Drag in the military: How drag queens helped U.S. soldiers win World War II

WWII soldiers dress in drag in "This Is The Army"
WWII soldiers dress in drag in "This Is The Army" Photo: National Archives

Long before RuPaul’s Drag Race, Drag Queen Story Hour, or any one of the countless drag shows gracing the stages of LGBTQ+ bars around the world, there was another popular spot for performative gender-bending: U.S. military bases in the 1940s.

During World War II, the military embraced drag shows as a unique form of entertainment and a morale-boosting activity. These officially sanctioned events featured all-male performances with soldiers often dressing in women’s attire. According to author Allan Bérubé, GIs staged these shows everywhere from makeshift platforms to grand theater stages, incorporating popular female impersonation routines of the day.

Due to the official segregation of the armed forces, service-member theater productions had no option but to cast men in female roles.

One of the most iconic productions of the era, “This is the Army,” was initially a Broadway musical designed to raise funds for troops. It later became a sensation as a 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan, 37 years before he was elected President of the United States. These shows not only provided soldiers with much-needed diversion during the stresses of conflict but also served as a safe haven for gay service members, as explained by Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian and professor at New York University’s New School.

At the time, being LGBTQ+ was classified as a mental defect, which restricted many queer people from serving while out in the military. Jeffreys clarifies that while these performances are often misunderstood as predominantly LGBTQ+ activities today, they actually catered primarily to heterosexual audiences during WWII. Despite this, the shows offered a subtle respite for closeted LGBTQ+ individuals within the military.

The National Park Service highlights the significance of these soldier-produced shows, noting their critical role alongside more famous USO performances in boosting troop morale. Theses shows traveled globally, entertaining both military personnel and civilians, and were even performed at the White House for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Soldiers perform in drag in "This Is The Army"
National Archives Soldiers perform in drag in “This Is The Army”

The success of “This is the Army” can be attributed to figures like Broadway composer Irving Berlin and Staff Sgt. Ezra Stone, who transitioned from acting to military service. Historical records and footage from the time capture the diverse acts, from soldiers ballet dancing in tutus to heartfelt ballad performances.

Reflecting on the era, Jeffreys notes, “This is a period when a man in a dress was considered inherently funny,” underscoring the cultural context of the time, reminiscent of comedy icons such as Milton Berle and later films like Some Like It Hot.

While we’re happy to say that drag is now a globally recognized LGBTQ+ art form, these military productions help complete the picture of drag’s fascinating and diverse history.

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