In May 1944, Lemuel S. Brown, a United States Army lieutenant during World War II, received a piece of blue Army paper, informing him that he was being discharged. The reason? “Undesirable” behavior – in particular, an accusation of “attempting to perpetrate an act of homosexuality”, as he explained in a letter to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, from which he sought legal aid. He wanted to fight against his so-called “blue discharge”, because receiving it carried a powerful stigma and serious negative consequences for his future.
During World War II, Brown was one of approximately 50,000 U.S. Army soldiers, according to a 1946 War Department estimate, who received a blue discharge dismissing them from the armed forces. Rarely backed by a formal process or investigation, these notices have facilitated the removal of thousands of gay people, African Americans, people with mental illnesses, alcohol or drug addiction problems, bedwetting and any other person whom the army has classified as “undesirable”. A code in the upper corner of the notice explained the reason for the release – “HS”, for example, meant that the person was considered to be homosexual.
Existing in limbo between an “honorable” and “dishonorable” termination, the blue dumps deeply derailed the lives of gay World War II veterans for decades to come. Those marked with an “HS” essentially unmasked the recipients at a time when buggery was still a crime in every state, preventing many from returning to homes and communities likely to avoid them. This raised alarm bells for potential employers, derailing future careers. And he barred recipients from receiving benefits from the GI Bill, the government program that gave veterans generous funding for tuition, home and business loans and unemployment insurance, essential stepping stones to financial stability. and social.
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The Rise of the Blue Dumps
For the first 100 years of its existence, the US military relied on a two-pronged discharge system. Service members who have left the military could receive an “honorable” or “dishonourable” discharge. Outright dishonorable discharges were rare, however, as they required a trial by court-martial.
At the end of the 19th century, the United States Army began to expand its menu of options. He added a discharge without honor in 1893, followed by an unclassified discharge in 1913. Both could be issued without a court-martial hearing, and because they were both printed on blue paper, they became known as the name of “blue dumps”. With the massive human mobilization of World War II, the military shifted from its practice of imprisoning soldiers accused of homosexuality (which required lengthy and expensive courts-martial) to simply deeming them psychologically unfit. Blue dumps could be dispensed to anyone with “undesirable character traits,” a term eventually applied to queer people in large numbers.
Blue discharges heavily affected black Americans
While the landfills affected people of all races, they particularly affected black soldiers, University of Michigan historian Jennifer Dominique Jones told HISTORY.com. In his 2016 article on the impact of blue discharges on black gay service members, Jones wrote that black soldiers, who were more likely to be scrutinized, discriminated against, and punished more harshly for relatively minor offenses, received 22 % of all blue discharges, more than double their proportionate share of the army at the time.
According to Jones, the NAACP has worked with black service members accused of homosexuality, such as Lemuel Brown, to appeal to the Discharge Review Board for a change in status, usually with little success. For these veterans, already facing formidable racist barriers to employment and housing, the stain of a blue dump has further crippled their future prospects for stability.
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“Scientific” attempts to identify homosexuals
In their efforts to weed out homosexual conscripts, military officials ran into a problem: they had no conclusive way of identifying them, beyond a set of subjectively interpreted “signs,” such as “characteristics.” female bodies” and “effeminacy in dress and dress”. way”, according to Allan Bérubé, author of Coming Under Fire: Gay Men and Women in World War II. During the Second World War, out of some 18 million potential recruits, the military only identified between 4,000 and 5,000 homosexuals, a severe undercount, Bérubé estimates.
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Military scientists began designing dubious tests to measure sexual orientation. In 1944, according to Bérubé, an army doctor tested tongue depressors on patients who were being treated as “sexual psychopaths” – one of the code terms for homosexuals. Their conclusion: 89% of homosexual patients who had practiced oral sex in the past had no gag reflex. The doctor proclaimed that a tongue depressor test could disqualify homosexuals not only from military service, but also from other federal agencies.
Other doctors began to research whether they could diagnose homosexuality, by Rorschach tests or by measuring sexuality with hormonal tests. (An Army psychiatrist speculated that gay men would show higher levels of estrogen than testosterone—and lesbians, the reverse.) Neither of these theories worked out.
Partly because of the difficulties of scientifically measuring homosexuality, the War Department in January 1944 began allowing referrals on the basis of “latent homosexuality”. This allowed authorities to deport someone for homosexuality under the blue discharge system simply because they seemed gay, even though the army lacked evidence.
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Brief reform, followed by the ‘Lavender Scare’
In October 1945, the Pittsburgh Maila leading black newspaper, published an article accusing the US military of distributing blue discharges due to racial prejudice.
The report sparked an investigation by a special seven-member House Committee on Military Affairs. In January 1946, the committee issued a report castigating the blue discharge system as being overused and for causing lasting discrimination to its victims. When veterans were forced to show their blue discharge to potential employers, companies assumed ‘there was something radically wrong with the man in question’, the report says, or that they had committed a act “so mysterious that it cannot be spoken or written”. down, but must be left to the imagination. In other words, the blue layoffs created a cascading discrimination that haunted the job prospects of ex-servicemen for decades.
The report also criticized the Veterans Administration for blocking gay people from receiving GI benefits, insisting that the agency should not be tasked with “making moral verdicts on the history of any soldier”.
For a brief moment, the report of the House Military Affairs Committee seemed to promise real reform. Between late 1945 and 1947, soldiers withdrawn from the armed forces for homosexuality were discharged on honorable terms, making them eligible for GI benefits. But the policy was not retroactive, meaning thousands of people who had already received a blue discharge for homosexuality were still being denied benefits. And at the end of 1947, the army began again to discharge homosexuals under ambiguous and honorable conditions. Instead of “blue dumps”, he simply labeled them “other than honorable dumps”.
The Cold War ushered in a new gay panic, undoing these reforms. In 1950, as Senator Joseph McCarthy sparked fears of communist infiltration in the United States, he focused on homosexuals as a cause for concern, suggesting that their often-hidden secret made them vulnerable to blackmail by foreign enemies. In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which required the federal government to fire homosexuals. What followed became known as the “Lavender Scare,” in which thousands of gay workers were forced out of their jobs in the US government.
In this increasingly hostile climate, the soldiers who had received blue discharges for homosexuality see their hopes of reform disappointed. And the soldiers continued to give it to them. In total, between World War II and 2011, when the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military law was repealed, at least 100,000 additional soldiers were expelled for homosexuality. Among them was Harvey Milk, a Korean War veteran who became the first openly gay politician in the United States.
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