moved from their hometowns to join the armed forces. With fathers, sons, and brothers overseas, and mothers, daughters, and sisters often working in distant defense plants, members of the extended biological family did not necessarily live close to one another. Increased contact with new people and ideas often challenged the religious and moral upbringing of these women and men.

In response to all of this, many aspects of marriage changed. During the war, “the proportion of persons never married and the median age at first marriage declined by as much as they had during the preceding half century”; one commentator called the skyrocketing rate of marriage “the war disease.” Between 1940 and 1943, over a million more couples than expected got married. Many of these marriages occurred hurriedly, as couples publicly declared their love for one another before the men left for war.

World War II changed ideas about private and public, broadening the parameters of social permissibility. It was now permissible to show deeply felt personal emotions in public. Crying as a loved one shipped out, weeping over a death, and other displays of emotional pain and distress were acceptable public behaviors. This was also true of sexual passion and desire, as illustrated by Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph V-J Day in Times Square, in which a sailor is passionately kissing a nurse in broad daylight. Such behavior, unthinkable before the war, was now acceptable. Servicemen on leave, even if intoxicated, were respected by civilians. The emotional urgency of the war changed social and sexual expectations. Women could now socialize, even flirt, with servicemen in public venues.

The female body, once seen as in need of protection, was now a fortified body that built ships and defended democracy. This was happening as sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, and friends were killed, wounded, paralyzed, and shell-shocked during the ferocious battles in Europe and the Pacific. The destruction of the male body was evident, even as government censorship shielded civilian from the worst images. In the national imagination, the nobility of the cause made these bodies heroic, highlighting the tragedy of their destruction. Images of fighting men in the popular press were a jarring paradox—extraordinarily valiant and extraordinarily fragile. Documentary combat photographs were often juxtaposed with pictures of shirtless men on battleships or in trenches—dirty, sweaty, and vulnerable. Images of patriotic men, many of them teenagers, dying for their country highlighted their fragility and nobility. This new standard of national masculinity, and its counterpoint image of strong women, radically altered how America viewed men and women.

An Army of Lovers 

The physically and emotionally vulnerable “new American man” was a reality for men living under the stress of battle and threat of death. For the first time in American history, large-scale, highly organized single-sex social arrangements were considered vital to national security. Men on battleships and battlefields lived together in close quarters with little privacy. The physical intimacy and stressful conditions often led to emotional and sexual intimacy. Servicemen in these all-male groups turned to their fellow troops for emotional and psychological support. The stress of leaving home, shipping out, active battle, and years of war allowed men to be vulnerable with one another in ways impossible outside of this environment.

Servicewomen were undergoing similar experiences. Without men in their everyday lives, WACs and WAVES formed emotional friendships that were, perhaps, similar to the female romantic friendships of the nineteenth century. But now a more open culture encouraged awareness of sexual possibilities. Certainly women’s new social freedoms, such as access to higher education, reproductive control (albeit limited), and the vote, made these relationships markedly different than in the past.

Wartime conditions produced social systems appealing to homosexuals. Single-sex environments encouraged homosocial relationships. Lesbians who were economically and socially independent of men found the military a haven. Homosexual men could now avoid their family’s heterosexual expectations.

Many men, including homosexuals, found outlets for their abilities and talents in the military. The United Service Organization (USO), a private organization founded in 1941 to boost morale by providing recreation and other services for the military, brought entertainment to the troops and offered a place for men with theatrical interests. Director and actor Tyler Carpenter writes about how he was recruited to put together a series of USO shows using professional entertainers and enlisted men. When his heterosexual commanding officer discovered the projected cost, he suggested using recruits in drag to play the female parts.


About the Author 

Michael BronskiMichael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.