Justice for Gay and Lesbian Military Heroes

The recent discharge of Lieutenant Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Arabic linguist, from the Army National Guard must draw our attention to one of the greatest continuing embarrassments to our American ideals: the government sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians serving the United States heroically. America is now ready to bring the long history of government-approved discrimination of gays and lesbians in the military to an end.

History of the Ban

The official discrimination against homosexuals in the military dates back to World War I, when in 1919 consensual sodomy was added as a proscribed act in the Military Code of Conduct. During World War II the military used psychiatrists, at the time all deeply rooted in Freud’s super-masculine paradigm that viewed homosexuality as a pathology, to help “winnow out those who might not be fit to be good soldiers.” With the help of these psychiatrists, regulations that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving were enacted in 1943.

During the 1970s the regulations were modified by the Carter administration after a large volume of lawsuits by gays and lesbians who had been discharged with the help of the ACLU and gay legal defenses organizations. The regulations now read that “homosexuality was incompatible with military service,” and it is in this form that the ban still exists today,

Throughout this time a great deal of high-performing gay and lesbian service members were discharged from the military, and many fought publicly and in the courts in an attempt to repeal the ban or have it declared unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the high court repeatedly ruled in favor of discrimination, or refused to hear the cases at all.

One such case was Hatheway v. Marsh, Secretary of the Army 454 U.S. 864 (1981). Jay Hatheway had been court-martialed for sodomy, convicted, and discharged from the Army. His lawyers argued that the sodomy ban was supposed to apply to all service members, including heterosexuals, yet Army prosecutors knew of heterosexual sodomy violations but chose to ignore them. The Ninth Circuit ruled that homosexuality was allowed to be used as grounds for selective prosecution, saying that “homosexual sodomy was more likely than heterosexual sodomy ‘to undermine discipline and order.'” Hatheway was an extremely competent Green Beret intelligence officer, yet the Supreme Court denied cert in 1981.

Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a decorated airman and recipient of both a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, declared his homosexuality in order to challenge the military ban. He was discharged from the Air Force and fought a lengthy legal and public relations battle, becoming one of the most famous gay icons of the 1970s. Eventually a federal judge ordered that he be reinstated, but by that time Matlovich was no longer interested in reenlisting. When he died in 1988, he was buried with his tombstone reading “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Miriam Ben-Shalom, a lesbian Army drill sergeant, was discharged in 1976 after her commander became suspicious of her anger at Leonard Matlovich’s discharge and asked her if she was homosexual. Ben-Shalom had some of the highest performance ratings among drill sergeants, yet she was discharged for telling the truth about being gay, not for homosexual conduct. Her case showed that “the Army discriminated against homosexuals: It actually banned homosexual people, not homosexual conduct, because heterosexuals who committed homosexual sodomy could avoid discharge by claiming they had been drunk, immature or simply curious.” Her case was taken to the Supreme Court and denied cert in 1990. Twelve years later, she still owed $13,000 on her $55,000 legal bill and had lost her house. The publicity she and her case received made her a target for discrimination even in civilian life: she had been denied an apartment, fired from a civilian job, received death threats, and was forced to work dead-end jobs. The fact that this is how a person who honorably and effectively served the country is treated should embarrass us all. Sergeant Ben-Shalom summed up her experience in this way: “I am in this position because I was asked a question by my commanding officer and I refused to lie. If I had lied, I wouldn’t be in this position. So, what do you expect of your [non-commissioned officers]?”

In the case of Army Staff Sergeant Perry Watkins, he was openly gay for 16 years in the service, yet was discharged in 1984 for being gay despite the fact his superiors had been aware of his homosexuality all along. Perry Watkins provided the gay movement a much needed, albeit shallow, victory when the Supreme Court denied cert to the Army’s appeal of a Ninth Circuit ruling in Watkins’ favor. Circuit Judge William Norris argued that the military cannot bow to anti-gay bias any more than it could to racism. Despite the victory, Watkins’ career was still over. His military potential had been rated “unlimited” before his discharge.

