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Off-Limits and Out-of Bounds, World War II and San Antonio’s Queer Community

February 25, 2013

Military mobilization during World War II boosted San Antonio’s population by sixty percent. Of the approximately one million armed forces personnel that passed through San Antonio during the Second World War, many were gay and lesbian. Historian Alan Bérubé emphasized the opportunity the war provided for gay men and women and local queer communities:  “. . . gathered together in military camps, [queers] often came to terms with their sexual desires, fell in love, made friends with other gay people, and began to name and talk about who they were. When they could get away from military bases, they discovered and contributed to the rich gay nightlife–parties, bars, and nightclubs–that flourished in the war-boom citites.”[1]

For queer military personnel stationed in San Antonio, finding gay gathering spots would not have been difficult as places of homosexual communion existed in and around the city’s downtown core. Word of mouth linked visitor to places of queer coalescence as gay and lesbian spots did not advertise themselves as such. While verbal lines of communication effectively brought queers together, another mechanism served as a beacon for finding the best homosexual hot spots in town. Military off-limits lists posted in barracks and at establishments declared off-limits functioned as a directory for lesbians and gay men looking for a good time away from base.

1945 Off-limits list issued by the Provost Marshal at Fort Sam Houston, Institute of Texan Cultures Vertical File collection, MS 366

1945 Off-limits list issued by the Provost Marshal at Fort Sam Houston, Institute of Texan Cultures Vertical File collection, MS 366

Off-limits lists were the by-product of legislation which gave federal agents and military police across the nation powers to control vice activities around military installations. The May Act targeted specific vice and immoral activities including “lewdness, assignation, or prostitution.”[2] As military police in San Antonio moved to regulate sexual activity considered deviant and immoral, homosexual havens came under scrutiny and were declared off-limits and out-of-bounds. “Venereal contacts, morals, and bawdy house” were all euphemisms for hotbeds of homosexual activity. All a GI or WAC need do is read the list, understand the codes, and head out for a night of same-sex recreation. Ironically, the military imperative to regulate deviance facilitated the very behaviors such regulations were designed to stamp out.

The Life Saver Grill located on E. Commerce Street was placed off-limits for "venereal contacts", Harvey Belgin Photograph Collection, MS 353

The Life Saver Grill located on East Commerce Street was placed off-limits for “venereal contacts,” Harvey Belgin Photograph Collection, MS 353

Military personnel brave enough to patronize off-limits establishments needed to exercise caution when doing so. To blend in with civilian patrons, queer military men and women traded uniforms for civilian garb and hoped that MPs would not be in checking ID cards. Getting caught out of uniform and in an off-limits establishment meant arrest, interrogation, and punishment including dishonorable discharge. Despite policing efforts, the allure of same-sex (in addition to other sexually deviant behaviors) encounters guaranteed off-limits establishments would continue to thrive. By the early 1950s, San Antonio led the five-state Fourth Army area in off-limits places with fifty three establishments declared off-limits, “more than double its nearest rival, Oklahoma City, with 21.”[3]

1945 Off-limits areas and sites of queer coalescence in San Antonio's dowtown, map by Melissa Gohlke in Out in the Alamo City:  Revealing San Antonio's Gay and Lesbian Past, World War II to the 1990s (Master's thesis, the University of Texs at San Antonio, 2012)

1945 Off-limits areas and sites of queer coalescence in San Antonio’s dowtown, map by Melissa Gohlke in Out in the Alamo City: Revealing San Antonio’s Gay and Lesbian Past, World War II to the 1990s (Master’s thesis, the University of Texs at San Antonio, 2012)

The end of World War II did not signal the demise of off-limits policies and policing. Throughout the decades that followed the Second World War, MPs continued to raid sites where queers came together declaring them off-limits and out-of-bounds, and hauling military patrons off to the brig.

For more information about San Antonio’s queer history, see San Antonio’s Drag Culture of the 1930s and 40s.

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[1] Alan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire:  The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York:  Penguin Books, 1991), 7.

[2] “The May Act,” San Antonio Light, December 4, 1941, editorial page.

[3] “Vice in San Antonio? City Leads Five States in Off-Limits Places,” San Antonio Express, July 30, 1953, 7B.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Harry Haines permalink
    February 26, 2013 11:45 am

    Utterly fascinating! What a fine job of reporting. I hope more is on the way!
    Thanks, Harry Haines, Montclair, NJ

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