Sunday, June 15, 2014

Extraordinarily Valiant and Extraordinarily Fragile: Intimacy Between Men

Two Young Corporals

Our history classes tend to focus World War II narratives on the personal sacrifices made by the "Greatest Generation" in an epic struggle between good and evil. Wit far less frequency, we examine with the enormous social changes that occurred within America's social structures and spaces.

The iconic imagery of Rosie the Riveter demonstrates the enormous shift in the lives of women. In 1939 approximately 5,100,000 American women were employed (26%). By 1943 that figure shot up to 7,250,000 women (36% of working aged women). Some 46% of women between 14 and 59 and 90% of single able-bodied women between the ages of 18 and 40 were engaged in some form of work or national service by September 1943.

World War II was also the first time in American history single sex social and living arrangements were the norm for the country. The physical intimacy of sharing close quarters along with stressful wartime conditions led to the creation of a large scale social space in which both emotional and sexual intimacy between men was possible.

Experiencing dislocation from support structures of civilian life and facing the horrors of war, servicemen turned to their fellow soldiers for emotional and psychological support. Bronski writes "the stress of leaving home, shipping out, active battle, and years of war allowed men to be vulnerable with on another in ways impossible outside of this environment."

The pre-war standard of the strong silent American Male was quickly replaced with a man that had experienced the traumas of war and developed a degree of ability to experience and show levels of emotional intimacy never before seen in the American Man. While we don't know whether the two young corporals were good friends or sexual partners, we do know their arms around either other, gentle hand holding, and quirky smile can communicate to us across the boundaries of time. Their relationship, forged in the trauma of war, opened up increasing possibilities of what relationships between men could be like.

In the national imagination, the nobility of the cause made these bodies heroic, highlighting the tragedy of their destruction. Images of fighting men in the popular press were a jarring paradox--extraordinarily valiant and extraordinarily fragile. Documentary combat photographs were often juxtaposed with pictures of shirtless men on battleships or in trenches--dirty, sweaty, and vulnerable. Images of patriotic men, many of them teenagers, dying for their country highlighted their fragility and nobility. This new standard of national masculinity, and its counterpoint image of strong women, radically altered how America viewed men and women. Bronski, A Queer History of the United States, pg 162)

Some look toward these vintage images of men in World War II as evidence that same-sex attraction has always existed. While that is a true statement, many err in identifying these all these men as gay. While some of these men were most definitely gay, many of them were good friends, alone together facing the traumas of war, experiencing for the first time the potential for friendship, intimacy, and emotional vulnerability between men. Somewhere in history we've lost the notion of the potential of friendship and intimacy between men. Our modern society has classified emotional and physical intimacy between men as something only belonging to men who are gay. In excluding these possibilities from heterosexual men, we've hobbled the American notion of masculinity. 

Imagine what we might be like as a country if we opened up the possibilities of what it means to be an American Man once again?

For more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Happy Spring; Two Men and Their Dog; Adam and Steve in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between Men; A Man and His Dog; The Beasts of West Point; Vintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William Gedney; It's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford Barton; These Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | Disfarmer; Desire and Difference: Hidden in Plain Sight, Come Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser Bush, Hugh Mangum: Itinerant Photographer, Two men, Two Poses; Photos are Not Always What They Seem,Vintage Sailors: An Awkward Realization, Three Men on a Horse, Welkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex Marriage, Pretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese Men, Memorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor Love, Memorial Day: Vintage Dancing Sailors, The Curious Case of Two Men Embracing, They'll Never Know How Close We Were, Vintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert Gant, Homo Bride and Groom Restored to Dignity, The Men in the Trees, The Girl in the Outhouse, Tommy and Buzz: All My Love,Men in Photo Booths, and Invisible: Philadelphia Gay Wedding c. 1957. You can also follow me on Tumblr.