Gays, Civil Rights for, 1946–Present

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The role of gays in the U.S. military has been controversial. Since it officially ended racial segregation in its ranks in 1948, the American military has generally been ahead of the rest of the country in integrating women and minorities in its ranks. It has been less willing to accept openly gay soldiers; however, developments in the broader society have influenced policy in the military.

Polls indicate that more than 70 percent of Americans favor equal rights for gays and lesbians. In contrast, the military has been reluctant to discuss the issue openly. Its official policy, called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", tolerates homosexuals in the military only as long as their sexual orientation is not made public.

Historically, military policy on homosexuality has consisted of legal restrictions and administrative regulations. Despite its periodic efforts to ban sodomy, including then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt's use of informers during World War I in an attempt to root out homosexuals, military law and regulations made little mention of homosexuality until the 1950 the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Article 125 of the Uniform Code specifically bans acts of sodomy, whether between members of the same sex or between members of the opposite sex. Article 134 covers cases of sexual assault of all kinds. Violations of either article can lead to court martial and dismissal from the military.

In the 1970s, policies began to shift. Although homosexuality had been and was still seen primarily as an illness and medical treatment was an option, separation and even punishment became increasingly the practice. Under President Jimmy Carter, the policy became more restrictive. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter stated, "Homosexuality is incompatible with military service" and suggested that consensual homosexuality result in an honorable discharge. This became the Department of Defense's policy and was put into effect on January 16, 1981.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton said that if elected he would "lift the ban" on gays serving in the military. When he took office, the Department of Defense was given the task of studying the issue and issuing a report, a "draft executive order" that would end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The issue drew heavy political fire. After a great deal of political maneuvering, the compromise "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was instituted, which has been challenged in court by gays and lesbians in the military. The presence of gays in the military remains a highly politicized issue.


Lewis, Gregory B. "Lifting the Ban on Gays in the Civil Service: Federal Policy toward Gay and Lesbian Employees since the Cold War." Public Administration Review 57, no. 5 (1997): 374–83.

Ratliff, Warren L. "Upholding "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Yale Law Journal 106, no. 2 (1996): 531–536.

Scott, Wilbur J., and Stanley, Sandra Carson, eds. Gays and Lesbians in the Military: Issues, Concerns, and Contrasts. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1994.

Steffan, Joseph. Gays and the Military: Joseph Steffan versus the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Tully, Carol T. Lesbians, Gays, and the Empowerment Perspective. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Frank A. Salamone

See also:Churches, Evangelical, 1946–Present; Churches, Mainstream; Civil Rights Movement; Clinton, William Jefferson; Volunteer Army and Professionalism; Women Integrated into the Military .