Jim Woodward was a College Republican who supported the Vietnam War and decided to sign up to be a Navy flight communications officer. In 1974 he took an enlisted man to an officer’s club in order to boost the self esteem of the “suicidal 19-year-old-kid” who was being discharge for being gay. When questioned by his commander about why he brought an enlisted man into the officer’s club, Woodward admitted his homosexuality. He was immediately recommended for discharge and placed on unpaid inactive reserve. His commanders downgraded his previously above-average performance ratings because of his homosexuality. Woodward appealed his discharge to the Supreme Court but was denied cert in 1990. The experience completely changed his feelings toward his country:

“That whole thing changed my life radically. It changed me from being an American to being a gay man. I no longer felt a loyalty to the United States of America that caused me to join the Navy at a period when probably the majority of my peers would have gone to Canada instead. And until homosexuals are considered whole human beings and citizens of this country, I will not support this country as a full citizen is obligated and responsible to do.”

The Opposition Rises

In 1988 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in coordination with other leading GLBT organizations formed the Gay and Lesbian Military Freedom Project (MFP), which would become the primary instrument of the effort to end the military ban.

The MFP not only focused on the treatment of gays and lesbians in the armed forces, but also shined a light on its relation to the harassment of women in the services.

One of the MFP’s first moves was a presentation to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service (DACOVITS) in April of 1989. MFP focused on the problem of the sexual harassment of both lesbians and straight women in the military. The testimonials of the women in the hearing revealed shocking practices: sham investigations by Defense Department intelligence agencies, women being pressured to confess to things that they did not do, threats ranging from physical harm to discharge and loss of benefits, stellar service records being disregarded at even a rumor about their sexual orientation, sexual harassment and the lack of any recourse to pursue their claims, and the use of the gay ban to intimidate women through “lesbian-bating.” Straight women that refused the sexual advances of a male were accused of being lesbians, and sexual harassment of women largely relied on this practice.

The MFP provided statistics showing that women were targeted for discharge based on homosexuality at a rate 10 times higher than that of men. The military undertook anti-lesbian witch hunts, most notably at the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot, where at least two women were incarcerated for being lesbians. One, Barbara Baum, served 226 days in the brig at Quantico. It took two years for her conviction to be overturned.

The first few years of the 1990s provided the MFP with events that would allow them to put the military ban front and center. The Gulf War drew attention to the number of qualified service members that were being discharged during a time of war, with a number of cases of gays and lesbians fighting their discharges resulting in a great deal of media coverage.

In 1991 Representative Pat Schroeder (D-CO) and Senator Brock Adams (D-WA) introduced the 1992 Military Freedom Act, which would have completely removed the ban. The bill helped promote the issue, but ultimately failed.

After pressure by the MFP, the General Accounting Office released a study of the costs of military ban, showing how much money was being wasted investigating and discharging homosexuals and the ensuing court battles.

The biggest bombshell for supporters of the ban was the outing of Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams by Michelangelo Signorile of The Advocate. The revelation that Williams was gay drew the attention of the straight press and resulted in many Republicans speaking against the ban, albeit it turns out only temporarily. Then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said the ban was an “old chestnut” whose time may have passed. Newt Gingrich indicated to The New Republic that he thought the policy was irrelevant, and Reagan’s Under Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb decried the ban.

The Homophobes Panic and Organize

By this time the military and conservative Christians were getting nervous about the ban’s potential repeal.

In 1992 the Navy Investigative Service engaged in one of the most disgusting deceptions in American history during their ‘investigation’ of the U.S.S. Iowa disaster. The NIS falsely identified the cause of the disaster as a crime of “scorned gay passion.” A following investigation showed that the Navy had fabricated the story in order to cover up their fault in what actually caused the explosion–old gun powder, aging weapons, insufficient ventilation, and poor operating procedures–and to use the story as an argument against lifting the ban on homosexuals.

