Racial and Sexual Exclusion in World War II–Era Military and Veterans’ Policy: An excerpt from “Ambivalent Affinities”

The following is an excerpt of Ambivalent Affinities: A Political History of Blackness and Homosexuality after World War II by Jennifer Dominique Jones, which is available now wherever books are sold.

In a January 31, 1942, letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, twenty-six-year-old James G. Thompson queried, “Should I sacrifice my life to live half [an]American? Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life?” These demands, he offered, constituted a Double V campaign, in which “the first V [stands] for victory over our enemies from without, the second V [stands] for victory over our enemies from within.” The popularity of this strategy within Black political and civic organizations reflected widespread outrage over racial inequities in civilian and military life. Officials consistently relegated African Americans to service details, limited opportunities for advancement and officer training, and distributed low-quality equipment to segregated units. Army officials deployed narratives of Black racial inferiority and the possibility of interracial tensions to justify these actions. Frequent hostility from white enlisted men, officers, and civilians in the form of racial epithets and threats of violence compounded feelings of shame and degradation among some Black soldiers, sailors, and airmen. An anonymous soldier stationed near Sioux Falls, Iowa, testified to such abuse in a 1943 letter to the Newark Afro-American, asserting, “It is not a strange thing to hear a Lieutenant or major use the word N—r [sic].” Such firsthand accounts highlight the profound disparities between the ideals of American democracy and the realities of Black military experiences.

Military officials also punished Black service members who complained of racial prejudice with burdensome labor assignments, imprisonment, and court-martial trials.

Racial disparities also existed within the military’s policing and judicial systems. For example, African Americans constituted 42 percent of all army personnel convicted of sexual crimes in the European theater of operations, despite the fact that they only represented 8 percent of all American forces in that region. Military officials’ deeply held assumptions of the sexual rapacity of African American men (especially toward white women) surely informed these outcomes. Military officials also punished Black service members who complained of racial prejudice with burdensome labor assignments, imprisonment, and court-martial trials. Black service members received a disproportionate share of dishonorable (resulting from a court-martial conviction) and undesirable (or “blue”) removals from service. Known as blue discharges in reference to the colored paper on which they were printed, undesirable removals from service targeted those accused of unfavorable behaviors, including alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic lying, and sexual psychopathy (including homosexuality). According to a January 1946 memo from Major General Edward Witsell of the War Department, African Americans received 10,806 of the 48,603 blue discharges issued between December 1, 1941, and June 30, 1945. These statistics indicate the exceptionally discriminatory administration of these discharges, with African Americans constituting 22 percent of blue-discharge recipients despite comprising less than 10 percent of those serving in the armed forces. Many Black service members and veterans shared the sentiments of one anonymous man who asserted that white officers issued these blue discharges to “intimidat[e] and descreminat[e] [sic] against Colored Soldiers.”

Despite the stigma associated with blue discharges, given their connotation of homosexual behavior, the military adopted this removal from service as a benevolent reform. Between the world wars, a coalition of military bureaucrats, psychiatrists, and prison wardens advocated for the use of undesirable discharges in lieu of a longer process of court-martials and imprisonment, which would result in a dishonorable discharge for those convicted of same-sex intimacies. Army and navy administrators yielded to such calls in 1943 and 1944, respectively, when they adopted specific approaches to dealing with three defined classes of homosexuals: the violent offender, who would be court-martialed and dishonorably discharged; the “reclaimable offender,” who would remain in service; and the mentally ill offender, who would leave the military with an undesirable discharge. Despite this reformist impulse, the undesirable discharge process—which often included hospitalization or incarceration before a board of officers’ hearing—was deliberately stigmatizing. Most often, the board of officers expelled the accused from service, concluding that they “g[ave] evidence of traits of character other than those indicating discharge for mental or physical conditions … render[ing] conditions in the service undesirable.”According to Allan Bérubé’s study of gay and lesbian service members in World War II, 4,000 sailors and 5,000 soldiers left the service with blue discharges—representing roughly 18 percent of the total number of such discharges issued. Discharges continued after the end of hostilities, with 4,000 service members discharged between 1947 and 1950 for alleged homosexuality.

Discharges continued after the end of hostilities, with 4,000 service members discharged between 1947 and 1950 for alleged homosexuality.

The Veterans Administration (VA) extended the military’s discrimination against racial and sexual minorities into civilian life, as it created substantive barriers to the receipt of aid provisioned by the GI Bill of Rights. This legislation bestowed an array of benefits to veterans and their families, including job training, subsidized life insurance, access to health care, and loans to attend college, create small businesses, and purchase homes or farms. As chairman of the Committee on World War Veterans’ Legislation, Mississippi Democratic congressman John Rankin successfully advocated for the decentralized administration of the bill to ensure that southern VA officials could freely deny benefits to African Americans, resulting in high denial rates. Although the mechanisms that facilitated racial discrimination appeared within the very language of the bill, the VA adopted a specific policy to punish service members removed for alleged homosexuality. An April 1945 VA directive stipulated that “an undesirable discharge or blue discharge issued because of homosexual acts generally will be considered as under dishonorable conditions and a bar to entitlement.” This policy shift equated the consequences of discharges emanating from a court-martial conviction with that of an undesirable or blue discharge. Although there was no standard policy on how to treat the holders of blue discharges for non-sexual reasons, many veterans, such as Private Marion Hill, believed that the VA treated these discharges as dishonorable and sought to “ro[b] a man of his citizenship,” by withholding veterans’ benefits. As Margot Canaday notes, the VA’s racial and sexual exclusion at times worked at cross-purposes. Local VA administrators, with their autonomy to distribute benefits, could be slow to implement anti-homosexual directives emanating from central administrators. Ultimately, many racial and sexual minorities found themselves systemically denied benefits.

Jennifer Dominique Jones is assistant professor of history and women’s and gender studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.