Lambda Lore

Gay expression and oppression in Salt Lake City: The beginning

At the outbreak of World War II, the United States’ draft boards processed nearly 10 million men. To determine what men were physically or psychologically fit to serve, the military used medical professionals, including psychiatrists, to eliminate those unfit for combat. Homosexuality was one classification deemed unfit; all inductees, therefore, were questioned about any homosexual experience. Hundreds of thousands of homosexuals denied they were such so they could serve in the armed forces.

The government’s efforts to ban homosexuals from the military accomplished little, but they did have an unintended consequence. By using the medical term homosexual, urban and rural Americans had identified, for the first time, a name for their feelings. Toward the end of the war, 10 percent of Utah’s men were in military uniform. Nearly 1,300 Utah women also served in the auxiliary of the military. Many of these men and women were gay.

When World War II came to a conclusion in the summer of 1945, homosexuals returned home with the knowledge they were neither unique nor alone. Historian John Berube referred to it as a national coming out experience.

The changing mores of the 1940s were harbingers to the perception of homosexuality in later decades. World War II also changed Utah. At the beginning of 1940, Utah’s unemployment was second highest in the nation. As the United States entered the war, Utah converted its economy to wartime production.

Among lesbians, one of the most liberating aspects of war was that females were freed from constraints of male supervision. Because of the draft, thousands of women worked outside the home for the first time in their lives. Women replaced men in the factories, on farms and even at the military installations, which provided much needed jobs in Utah.

In early 1942, because government officials feared sabotage and attacks on the Pacific coast, two major military installations were moved to Utah. The United States Army 9th Service Command moved headquarters from San Francisco’s Presidio to Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, above the University of Utah; and the Air Force’s training bases were moved to Kearns, a farming community in Salt Lake County.  By spring of 1943, Kearns had become Utah’s third largest city with 40,000 troops stationed there. Prosperity returned, and Utah changed from a provincial backwater to the location of the largest inland Unites States military installations.

The influx of military personnel, job seekers and migrant workers to Kearns and Fort Douglas brought about the largest demographic shift in Utah’s history. Only the displacement of the native populations by Mormon pioneers was more dramatic. The state’s desired isolation was forever altered as increase in the “gentiles,” or non-Latter-day Saint newcomers, disrupted the homogeneous Mormon culture. Additionally, the state became home to thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war and displaced Japanese Americans, who were forcefully removed from their homes on the West Coast.

Wartime often brings about a loosening of sexual standards; World War II was no exception. Religious leaders feared the thousands of single young men away from home for the first time, seeking willing sexual partners among the Mormon sons and daughters of Utah. The church leaders’ fears were real since it was only natural that premarital sexual relations, as well as covert homosexual ones, would flourish in wartime, despite religious admonitions against immorality and vice. For the most part, the sober residents of Salt Lake City were therefore reluctant to interact with the new arrivals. The young servicemen stationed at Fort Douglas and Kearns were barely tolerated by suspicious Latter-day Saints who feared the demoralization of their youth.

Newcomers, as well as Jack Mormons, or non-practicing Latter-day Saints, managed to find sexual liaisons in the many bars, taverns and canteens that sprang up to cater to the military installations. Backrooms of restaurants opened elite officer clubs and upstairs offices were converted into sleeping quarters for sexual liaisons. In Ogden, 25th Street was considered one long brothel due to the rows of houses of ill repute. This promiscuity had real consequences as noted by The Salt Lake Tribune in 1945. The Utah Health Department confirmed 1,097 cases of gonorrhea in Utah, an all-time high.

In Utah’s civilian world, the informal prohibition from fraternizing with non Latter-day Saints couldn’t be sustained by religious leaders.  The fear for church members was not so much about homosexuality but about any type of premarital sex. The relaxation of standards among the faithful was seen as a moral crisis.  In 1945, Marvin O. Ashton, first counselor in the LDS presiding bishopric, wrote a passage in the LDS Church’s “Improvement Era” as assurance to worried parents that times would return to normal as soon as the war ended.  He urged Latter-day Saint parents to be patient with their children and servicemen who acquired “bad habits” during the war.

Post-war Utah mirrored the rest of the United States in its changing morals and an almost compulsive anxiety over the Communist nuclear threat. This growing paranoia among Americans forced them to couch cultural and political ideals in terms of us versus them.  The “them” was any ideology or people that threatened American security and its wholesomeness. Homosexuality was definitely defined as  a “them,” especially in Utah were policymakers chose to believe that homosexuality was alien to their communities and was only found among non-Latter-day Saint  transients or newcomers.

As Utahns adjusted to a time of peace, there was an onset of change toward acknowledging the presence of homosexuals in Utah. A case in point is when the formerly forbidden subject was broached in the 1946 winter issue of The Pen, University of Utah’s literary magazine. Student Robert Shelly wrote a disparaging article called “Streak of Lavender” wherein he ridiculed “the inverted Libido” of male ballet dancers who he claimed were “shrilly lisped” and “more graceful than the women.”  Shelly was unquestionably referring to homosexuality by use of the term “invert” an early 20th century synonym of homosexual.

Not long after the war, Dr. Alfred Kinsey published his seminal work, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” The study reported 37 percent of post-adolescent males had achieved orgasm through contact with another male. The 1948 report was a milestone study which indicated about 2 to 4 percent of all males were confirmed homosexuals. Kinsey’s findings supported the notion that homosexuality is found in significant numbers in any given community.

In 1949 John A. Pennock, a University of Utah sociology student, confirmed the existence of a high percentage of homosexuality within the “shadow of the Everlasting Hills” by submitting a study of the sexual experiences of 200 University of Utah male students.  Of those interviewed for his master’s thesis, 69 percent said they were Latter-day Saints. All said they planned to marry.  Surprisingly, Pennock found that 16.5 percent of the men reported having homoerotic experiences. Pennock’s study was most likely influenced by the publication of Kinsey’s report and was the first public research of male homosexuality within a Utah population.

Unexpectedly, Utah became the first state to reference the Kinsey Report in the case State v. Cooper. In January 1949, the Utah Supreme Court referred to Kinsey’s study while ruling on a sodomy case. Grant Cooper, whose conviction of indecent assault of a minor was upheld by the court, and Justice James Wolfe, wrote that Cooper’s crime “is a type of homosexual offense and [h]omosexual practices may result either from congenital homosexuality, psychopathic homosexuality, or excessive sexual vigor expressed in homosexual practices in the absence of opportunity for heterosexual relations. Congenital homosexuals, and to a certain extent, psychopathic homosexuals, may be wholly irresponsible for their homosexual acts. They are motivated by biological and physiological factors which may be beyond their power to combat or control.” Two other members of the five Justices of the Court joined Wolfe, which gave his opinion precedent value.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button