Also in 1992 the Navy attempted to bury the case of Allen Schindler, a gay seaman that was ferociously murdered by another member of his unit.

All the while Christian conservative organizations were organizing their members in opposition of the repeal, using their considerable influence and resources to sway public opinion through the media and the churches. They knew that if a Democrat took the presidential election in November that they would have to fight for the ban, and they did everything in their power to set the battlefield.

Bill Clinton and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

During his campaign for the presidency, Bill Clinton promised Rep. Barney Frank that he would lift the military ban. He made his promise public during a forum at Harvard University, stating that he would overturn the policy be executive order if he were elected. He answered on an HCRF questionnaire that: “I believe patriotic Americans should have the right to serve the country as a member of the armed forces without regard to sexual or affectional orientation” and the campaign book Putting People First promised that he would “issue executive orders to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians from military or foreign service.” Proponents of lifting the ban had every reason to be excited on election night when Clinton emerged victorious.

Unfortunately, the repeal turned out to be a promise that the administration could not keep.

In July of 1993 hearings on the military ban focused on the argument that open homosexuality is detrimental to heterosexual male bonding, what military brass referred to as “unit cohesion.” According to Urvashi Vaid:

“The central obstacle in allowing gays to serve openly became not out competency to serve, but the subversiveness of our sexuality itself.

Again and again, the country heard its top generals testify that the problem was not gayness but the open admission of gayness: that open acceptance of gay people would destroy the platonic male-male heroism on which the military depends.”

Meanwhile, GLBT movement was in a period of infighting and jockeying. At the last minute a number of wealth gay donors and activists from Los Angeles formed the Campaign for Military Service. The organization was ineffective and appeared to be more a campaign to make certain people power-brokers than a legitimate campaign to overturn the ban. The organization was formed without the collaboration of the leading gay rights organizations or the MFP, and without a centralized campaign plan focused on grassroots efforts to change public opinion it was no match for the Christian Right.

It turns out that Bill Clinton was sworn into office as the perfect opponent for the Joint Chiefs and conservative Christians. He was elected with only 43% of the vote and not only had he not served in the military but was accused of being a draft dodger. He did not have the mandate or military credentials to impose his will on the Joint Chiefs or Congress.

The fact that the two biggest enemies of the repeal were a Democrat and an African-American General made the uphill battle a Sisyphusian effort.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell was the perfect spokesperson for the military’s policy. By virtue of his race he was able to effectively take away the civil rights argument from opponents of the ban. He argued that they “never had full civil rights in the military, and it would be impossible to maintain morale if gay and straight soldiers were integrated.” The Clinton administration was terrified of Powell. According to George Stephanopoulos:

“That’s all we needed: the top military brass led by Colin Powell, lined up in a row in direct confrontation with a new president who, they said, was sacrificing national security for the sake of a campaign promise to a special interest — all live on CNN.”

The other key opponent was Democratic Senator Sam Nunn (GA). Not only was Sen. Nunn homophobic, but he was also angry at Clinton for not appointing him Secretary of State. Nunn did everything he could to force the administration’s hand on the gays in the military issue, even holding up Clinton’s first bill, the Family and Medical Leave Act, until it was clear the ban would not be completely repealed.

Sen. Nunn also found a way to use the media to sell his brand of homophobia. He and Sen. John Warner appeared on television talking to sailors on the submarine Montpelier in Norfolk, Virginia. The sailors were on their bunks in order to show the “extremely cramped sleeping conditions” that according to their arguments make the presence of gays dangerous.

