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Lambda Lore

The ’40s in gay Utah

In 1940, Utah’s population was 550,310 and the state’s unemployment was second highest in the nation. As the United States entered World War II, Utah converted its economy to wartime production which ended the Great Depression in the state. Utah’s prosperity however changed the state from a provincial backwater to the location of the largest inland U.S. military installations during the war.

Hill Field Air Force Base, south of Ogden, became in 1940 a major repair and supply depot for the Army Air Forces.  At its largest, Hill Field employed 15,000 civilians, 6,000 military personnel, and several thousand prisoners of war, making it the largest employer in the state.

In early 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, officials feared sabotage and attacks on the Pacific Coast and moved two major military installations to Utah. The U.S. Army 9th Service Command moved its headquarters from San Francisco’s Presidio to Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City. Fort Douglas served as an induction and separation station and contained a German prisoner-of-war camp. Its proximity to Salt Lake City and the University of Utah made it a cruising ground for homosexuals.

On May 1, 1942, Kearns Army Air Base came into existence as a U.S. training facility. By spring of 1943, Kearns had become Utah’s third largest city with 40,000 troops stationed there. The base was less accessible to homosexual cruising than Fort Douglas as it was a temporary base for thousands of soldiers and airmen.

At the outbreak of WWII, draft boards in Utah and across the nation processed nearly 10 million men into the armed forces. Early in May 1941 the U.S. Army Surgeon General classified “homosexual proclivities” as disqualifying inductees for military service. Similar policies were adopted by the Navy and the Selective Service System. Thus, when inductees were examined by medical professionals and psychiatrists, they were questioned about their sexuality. Hundreds of thousands however denied they were homosexuals to serve their country.

In 1944 the Women’s Army Corps’ instructional guide began screening for homosexuality to disqualify recruits. There are no available records on discharges for homosexuality but any such discharges were likely classified under another category.

The government’s efforts to ban homosexuals from the military accomplished little but it had an unintended consequence. By using the medical term “homosexual,” gay Americans had, for the first time, a name for their feelings. Men and women all over the nation who had thought they were alone were now provided with the concept that same sex erotic behavior was so common that people had to be screened for it. Historian John Berube referred to induction into the military as a national coming out experience when “coming out” at that time simply meant acknowledging your sexual orientation.

Wartime often brings about a loosening of sexual standards and WWII was no exception. It brought about a change of sexual mores in Utah with the disruption of the traditional family, the sense of impermanence and the absence of normal attachments. Historians commented that WWII unleashed a “Hedonistic impulse” on overall society. “The thought of perhaps dying tomorrow created a psyche directed toward living life to the fullest at the present both among those who might go into combat and those with whom they associated. It loosened morals and opened doors for opportunity as never before.”

Because of the wartime draft, thousands of Utah women worked outside the home for the first time in their lives. Women replaced men in the factories, on farms, and at military installations. One of the most liberating aspects of war for lesbians was that females were freed from constraints of home supervision. Women entering the workforce allowed for them more freedom from traditional supervision and eroded sexual boundaries.

For the most part, the Mormon residents of the Wasatch Front were reluctant to interact with the new arrivals. The relaxation of standards among the faithful was seen as a moral crisis.  The young servicemen, stationed at Fort Douglas and Kearns, were barely tolerated by suspicious Latter-day Saints who feared the corruption of their youth. However, this informal prohibition of Mormons from fraternizing with non Latter-day Saints couldn’t be sustained by religious leaders. The fear of fraternizing was not so much about homosexuality as about any type of premarital sex.

Religious leaders feared the thousands of single young men away from home would seek 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. This fear of promiscuity was real, as the Utah Health Department in 1945 confirmed 1,097 cases of gonorrhea in Utah, an all-time high.

Newcomers, as well as “Jack Mormons” (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 in Salt Lake City and Ogden. Two popular “pick-up spots” for homosexual men looking for service men and others were the Temple Square Hotel which housed the International Bus Terminal and the Belvedere Hotel on State Street. The Twilight Inn, across the street from the Belvedere, had upstairs an officers’ lounge and private sleeping quarters. North of the Belvedere was the Salt Lake Public Library whose men’s restrooms were notorious cruising areas.

Utah municipalities even condoned prostitution as a means of easing pressures in their local communities, especially 25th Street in Ogden and west 2nd South in Salt Lake City. These cities fathers tried to protect the local women from the perceived licentiousness of the servicemen while turning a blind eye to the licentiousness of their own gay sons.

In Ogden, the notorious 25th Street, the city’s red light district, was considered one long brothel due to the rows of houses of ill repute. The Hill Air Force Base supplied customers for Ogden’s dens of prostitution along three blocks of 25th Street where 11 houses were in operation during the war. The district, which had been around for many years, was expanded during the war as the so-called “Victory Girls” catered to the wishes of the local servicemen. The train yards also provided ample space for sexual interludes between transient servicemen and local homosexuals.

Salt Lake City’s old Greek Town, west of the train tracks on 2nd South, was the hub of the city’s prostitution. Generally, wherever prostitution was allowed to flourish, homosexuals found ready and willing men who were short on cash. As long as the activity was out of sight from most of the public the city fathers turned a blind eye to the goings-on, in part because it eased some of the pressure on their daughters.

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.

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Ben Williams

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