Jonathan Zimmerman: Murder in a Time of Bigotry
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In March 1942, a few months after America entered World War II, the U.S. Army issued its first official regulation designed to screen out gay men. The directive listed three supposedly telltale signs of homosexuality: "feminine bodily characteristics," "effeminacy in dress and manner," and a "patulous rectum." For those who don't have a dictionary handy, patulous means "expanded." And, yes, the Army regulation really said that.
I thought of this shameful history as I read a recent Inquirer story about the mass murderer Howard Unruh, whose case files were released by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office after persistent requests by the newspaper. Nobody will ever know what exactly led Unruh, a World War II combat veteran, to gun down 13 innocent people in East Camden on Sept. 6, 1949. But the case files confirm that Unruh was gay at a time when American culture attached a heavy stigma to homosexuality....
Between 1941 and 1945, roughly 9,000 soldiers and sailors were discharged from the U.S. military for being gay. Servicemen suspected of homosexuality were frequently forced to strip naked or submit to a "gag test" with a tongue-depressor; if you didn't gag, you were assumed to be gay.
Before they were discharged, gays were detained in "queer brigs" or "pink cells." Some of these brigs were outdoor pens where servicemen awaiting discharge were publicly humiliated by passersby. In private, meanwhile, they were sometimes forced to sexually gratify their guards.
If that sounds a bit like the Nazis' persecution of gays, it's because it was. Ironically, some American homosexuals were inspired to enlist in the armed forces after reading reports of German mistreatment of gays, only to find themselves under attack by their own military....
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