President Clinton held a meeting with the Joint Chiefs in order to discuss the issue, but they came into the meeting with their minds made up and confident that in this situation they had more power and influence than the President. According to Stephanopoulous, “the chiefs weren’t there to be persuaded, and they had the congressional troops they needed to fortify their position.” President Clinton recounts the meeting:

“In the meeting, the chiefs acknowledged that there were thousands of gay men and women serving with distinction in the 1.8 million-member military, but they maintained that letting them serve openly would be, in General Powell’s words, ‘prejudicial to good order and discipline.’ The rest of the Joint Chiefs were with the Chairman. Then I raised the fact that it apparently had cost the military $500 million to kick 17,000 homosexuals out of the service in the previous decade, despite a government report saying there was no reason to believe they could not serve effectively, the chiefs replied that it was worth it to preserve unit cohesion and morale.”

Clinton saw the problem with their argument: that it “could have been used with equal force against Truman’s order on integration or against current efforts to open more positions to women in the military.” However, he did not have the power to act. Both houses of Congress passed resolutions opposing the President’s position, the House by more than a three-to-one margin. If Clinton issued an executive order repealing the ban Congress would have responded with an amendment to the defense appropriations bill. Even though Clinton did not issue the executive order, Sen. Nunn and Congress used that exact tactic to break their Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell compromise and add more anti-gay teeth to the measure. The amendment added language saying “persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” were “an unacceptable risk” for inclusion in the military. The amendment also allowed the Secretary of Defense to reinstate the practice of asking recruits to disclose their sexual orientation.

The amendment to the defense appropriations bill passed, even though some prominent Republicans, like former Senator Barry Goldwater, were against the ban. On June 21, 1993, Goldwater wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post National Weekly:

“When the facts lead to one conclusion, I say it’s time to act, not to hide. The country and the military know that eventually the ban will be lifted. The only remaining questions are how much muck we will all be dragged through, and how many brave Americans like Tom Paniccia and Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer will have their lives and careers destroyed in a senseless attempt to stall the inevitable.


I have served in the armed forces. I have flown more than 150 of the best fighter plans and bombers this country manufactured. I founded the Arizona National Guard. I chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. And I think it’s high time to pull the curtains on this charade of a policy.”

While many gay rights activists blamed President Clinton for failing to deliver on his promise, George Stephanopoulos has a different take:

“Our administration can be fairly faulted for raising hopes that couldn’t be fulfilled, but not for abandoning a cause that could have been won if only we’d had the courage to try. The military and the Congress had the votes to keep the ban because the country was not ready for the change.

The numbers show that Stephanopoulos was probably right. The Christian Right and the military ran extremely effective grassroots and public relations campaigns that reinforced the homophobia that many Americans felt at the time, while the fragmented gay rights movement failed to effectively counter. Polls at the time showed that voters were against lifting the ban 48-45, an more starkly there was a 17% deficit in those that felt strongly on the issue, with 35% strongly against and only 16% strongly approving.

The Aftermath of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Following the implementation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, incidents and investigations involving homosexuals actually increased dramatically. A report issued by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in 1996 showed that from March 1, 1995 to February 27, 1996, SLDN documented 363 specific violations of DADT policy, and that the Department of Defense “discharged more servicemembers under its gay policy in fiscal year 1995 than in each of the past four years at a cost exceeding $21 million in 1995.” The report also showed that women were still victims of “lesbian-baiting,” painfully evident by the anecdote that opens the report:

“In South Korea, a young Private First Class reported that male soldiers assaulted and threatened to rape her. The soldiers then spread false rumors that she was a lesbian. Rather than investigate the men who attacked her, the command in South Korea investigated her. The command tried to force her to confess to being gay. She refused. The command threatened her with prison if she did not identify suspected lesbians in her unit. She refused. The command started discharge proceedings against her based on the same trumped up allegations. She still refused to buckle. In July 1995, after ten months of intense efforts by her family, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and its cooperating private attorney, the Army finally dropped all charges and retaliatory actions against her. Her new command is excellent, but she and her family should never have had to go through what they did. What happened to her is common. Straight or gay, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” policy has been used to retaliate against hundreds of servicemembers.

