My Heroes

by Don Bellew


I have been fascinated with the WWII generation of men since I was a kid. They were my father’s generation. They were THE soldiers in all the movies and later on TV. They were The Great American Heroes. The few survivors still alive are all eighty plus years old.

A little American history lesson here:  It was their generation that defined “gay” and institutionalized the feminine-man as “the homosexual” as if that freed all other men from guilt and shame.

at ease 2Up until the nineteen forties, people recognized the label “sissy” or “momma’s boy” as a type of male but few people actually reserved homosexual behavior to them alone. The old 19th century ideal of male friendship allowed the expression of male-male affection without question right up until 1942 when the draft was instituted by the Army following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

By then the medical circles had begun to “treat” homosexual behavior AS IF it was problem that needed fixing. Thank Freud for that idea. His wildly improbable concepts about the “homosexual type” were widely circulated in medical journals and accepted as scientific fact. Truth was, Freud sold a big bag of bullshit that has since then been pretty much tossed out as bad guesses.

The first time the military tried to exclude a particular type of man they defined as a “homosexual” was 1942. Before then, men were dismissed from military service if they were actually caught in flagrant sexual situations but nobody was going around asking, “Are you a homosexual?” But a new attitude became pervasive in 1942 because during the draft process, the army tried to weed out the newly defined “homosexual man” from service.

at ease 3

From the book At Ease

For most American men, this was the first time anybody asked, “Have you ever had sex with another male?” The guys understood, right away, that by making that admission they were immediately labeled as undesirable and treated as something less than full men. This is American history’s first public adaptation to the fairly new idea, grown out of the medical field, that some men were homosexual and other men were NOT. Thus, they created the gay/straight dichotomy that we are still trying to dismantle today.

For history buffs, that public characterization of the “queer” can be traced back to the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895 London some forty years before. Not long before England was codifying the “queer fag” as the owners of homosexual behavior, over here in America Walt Whitman was writing (in Leaves of Grass) about the “Calamus” that “grew in the hearts of all men” … his Calamus referred to a grassy-like flower with a big “penis-like” stamen and a pink, tongue like root. Whitman expressed a belief that all men had a deeply felt love for all other men and that was what he celebrated in joyous verse.

Whitman was the voice of an earlier generation. By the end of his life he’d felt enough social pressure to “edit-out” some of his more blatant references to male/male sexual love from subsequent editions of that great poetic work.

(Interesting side bar: Wilde visited New York shortly before the trials and actually met and visited with Whitman who had gained world renown for his poetry.)

The characterization of homosexual behavior as “bad”, “sinful” and “sick” or “perverted” grows up in social consciousness across the States from about 1900 but the new ideology had a very slow progress that did not infiltrate rural and far western America until much, much later.  The Army does the job of fully convincing us in 1942 with the new draft that excludes the “homosexual male” from public service.

At Ease

Photograph from At Ease By Evan Bachner

It didn’t work, of course. We know from military records and from memoirs and letters and interviews that homosexual behavior among the drafted “straight men” continued to occur with amazing frequency. If anything, the open discussion of homosexual acts actually increased the incidence rate.

The collectors and students of vintage photography point out that from 1900 and moving forward, men in pictures slowly separated themselves. At first, men hugged and touched and showed obvious affection in their portraits, then slowly the chill set in and there is a slow parting that becomes, by the late thirties, isolated and individual men refusing to show a connection to each other. But with the outbreak of war, the image changes and men suddenly are once again touching, hugging and laughing into each other’s eyes and proclaiming their mutual affection. The soldiers and sailors of WWII became at ease with each other in spite of all the negative public attention given to the male/male relationship.

Amusing that these men, the generation that “learned” to hate and to hide their homosexual thoughts and behavior, were the parents of the great rebel generation of the fifties and the sixties. These men, somehow, passed on to their children the idea that social laws and rules were not fair nor were they carved in stone. Even if those men hated to see the social upheaval that followed, they had fathered it. Their children became the greatest generation of social-deconstructionists we have ever witnessed. The tidal surge of full civil rights begins with MY generation, the so-called Baby Boomers. For that, I will always be proud.

©2014 Don D Bellew

[See also Don Bellew’s Male Sexual Fluidity and Nick Thiwerspoon’s The End of Gay]

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