Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist
The 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is this December 7, 2021, so the Gore Center along with archival institutions across the United States are reexamining and sharing items related to World War II history. In this post, we will explore how one single photo can be used to discuss the contributions of queer Americans to the war effort.
The Vickie L. Riggan Collection of WWII Material is a treasure trove of documents, artifacts, ephemera, and photographs concerning women’s roles during the war. One photograph in particular has always caught the eye of Gore Center archivists.
The photograph above of two women Marines embracing among cherry blossoms reveals a sense of romance and intimacy. The caption written on the back reads, “March 1945. Washington D.C. in cherry blossom time. Germaine (the apartment mate) and I. Love, Billie.” So far, our research has not uncovered who exactly Germaine and Billie were. We hope consistently sharing the photograph across our online platforms leads to someone recognizing them one day.
While we cannot definitively say Germaine and Billie were involved romantically, it sure seems like it; nor would it have been out of the ordinary for two women to find love in the military during World War II. Queer women served in all branches of the Armed Forces in the 1940s. Some women knew they were queer before entering the service, while others discovered their attraction among the close quarters and isolated environment of the military. The same was true for many men. In some sense, gays and lesbians actually thrived in the military. Many had come from rural or small towns across the country to join the war effort and believed they were alone in their romantic and sexual feelings, but instead found a large community among fellow soldiers. Following the war, many gay and lesbian service members established rich queer communities in big cities like New York, Miami, and San Francisco.
However, the risks for finding and forming these queer communities were high. At the time of the war, the psychiatry field considered homosexuality to be a mental illness, and laws across the United States criminalized sexual interaction between people of the same gender, especially men. Thus, during the screening process for potential service members, the U.S. military point blank asked people about their sexuality, hoping to exclude gays and lesbians. People were forced to lie. To answer truthfully meant being sent home and potentially labeled a “sex pervert.” Service members later caught or accused of homosexuality were often dishonorably discharged and excluded from G.I. Bill benefits for decades. It was only this year, in 2021, that the Department of Veterans Affairs announced the availability of full benefits to veterans who were discriminated against and discharged for their sexual orientation.
The queer community today owes a lot to people like Germaine and Billie, who not only served our country in a terrible war but who also had the courage to find and share their love.
For more on LGBTQ experiences during World War II, check out the following secondary sources: