Gender, Expression, and WWII

The roles of men and women in society shifted during WWII. Millions of women, and people of color saw increased opportunity for employment and service. This societal change had an impact on young LGBTQ+ people across the country. For the first time many were free to make decisions, and forge their own identities. Experimenting and finding comfort in new places. Military men had access to female impersonation through G.I. shows, and entertainment off base. Women in the military, were able express masculinity in uniforms, doing jobs that would have traditionally gone to men.

Dr. Margaret Chung with a Lockheed P-38 Lightning model and photos of some of her recruits
Dr. Margaret Chung with a Lockheed P-38 Lightning model and photos of some of her recruits. NPS.

Women and the Military

Dr. Margaret Chung, did not conform to traditional gender norms and was equally utilized and dismissed by the U.S. military. Chung moved to San Francisco in 1922 and opened a medical practice for all people. Margaret Chung mostly wore men’s clothing, and was rumored a lesbian. Chung recruited many pilots for WWII’s famous “Flying Tigers” unit; recruited more than 1,500 aviators. She treated these servicemen like her children and in return they called her “Mom” Chung. Dr. Chung also increased the inclusion of women in the armed forces. She helped create the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services Reserve Corps (WAVES) for women in the Navy. She applied to join WAVES but the military rejected her because of her race and suspected sexuality.

Women who volunteered to join the new Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), WAVES, and other units did not face the same gender expression challenges as male recruits. Since these were newer programs, the military had not defined the screening processes very well yet. There was also pressure to fill certain quotas in the units and this discouraged examiners from being too strict. A group of Marine Corps examiners even said, “that women showing a masculine manner may be perfectly normal sexually and excellent military material."1 Another component was that in the 1940s, women’s sexuality was often predicated on the presence of a man. It's likely that commanders didn't consider the likelihood of lesbian recruits. Because there was less policing of sexuality and gender expression, it was easier for LGBTQ+ women to serve.

Women enlisting in the military became a possibility during WWII. For many women specifically, joining the military was their first time feeling independent. Women were able to participate in work previously off limits to them. Some women were drawn to military service because of the ability to wear a uniform and not feel confined by societal expectations. When WAAC examiners asked recruits why the were joining the Corps many described feelings of patriotism and for reasons including “loves a uniform and what it stands for,” “always wanted to be a boy and join the army,” seeks “companionship of girls with similar patriotic desire,” and wants the “opportunity to mix with other girls”.2

Finding Community

During WWII, the military used “medical or phycological testing” to assess the sexuality of servicemen. These screenings were often given to large numbers of recruits at once, so they were very brief and relied on stereotypes like how one walked and talked. The armed forces barred approximately 4000-5000 men this way. Those who passed the test: lied or remained vague in their answers, so that they could serve. “When you [got to] camp, you just immediately sought out other gay guys just for the reinforcement of knowing you were not alone.3 Soldiers built long lasting friendships and relationships with this newfound comradery.

Women had similar experiences of forming discreet communities of LGBTQ+ people. Phillis Arby hid her sexuality during WAAC recruitment. She enjoyed wearing a uniform and met Mildred while learning how to repair radios. She said, “Over a period of maybe two or three weeks, we finally established that we were both gay and then started a romance.”4 Mildred was able to arrange for them to be on the same base in 1943. In 1944 WAAC featured Phyllis Arby and Mildred in articles about the “ideal WAAC”, not knowing that the pair were in a relationship. If their relationship had been discovered both women could had been dishonorably discharged because of their sexuality. The pair was able to keep their relationship hidden for the duration of their service.

There are countless stories of support, first loves being found, and even gay officers rising to high ranks in the military. And like all who serve, there were stories of loss.

Ben Small lost his partner in the Philippines during combat: “I was treated with such kindness by the guys that I worked with, who were all totally aware of why I had gone hysterical. It wasn’t because we were bombed. It was because my boyfriend had been killed. And one guy in the tent came up to me and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were gay? You could had talked to me.’ I said, ‘Well, I was afraid to.’ This big, straight, macho gay. There was a sort of compassion then."5

A group of African American soldiers created, Jumping with Jodie, an all Black female impersonation show.
A group of African American soldiers created, Jumping with Jodie, an all Black female impersonation show. Jumping with Jodie, Army Signal Corps photographs, SC-140522, courtesy of the National Archives.

GI Drag Shows

Drag shows during the war provided a space for community among LGBTQ+ people, and opportunity to let go of gender norms. Throughout WWII the Army Special Services Branch would set up shows to entertain military personnel. Since many spaces during the war were gender separated, most of these theatrical productions included elements of female impersonation. Casts of these shows would travel across the globe to perform for GIs and civilians alike. The most popular of these shows was called This is the Army. This show featured female impersonation and was even performed at the White House for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Three Soldiers wear dresses on stage while performing This is the Army
Three Soldiers wear dresses on stage while performing This is the Army. Army Signal Corps photographs, National Archives.

When Ben Small was serving in the military, he put shows together for his company. He said, “I write to the USO (United Service Organizations) in San Francisco saying, ‘do you have any funny costumes?’ usually it took two months for something to arrive [but] a couple of weeks later I got called in [to the office] and they said, ‘how come you got special air mail delivery?’... Well it was dresses… everybody in the office from the lieutenant on down trying on dresses! Everybody suddenly becomes a drag queen!6

Although these performances were applauded, LGBTQ+ people had to be careful not to give themselves away during the show. After performing the show at his base, Small was called to the office and told he was being transferred off base. A nurse was “upset” by his performance and did not want any LGBTQ+ people on the base.

Soldier to Civilian

The 1950s were plagued with communist hysteria, societal prejudice, and the Lavender Scare. LGBTQ+ soldiers faced these challenges and encountered new opportunities. Many had to express themselves in new ways often out of protest, and San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community grew as a result. Art, and activism was one way to survive, but it was not the only way.

Service women returned home to familial pressures and societal expectations. Many veterans faced the challenge of readopting gender norms. Resuming the lifestyle they had before the war. “I didn’t know that I could be a successful woman and live the kind of life I wanted to live unless I got married. That’s what we were all brought up to believe.”

Phyllis Arby lived with Mildred after the war. When Arby went to college they separated. Arby went on to get married and start a family but she later recalled, “I couldn’t ever forget who I really was.”7


1 - 3, 5 - 6 Bérube,́ Allan. Coming out under Fire : The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. 1990. Chapel Hill, University Of North Carolina Press, 2010.

4, 7 Concepcion, Sarah. “Phillis Abry: Who I Really Was.” VAntage Point, 11 June 2020

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Last updated: April 7, 2022