“As Secretary of Defense, I remain dedicated to making sure that our LGBTQ+ personnel across the Joint Force can continue to serve the country that we all love with dignity and pride — this month and every other one,” wrote Biden-appointee Lloyd Austin to commemorate Pride in 2023. His statement omits any acknowledgment of the extreme oppression LGBTQ+ military personnel were subjected to by explicit government policies until the recent past. At the intersection of LGBTQ+ rights and the military lies a complex history.
Through 2010, it was against Department of Defense policy to openly identify as gay or lesbian in the US military. Transgender people weren’t allowed to serve until 2016, and were disallowed again under the Trump administration until 2021. Now, rainbow-themed posters dot the walls of VA hospitals. In Steve Estes’s piece “Ask and Tell: Gay Veterans, Identity, and Oral History on a Civil Rights Frontier,” the historical oppression is documented alongside progress.
The Articles of War of 1916 listed “assault with intent to commit sodomy” as a criminal offense. In 1920, it was amended to include consensual sodomy as a punishable offense. When the Articles of War were replaced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in 1951, the criminalization of sodomy was carried over into the new law. “Any person subject to this chapter who engages in unnatural carnal copulation with a another person of the same or opposite sex or with an animal is guilty of sodomy.”
Paradoxically, World War II was a boon to the LGBTQ community. Estes, quoting Allan Bérubé, writes that despite oppressive policies that criminalized homosexuality, “the massive mobilization for World War II relaxed the social constraints of peacetime that kept many gay men and women unaware of themselves and each other.” The need for manpower led to a softening of enforcement of anti-homosexual military policy, but it was the logistics of the war itself that brought some semblance of liberation to the community:
The classic story that Bérubé heard involved alienated young gay men or women swept up by the war into a homosocial world of military service far away from the small town authorities that restricted explorations of alternative sexualities. Shore leave or R&R in big cities such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago contributed to a burgeoning and surprisingly open gay bar scene, one of the foundations of urban communities so central to gay life today.
After the war came the purges, with lesbians feeling the regression first. Society was broadly uncomfortable with the changing gender norms brought about by the war, which brought women into the workplace and into financial independence. The Women’s Army Corps (WACs) investigated, interrogated, and expelled women found to be lesbians, as “a way to winnow down the ranks of women in the Army and return the country to ‘normalcy.’” The McCarthy era brought a newfound zeal to the anti-gay crusade as the Lavender Scare.
Dishonorable discharges for homosexual conduct excluded people from the GI Bill, recognized as one of the greatest tools of class mobility the US has ever seen. To avoid the rigamarole of a dishonorable discharge, which requires a resource-intensive court martial, the military created new discharge classes that were in limbo between honorable and dishonorable, such as “other than honorable” and “unclassified.” Both were printed on blue paper and came to be known as “blue discharges.” It was a frequent mechanism used to eject LGBTQ people from the military, and they were disproportionately given to Black servicemembers as well. Despite explicit language in the GI Bill that mandated the benefits be awarded to anyone who was discharged as anything other than dishonorable, the VA took a more conservative interpretation and began denying benefits to those with blue discharges “issued because of homosexual acts or tendencies.” The stigma associated with this type of discharge made it difficult for veterans to find employment after their military service, haunting them for decades to come.
In 1982, the military enacted a policy to explicitly ban gay people from serving, expanding upon the existing laws that criminalized homosexual sex. The 20th century saw little to no progress on LGBTQ rights until the passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993. The policy prohibited the military from asking about one’s sexuality, but also prohibited servicemembers from being openly gay, or “out.” Though now widely viewed as regressive policy, it was an improvement from the interrogations, inquiries, and purges that marked the previous decades.
Shalanda Baker, in her piece “Telling: Living with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” illustrates the harms it produced by allowing queer people to exist only in a liminal space. An officer in the Air Force, she found herself in an abusive relationship with a woman. Her abuser leveraged the fact she could not tell anyone about her relationship without facing an administrative discharge. “What are you going to do, Lieutenant, tell the cops your girlfriend beat you up?” Though she felt her life was endangered, both she and her abuser knew that if she went to the authorities, she would face discharge. A Black woman born to a single parent household in Texas, she had dedicated much of her life to getting into and then graduating from the Air Force Academy, in search of a stable career and economic mobility. Yet she writes that after researching the policy, she realized it was misnomer:
The policy really should be ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t practice,’ because it merely states that one cannot be questioned about one’s homosexual orientation. The moment one begins ‘acting’ on that orientation the questions can begin and investigation follows… There was no question that as a lesbian who was ‘acting’ on my orientation I was in blatant violation of the policy… I came out after living a double life for over five years. I came out because I could no longer look at myself in the mirror, dressed in my sharply-creased uniform, and feel pride about the military in which I serve and about who I had become. I came out because my own silence was deafening. I came out because my silence nearly killed me.
