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Gay Men and Lesbians in The Military

Gay Men and Lesbians in The Military. Homosexuality is one of many categories that people use to think about, define, and organize their sexual identities and behaviors. Although the term homosexuality refers to loving or desiring or having sex with someone of the same sex, there is no straightforward, agreed‐upon definition of homosexuality, and no clear relationship between the types of sexual acts that people perform and whether they define themselves as gay or lesbian. Eve Sedgwick, a prominent cultural theorist, refers to homosexuality as a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual meanings. In addition, Sedgwick argues that notwithstanding evidence of same‐sex love and desire throughout history, modern understandings of homosexuality may be different from previous arrangements of same‐sex relations.

The history of same‐sex desire in the military dates back to the earliest days of the military. In the United States, Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who trained the Continental army at Valley Forge, is believed by some to have had male lovers, and Lt. Gotthold Frederick Enslin became the first soldier drummed out of the Continental army for sodomy on 11 March 1778. The military's first known lesbian soldiers apparently disguised themselves as men and fought in the 15th Missouri Regiment during the Civil War. Indeed, gay men and lesbians have served in every sector of the military, including the Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and the cockpit of Air Force One. According to the journalist Randy Shilts, they have included army and marine four‐star generals, a lesbian admiral, and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Military understandings of homosexuality have reflected larger societal understandings even as actions taken by the military have in turn influenced society. As the United States mobilized for World War II, military officials who believed that homosexuals were not fit for combat used new screening procedures to attempt to identify homosexual men. For the first time, regulations focused on whether recruits and soldiers had gay identities, not just whether they committed sodomy. Of 18 million men examined during the war, the military rejected 4,000–5,000 for homosexuality. After the war, 9,000 gays and lesbians who did serve were disqualified from obtaining G.I. benefits when they received section eight or “blue” discharges for undesirable habits or character traits. Many returned to port cities where they formed the nuclei of emerging gay communities. Historian Alan Bérubé argues that by identifying and managing people as homosexual persons rather than focusing narrowly on the act of sodomy, the military encouraged gays and lesbians to assume a stronger identity.

In 1950, Congress enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which subjected any persons who engaged in oral or anal sex to court‐martial and five years’ incarceration. To enforce regulations, military investigators sought to identify gays and lesbians by detaining suspects and forcing them to specify their peers’ sexual orientation. During witch‐hunts, it was not uncommon for investigators to extract confessions by threatening incarceration. Between 1941 and 1996, the military discharged about 100,000 gays and lesbians, an average of roughly 2,000 per year; the 1996 discharge figure was 850. The navy tends to account for the highest percentage of discharges and women are discharged at a proportionally higher rate than men.

Discharges tend to decrease during wartime when the need for personnel increases. The navy discharged only 483 gays and lesbians (about half its annual average) in 1950 during the Korean War and 461 in 1970 during the Vietnam War. In 1942, during World War II, the commander at Moffett Field, California, canceled the dishonorable discharges of seven gay men so they could be reassigned after their prison sentences. Many gay men and lesbians have been separated under less than honorable conditions. Of 1,648 enlisted personnel ousted in 1985 for homosexuality, for example, over 600 were denied honorable discharges. In addition, prison sentences for same‐sex sodomy were common until the late 1980s. Although prohibited by military law, sodomy between men and women rarely has invited court‐martial or incarceration.

Despite the threat of punishment, enforcement of antigay regulations has varied considerably among units and service branches and has depended on the discretion of individual commanders. As a result, while some gay and lesbian service members do not reveal their sexual orientation, others have served openly. Gay military networks that emerged in World War II developed into vast subcultures by the 1970s, and by the late 1980s, much of the military's gay subculture was barely hidden.

In 1973, gays and lesbians began to use courts to challenge the substantive constitutionality of antigay regulations and to question the rationale for retaining some soldiers while discharging others. The Department of Defense responded in 1981 by promulgating Directive 1332.14, which made the discharge of gay and lesbian soldiers more clearly mandatory. President Bill Clinton attempted to overturn this policy in 1993 by proposing to allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly. In response, advocates of antigay regulations who invoked mental illness, unfitness for duty, and vulnerability to blackmail to justify discriminations during the Cold War contended that unit cohesion would suffer if the military allowed gays and lesbians to be open about their sexuality.

Some scholars responded that gays and lesbians do serve openly in the United States and foreign militaries and in American police and fire departments without jeopardizing cohesion. In addition, they noted that racial integration did not undermine cohesion, although 1948 polls indicated that 63 percent of the public favored segregation in the military. Finally, they pointed to organizational theory that indicates that performance depends on task cohesion (shared commitment to group objectives) but not social cohesion (emotional bonds).

The subsequent compromise between pro‐ and antigay advocates is known as “Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue.” The policy prohibits asking recruits about their sexual orientation, although the military has breached regulations 1,632 times since 1994 according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Under this new policy, homosexual but not heterosexual status passes as evidence that a service member has violated antisodomy laws. Federal courts ruled both ways on the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy, but the Supreme Court has declined to rule on the policy's constitutionality.

Antigay regulations have important negative consequences. Regulations can compromise unit cohesion when soldiers are encouraged to turn against each other. They can lead to suicides and also deter rape victims from reporting assaults when rapists threaten to accuse victims of homosexuality. Regulations enable commanders to question the sexual orientation of service members who report antigay death threats. Because investigators require only rumors to discharge service members for homosexuality, threatening to label a women as a lesbian probably is the most prevalent form of sexual harassment in the military. Antigay regulations also have economic consequences. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, between 1980 and 1995 the government spent more than $600 million on training those subsequently discharged as homosexuals. In January 1999, the Pentagon reported that the four services had discharged 1,145 gay men and lesbians in fiscal year 1998, a 13 percent increase from 1997 and nearly double the number in 1993, the year before the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy went into effect.


Lawrence R. Murphy , Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy, 1986.
Allan Bérubé , Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, 1990.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick , Epistemology of the Closet, 1990.
Kate Dyer, ed., Gays in Uniform: The Pentagon's Secret Reports, 1990.
Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate , Policy Concerning Homosexuality in the Armed Forces, 1993.
National Defense Research Institute, RAND , Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment, 1993.
Randy Shilts , Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military, 1993.
Winni S. Webber , Lesbians in the Military Speak Out, 1993.
Janet Halley , The Status/Conduct Distinction in the 1993 Revisions to Military Anti‐Gay Policy, GLQ, 3 (1996), pp. 159–252.
Steven Zeeland , The Masculine Marine: Homoeroticism in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1996.
Elizabeth Kier , Homosexuals in the U.S. Military: Open Integration and Combat Effectiveness, International Security, vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 1998), pp. 5–39.

Aaron Belkin

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