GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003) 149-179
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Queerness and Disability in U.S. Military Culture, 1800-1945
In the spring of 1945 Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., sponsored a series of weekly revues, featuring big band orchestras and singers, comic vignettes, and other vaudevillian residue from wartime USO shows, to entertain veterans undergoing rehabilitation in nearby hospitals and convalescent centers. Among the most popular and memorable that season were performances by a group of veteran amputees from a convalescent center in Forest Glen, Maryland, who called themselves the Amputettes. 1 Dubbed the "high-kickers on artificial legs," the Amputettes apparently did dance routines with Rockette-like precision in Carmen Miranda-inspired outfits or in full "Gay 90s" regalia (figs. 1- 2).
Forest Glen, an elite nineteenth-century women's finishing school converted to a hospital by the armed forces during World War II, would have been an ideal setting for the rehabilitating Amputettes. They reportedly "stole the show" at Walter Reed, while their antics decidedly revealed "what rehabilitation can do." The pleasure that servicemen and veterans experienced at the sight of the Amputettes must have derived not simply from seeing the men in drag (an image not incompatible with military service) but from seeing artificial limbs, usually associated with the solemnity of rehabilitation, peeking out incongruously from beneath billowy skirts associated with the frivolity of cross-dressing camp.
The frequency with which cross-dressing has entertained homosocial communities underscores a long-standing and visible component of queer activity among putatively heterosexual men. 2 Typically, such traditions have taken root at elite institutions such as Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Club or the University of Pennsylvania's Mask and Wig Club. But they are visible even in less privileged circles, such as drag balls and fraternity parties, as well as in supposedly homophobic institutions such as the U.S. military. For example, in the journals of [End Page 149] George Washington DeLong, lieutenant commander of a military expedition to the Arctic Circle between 1879 and 1881, one finds several entries describing one of DeLong's officers as a "young lady, in an after-piece" and another shipmate wearing a dress "made out of our calico . . . [who] found means to construct a beautiful wig of long blonde hair." DeLong comments without irony or explication that one seaman "transformed himself into a very comely young English miss, quite calm and self-possessed. A feature of the evening was presenting each guest, on entering, with a little buttonhole bouquet of colored paper leaves." 3 [End Page 150]
Whether these displays and affectations represented same-sex eroticism or merely the conventions of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century popular culture, such as fancy-dress balls or tableaux vivants, is difficult to ascertain. 4 How, then, might we begin to unravel the multiple implications of veteran amputees performing in Carmen Miranda drag for soldiers at U.S. military hospitals in the mid-twentieth century? Amputees, especially veterans of war, were rarely overt objects of humor, let alone of self-effacing ridicule, in the nationalistic culture of a country at war. 5
The Amputettes have much to tell us about social constructions of disability, masculinity, and military culture in the mid-1940s. Their performances included, presumably, self-mocking attempts to engage with and displace the awkwardness associated with amputation and with rehabilitation in general. In figures 1 and 2 we see the deliciously camp personas of the Amputettes, especially their exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. Theirs is an assured, if not calm, pride of performance. Yet the congenial newspaper descriptions are refreshingly lacking in irony and disapprobation, contrary to the claims of most contemporary historians of gender who insist on understanding the 1940s as an era of [End Page 151] heightened male insecurity about appropriate gender roles and normative sexual behaviors. 6 Neither the photographs nor the descriptions of the Amputettes reveal these insecurities. In addition, their performances, like those by DeLong's...