Join or Sign In

Sign in to customize your TV listings

Continue with Facebook Continue with email

By joining TV Guide, you agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge the data practices in our Privacy Policy.

Coming Out Under Fire Reviews

Based on Allan Berube's scrupulously researched, passionately written book of the same name, COMING OUT UNDER FIRE is fine, workmanlike revisionist history. Full of compelling anecdotes about the frightening struggles and occasional triumphs of gay and lesbian soldiers in WWII, the film makes a powerful argument in favor of gays in the military. Arthur Dong's documentary, consisting primarily of talking-head interviews with a wide range of WWII veterans, confronts the issue in a commendably thoughtful and straightforward manner. After Pearl Harbor, many Americans felt a personal responsibility and social pressure to enlist. Such feelings, though, put gays and lesbians in a double bind; as one interviewee notes, they could "pass as heterosexual or be sent home labeled a sex pervert." Frequently, recruits would take refuge in the inadequacies of the questions they were asked. When asked about his relations with women, one man simply replied that he was engaged; no one thought to ask if he liked men. Doctors note that they were practicing what was at best "pseudo-psychiatry," expecting tell-tale results on Rorschach tests from gay enlistees. Once in the military, gays and lesbians faced dishonorable discharge, plus five years in a federal penitentiary, if exposed. Gay military personnel, though, had their own ways of sending messages. The colorful expressions of writer Dorothy Parker, for example, were used in letters among GIs. Clerks circulated such publications as "The Myrtle Beach Butch," "The Myrtle Beach Belle," and "The Bitches' Camouflage." Many soldiers lived surprisingly openly as homosexuals. Interviewees notes that, despite military policy, they were often tolerated during WWII because they were needed. Although many gay men fought in combat or wanted to, they were sometimes shunted into work considered fit for "sissies," such as office jobs and entertainment. Such pigeonholing, of course, occasionally worked to gays' advantage: two radio technicians met and became lovers. As enrollment increased, though, the military became obsessed with ways to discharge queer soldiers, and an emphasis on labeling them as psychopathic grew. Many gay soldiers began to feel mental pressure akin to paranoia. One woman was chosen to spy on lesbians but stymied the process by reporting nothing of substance. The gay slang expressions of the gossip sheets, incomprehensible to most, were read as the coded messages of spies. Some gay soldiers lied about their sexuality when asked; others told the truth or were tricked into naming others. Many were placed in special stockades: cells measuring only a few feet in each direction. Denied counsel, they were, however, sometimes pressed into sexually "servicing" their guards. After the war fewer soldiers were needed, and discharges of gays increased. Over 9000 were discharged for homosexuality during WWII, and a large number of cases went uncounted. Many men and women received no benefits and some are still fighting their discharges. Several interviewees feel they have never recovered from their treatment at the hands of their government, yet at the same time the widespread same-sex conditions engendered by WWII also brought many couples together and forged a larger sense of community. COMING OUT UNDER FIRE adroitly reconsiders the mainstream view that homosexuals are criminal or ill, or that, at the very least, their presence in the military would undermine "unit cohesion." It proceeds in an accessible, chronological fashion. The film succeeds beautifully on many levels, combining a rounded historical context with fascinating anecdotes ranging from poignant to horrifying to witty. If footage is often reused or does not explicitly illustrate the stories being told, this lack only reflects the difficulties of documenting an era in which much evidence was destroyed or is still inaccessible. The issues surrounding gay service in the American military--thought by some to have crippled Clinton's presidency during its early months--were still unresolved at the time of the film's release. Perhaps the film's most remarkable moment is its self-conscious coda, which suggests the continuing relevance of writing such histories. Senator John Warner vehemently, and somewhat desperately, tries to get Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer to admit that her lesbianism is incompatible with military service. Her record--and by extension, those presented in the film--provides the best answer. (Adult situations, profanity.)