By Rose Durand, Assistant Registrar
The photograph above was taken on May 18, 1945 at Eschwege Theater in Eschwege, Germany. A notable German airbase during World War II, Eschwege was occupied by the Americans when World War II ended. It went on to serve as a displaced persons camp beginning in January 1946, at one point housing over 3,000 people.
On May 18, 1945, only ten days after the unconditional surrender of Germany, a group of American soldiers put on a show at the theater in Eschwege over the course of two nights. Seen in this photograph from the Museum’s collection, a group of about 60 men fill the well-lit stage of the theater. The photograph is crisp and professionally made, capturing the face of every man on stage. Coming off of the excitement and relief of V-E Day, these performances must have made for a great evening! While many men pictured are in uniform, the photograph’s former owner considered it important to note that a number of soldiers are performing in drag.
On the back of the photograph is a note from its original owner, one of the soldiers pictured on the stage: “G.I. show at Eschwege Theatre, Germany May 17 & 18 1945. This is the finale see if you can locate me. It shouldn’t be too hard. These are all GI’s. There aren’t any girls in the show.”
I stumbled upon this photograph while performing some routine work in the Museum’s collections database, which holds information about every object in the collection. Given its content—a drag show, performed by American soldiers in Germany in the days immediately following V-E Day—it immediately piqued my interest.
This led me to historian Allan Bérubé’s remarkable book, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. The entire third chapter is devoted to the topic of GI drag shows and their rich history in the military, where they created an unexpected refuge for men who would today identify as LGBTQ. Bérubé writes, “From Broadway to Guadalcanal, on the backs of trucks, makeshift platforms, and elegant theater stages, American GIs did put on all-male shows for each other that almost always featured female impersonation routines.” He notes that while these shows are largely overshadowed in history by the well-known USO shows, GI shows were also vital for maintaining morale amongst soldiers. While many men performed in and enjoyed these shows regardless of their sexualities, they are significant for creating a safe space for gay soldiers during World War II.
Through drag, these soldiers could often successfully walk a fine line in the military, as being discovered as gay could lead to administrative discharge. Military officials were not thrilled with the widespread existence of these drag shows due to a concern that the public may believe that they “condoned effeminacy and homosexuality.” Regardless, the shows were allowed to continue due to the profoundly positive impact that they had on soldiers’ morale, a huge benefit to the overall war effort. In fact, the military went to great lengths to ensure that some of the larger performances were quite professional, creating soldier show workshops that taught skills such as scriptwriting, costume design, and makeup for those performing in drag.
With much of the audience having what Bérubé calls “heterosexual assumptions,” and the potential danger or disgrace that the revelation of their sexuality could hold, a balancing act was vital for gay performers. In a best case scenario, they were able to express themselves on stage while feeling a sense of quiet understanding from other gay men. Gay men who performed in these shows could subvert the rigid gender roles of the day while finding kindred spirits among some of their fellow performers.
We do not know what show was performed in Eschwege in May 1945. It may have been a typical GI show of the time, or even a more impromptu set of performances. Commonly performed shows, such as This is the Army, contained a variety of drag performances, ranging from comedic routines, to celebrity impersonation, to highly skilled dancing and singing. Click here for a look at what some of these shows were like.
For far more on this topic, read Allan Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. An accompanying award-winning documentary of the same name was released in 1994.
Editor’s Note: October is LGBT History Month, which recognizes the achievements of individuals in the LGBT community.