When Sailors Kiss: Picturing Homosexuality in Post-World War II America

By Lee, Elizabeth | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2009 | Go to article overview

When Sailors Kiss: Picturing Homosexuality in Post-World War II America


Lee, Elizabeth, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


There is an infinity of different ways in which a kiss can be delivered; and its meaning, both to participants and to onlookers, will vary accordingly. It can express deference, obethence, respect, agreement, reverence, adoration, friendliness, affection, tenderness, love, superiority, inferiority, even insult. There is no such thing as a straightforward kiss.

(Thomas 188)

Alfred Eisenstaedt's V-J Day photograph of a nurse and sailor kissing in New York's Times Square became an overnight sensation when it appeared on the cover of Life magazine in August 1945 (Figure 1). According to first-hand accounts of the celebration, Eisenstaedt's photograph captured the day. As one woman recalled, "every female was grabbed and kissed by men in uniform," while a man who has claimed to be the sailor in Eisenstaedt's photograph thought he "must have kissed a thousand women that day" ("Who is the Kissing Sailor?" 72, 68). In the moments leading up to his famous snapshot, Eisenstaedt remembered there was a sailor "running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, did not make any difference .... Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse" (Eisenstaedt 74). Life photographers in a number of other locations, including Hawaii, Kansas City, Washington, DC, and Miami, captured dozens of similar scenes of returning troops, suggesting that the kiss formed a sort of national currency for victory that day. Looking back on an era which would soon become known for its high marriage rates, a baby boom, and a dramatic growth in home ownership, it is also possible to see this kiss as a catalyst for a whole sequence of events which had been delayed in America for decades by economic depression and war. The photograph's iconic status therefore not only has to do with what it depicts, but with the postwar American Dream which follows the kiss.

Fast forward more than forty years to the late 1980s when the kiss was reinvented as a form of public protest. In 1988, the artist collective Gran Fury appropriated George H. W Bush's famous campaign slogan, "Read my lips: no new taxes," for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in a poster with a band of boldface text stating "Read My Lips" across a picture of two uniformed sailors absorbed in a kiss. With this image, Gran Fury not only draws political awareness to a perceived failure by the government to respond to a national healthcare crisis, it cuts to the core of Republican family-values rhetoric by "queering" the (normally heterosexual) kiss. The poster is based on a World War II photograph, although Gran Fury cropped the original image, eliminating the lower half of the photograph in which the partly disrobed sailors exchange a second, genital kiss (Figure 2). The subject matter of the archival photograph, combined with the fact that it was created during the Second World War, make it an inviting comparison with Eisenstaedt's V-J Day photograph. Together, these images pressure the boundaries which differentiate the heterosexual from the homosexual kiss. Commenting on this distinction, Philip Brian Harper suggests that same-sex kissing "potentially functions to reveal a secret, not only about the nature of the relationship between the persons who kiss, but also about the persons themselves. In other words . . . the same-sex kiss speaks to identity in a much more highly charged way than does a kiss between a woman and a man" (qtd. in Meyer 230).

Questions of identity and the relationship between the sailors become more insistent when the same photograph is reimagined by Michael Miksche in Sailors Kissing, an ink painting on paper from the early 1950s (Figure 3). A former bomber pilot who served in the Air Force during the Second World War, Miksche explicitly references this period of service through his photographic source; interestingly, however, he does so only several years after the fact, as a closeted gay man living and working in Cold War America. …

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