“Top Secret” and “Obscene”

In yesterday’s dissertation primary source re-review, I spent some time poring over some very large files. As in, PDF files that run 200 to 400 pages, simply because I could find no efficient way to make them smaller – the files themselves were that big at the archives.

If you’ve read Margot Canaday’s The Straight State, then you might be familiar with the problem of homosexuality in the 1950s Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Canaday has a wonderful chapter, “Finding a Home in the Army,” that analyzes the reasons behind the mass purges of suspected lesbians in the WAC during the 1950s. If you haven’t read this wonderful book yet, I highly recommend it (she doesn’t just deal with the military, for what it’s worth).

The files I’ve been reviewing, then, happen to be many of the same files Canaday uses as evidence. Although homosexuality isn’t a major piece in my dissertation – it figures rather largely in one chapter, but that’s it – these files are an absolutely fascinating glimpse into the early postwar, “sexually integrated” military. (I use quotations because as it turns out, the military wasn’t really all that “sexually integrated” back then, but that’s part of the first chapter of my dissertation, so you can read about that later.)

For those unfamiliar with the pre-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military, the former position was that anyone found guilty of engaging in homosexual activity was basically court-martialed and discharged. And that wasn’t an honorable discharge, either, folks: during World War II, as Allan Berube covers, it was a “blue discharge,” and after the war it became, well, a dishonorable discharge in nearly all instances.

It’s one thing, however, to read about these cases in Canaday, or to read Berube’s analysis of the WW2 era. It’s another thing to find yourself in actual possession of these files, which are stamped not just “Top Secret” but also – no kidding – “Obscene”. (At the National Archives in College Park, researchers have to get a special slug to photograph formerly classified materials – the staff members were surprised to learn that the U.S. government had a stamp for “Obscene”. And in a way, it would be funny – except that it’s really more of a travesty in context.)

My advisor told me that when Canaday spoke about these files at the Berkshires Conference back in 2008 or 2005, she compared the men’s homosexuality discharge files to the women’s: men’s files are very thin, perhaps a quarter of an inch thick, maybe 20 pages at most. The women’s files, on the other hand, are gigantic, some of them an inch or more thick – hence the 200 to 400 pages I mentioned above. In some cases, the size is because of the number of women being accused – up to 20 in one investigation, but even those focusing on 2 or 3 women are fairly large.

Yesterday I was flipping through a case file on nine women who were all accused of homosexual activity in 1950. The files include psychiatric statements describing the accused Wac (as members of the WAC were called) and assessing whether she truly was a ‘sexual deviant.’ And that’s when I noticed something odd, something I’d never noticed before:

Several of the women were described as a “colored EW” (EW= Enlisted Woman) in their psychiatric report. Odd, I though, Considering how few non-white women were in service in 1950. So I started looking through the file a little more closely.

All 9 women accused in that file were African American servicewomen.

This was interesting, I thought: a case brought against nine women at the same time, all at Fort Lee, Virginia – and all of them were black. On the one hand, it might be more intriguing if some of them were black and some of them were white, simply because their being grouped together was because they were “known associates” of one another (so to speak). So, it sort of makes sense that they would all be African American women.

From what I can tell, all of the other homosexuality discharge files I have from the early 1950s involve white women only, but it’s not as clear in some of the files because they don’t always signify race. (If no race is given, “white” is probably the unspoken default.)

I also found another interesting notation: the fact that these nine women were part of a segregated detachment that was about to be integrated into a white Wac unit. (Although Truman began the steps to desegregate the armed forces in 1948, it took until the early 1950s for this to really happen.)

The comment about this being women from a soon-to-be-desegregated unit is what makes this particularly intriguing. Was this part of some larger lashing-out against desegregation? Or just a standard ‘witch-hunt’ common to the WAC at that time? It may never be clear – according to the cover letter, the rumors about these women’s proclivities came from all over the Training Center, from men, women, chaplains, and a number of people. If it had come from inside the segregated Company B (where all the women were assigned), that might be one thing.

Finding details about the role race played in the military’s gender/sex integration process has been one of the most challenging things of my dissertation. Although I have no precise answers on what was going on here, discovering this among my materials was, I think, an important step – and some good food for thought.

(And now, of course, if that darn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would just get repealed…)

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3 thoughts on ““Top Secret” and “Obscene”

  1. How interesting! As I understand it, it’s lesbian servicewomen (and possibly women who may not identify as lesbian but have been identified as such) who are the hardest hit by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, something which corresponds with what you’re finding about the thickness of the files. What’s interesint about the current incarnation of this gender bias is that the servicepeople who are the face of the campaign against DADT are all men (Dan Choi, Alexander Nicholson), once again erasing, although unintentionally I’m sure, the majority of the victims.

  2. This is so interesting! Are any of these women still alive? They’d be in their 90s, but it would be so interesting to do an interview with them.

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