Baker was not only discharged but ordered to pay back the cost of her education, as at the urging of the prosecutor it was found she made her declaration of homosexuality merely to evade her commitment to military service. She writes in fervent opposition the policy for the oppression in produces. In 2008, Aaron Belkin, writing in Armed Forces & Society, makes the case that the policy harmed the public standing of the military by being out-of-touch with public opinion, with polls showing overwhelming support repealing the policy and allowing gay and lesbian servicemembers to be “out.”
I’m writing this history because it is also my history. My mother, a lesbian, was nine years into her 20 years of military service when she became pregnant with me. An unmarried woman, it was a minor scandal in her office. Everyone had a theory about who the father was, from the commander to the janitor. In reality, she and her partner had conceived through artificial insemination. At work, she had to let her colleagues think she had become pregnant accidentally after heterosexual sex. No one she worked with—other than her gay male peers, many of whom died of AIDS—ever knew she was a lesbian. At home, I had two moms. At Air Force functions, I was coached to call my “other” mom our roommate. At five years old, when I slipped up and referred to her as “mom,” I thought I’d gotten my mom kicked out of the military. I didn’t understand why we had to hide our family structure like this.
My mom loved serving in the military despite the way it forced her to remain closeted. Before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she was repeatedly investigated for homosexual conduct. Profiled under a fake name, she is one of several queer veterans and active duty service members profiled in Mary Ann Humphrey’s book, My Country, My Right to Serve. While stationed in Georgia, she was beckoned to the commander’s office and met by agents the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), who “read me my rights and said that I was being investigated for homosexuality.” That first time, it was little more than a fishing expedition. They falsely accused her of having had “sexual relations” with a Captain from her previous base. “I knew they were trying to scare me into confessing.” They then tried to get her to snitch on her friends, “Do you know if these women are lesbians?” To which my mom responded, “I know them, But I wouldn’t know who they slept with.” The agents then threatened her, “We’ve been easy on you this time, but the next time we call you in, it’s not going to be so easy.” Boldly, she immediately reported the threat to the judge advocate’s office. “He told me that I didn’t have to go back, and next time they called, to say that I had been advised by my lawyer not to talk to them.”
Yet her troubles were far from over. Three years later, her security clearance was suddenly revoked. She feigned indignance, having just married her best male friend for cover. After switching jobs and becoming a recruiter in the days before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she was forced to ask every potential recruit if they were a homosexual or had ever engaged in homosexual acts. The ethical quandary didn’t bother her as much as one might think, as she always said if the person wasn’t smart enough to know to lie, they didn’t belong in her Air Force anyway. When she turned down her persistent (married) male colleague’s advances, he reported her to OSI for being a homosexual. The agents entered her office and went through her belongings, finding a love letter in her briefcase. It contained unequivocal references to “homosexual conduct,” but she was spared because her commander said he didn’t approve of OSI’s “Gestapo tactics.” Two weeks later, her belongings were returned without a further word.
“In the Air Force, if you’re gay you’ve got to work twice as hard just to prove you’re as good as the next guy,” my mom said. “I’m constantly aware of being paranoid… Being out in public with my girlfriend just buzzing around, I’m aware of it. It’s like having the feeling that someone is always watching you… It definitely affects my personal life… My lover and I have had fights about it. She gets real fed up with the Air Force, very fed up. Especially with the crap that’s going on because I am pregnant.” Referring to being discriminated against for being a single woman who got “knocked up,” and constant invasions of her privacy as everyone demanded to know who the father was. “I started questioning this pregnancy and I resent the fact I’ve had to do that,” she said, referring to me in utero. Some of my earliest memories are my parents fighting when my mom refused to kiss or hold hands with her partner, my “other” mother, in public. My entire life has been shaped by the military’s evolving policies on queerness.
At 19, I returned home from Air Force basic training to find my mom horrified at pictures I had posted on Facebook. Harmless selfies with female friends, all of us in uniform with our smiling cheeks pressed against each other’s in the photo. “Take that down!” She was terrified we’d all be investigated for homosexuality, like she had so many times. But by then, it was a different era. No one seemed to care anymore.
Openly gay people were not allowed to serve in the military until 2010, the year after I left for basic training, when then-President Obama finally repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Widely hailed as a civil rights victory, it was largely silent on the issue of transgender servicemembers. The ban against trans servicemembers was briefly lifted at the end of the Obama administration, only to be reinstated under the Trump administration. It wasn’t until 2021 that the Army officially changed their policy to allow transgender people to serve.
Today, the Army covers gender-affirming care, including hormones and surgery. The VA is restricted from covering surgery, but does provide hormonal therapy and other types of gender-affirming care to its veterans. The move towards inclusiveness of LGBTQ people in the US military has been sudden, to the near erasure of historical oppression. (Without congressional protection, future presidential administrations could easily reverse the policy on trans people serving in the military.)
With the Obergfell supreme court decision, military benefits were extended to same-sex spouses nationwide. For those who recently faced oppression for their sexual orientation, the progress can feel bittersweet. Lives were destroyed and careers ruined over what is now fully legal. My mom was forced to remain closeted until her retirement, which strained her relationship past the breaking point. The military has gone from policies that persecuted queer people to Pride-themed statements and rainbow adornments in just over a decade.