Like before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, some brave gay and lesbian servicemembers took a stand against the policy. The day following the implementation of the DADT rules, Lieutenant Paul Thomasson wrote a letter to the admirals he had served under with the following message: “I can remain silent no longer. I am gay.” Thomasson was not just any seaman, he was one of the Navy’s rising stars. He was described by superiors as “magnificent,” “spectacularly good,” “a true superstar,” “destined for great things.” He was awarded medals by Gen. Colin Powell for his great work and Rear Admiral Lee Gunn said “If you are in your right mind, you want Paul Thomasson working for you…Lt. Thomasson has genuine flag [admiral] potential.” Thomasson petitioned the Supreme Court, pointing out that the anti-homosexual policy “ruined the careers of 772 Americans in 1995 alone.” When he filed his paperwork for the Supreme Court he wrote a check for the filing fee with two words written on the purpose line: equal justice. Unfortunately the Supreme Court once again decided to ignore this glaring violation of civil rights, denying cert to Paul G. Thomasson v. William J. Perry, Secretary of Defense, and John H. Dalton, Secretary of the Navy on October 21, 1996.

In the years since the passage of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, 12,500 homosexuals have been discharged from the military at a cost of more than half a billion dollars, not counting the number of heterosexual women that have been victimized by the policy.

President Barack Obama: The New Hope

In 2008 gay rights activists were given another hope of overturning the military ban with the election of President Barack Obama.

President Obama has repeatedly stated that he favors repealing the military ban:

“But I think there’s increasing recognition within the Armed Forces that this is a counterproductive strategy — ya know, we’re spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need. That doesn’t make us more safe.”

On Thursday, Maddow presented what she called the latest “tangible evidence of President Obama’s personal stance on the issue.” This week, the president sent a handwritten reply to Sandy Tsao, a U.S. Army lieutenant who wrote a letter urging him to repeal the ban after she came out in January.

“It is because of outstanding Americans like you that I committed to changing our current policy,” Obama wrote. “Although it will take some time to complete, partly because it needs congressional action, I intend to fulfill my commitment.”

While it is clear that he wants to repeal the ban, we learned back in 1993 that promises aren’t actions. Over 110 days of the administration have passed and there has been no executive order, no Congressional effort, and during that time servicemembers like Sandy Tsao and Dan Choi are being discharged, Choi even being one of those “whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need” according to Obama.

One issue is that some of the gay and lesbian rights organizations are making one of the same mistakes today that they did 16 years ago:

“Obama has been praised for delaying efforts to get rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and some major gay rights groups are actively lobbying to delay consideration of the issue. They seem to believe that Obama should focus on other gay-rights issues first, and that he shouldn’t spend his precious political capital trying to ram a repeal bill through Congress.”

In 1992 gay rights organizations did not think that the military ban should be a priority, since at the time AIDS was the hot issue. The lack of preparation and commitment all but guaranteed the repeal’s failure. The GLBT movement needs to realize that this issue is extremely important. The careers of thousands of gays and lesbians are being destroyed, yet they do not think it is worth the political capital. The upper-middle-class urban demographic that dominates GLBT organizations ignored the military issue initially in the 1990s because they could not relate to an issue that predominantly affects working-class gays and lesbians, and they are in danger of doing it again.

The difference between today and 1993 is that now America is ready for the ban to be lifted. A Quinnipiac University national poll of American voters taken last month showed support for repealing the ban at 56 – 37 percent, including 50 – 43 percent among voters with family in the military. A 3% advantage against the repeal in 1992 has become a 19% advantage for the repeal in 2009: a swing of 22%. While the 111th Congress has a similar party composition to the 103rd Congress of 1993, the Democrats are much more supportive of GLBT rights than they were 16 years ago, including Rep. Holt who recently took a strong stand against the policy, and some Republicans are trying to become more gay-friendly in order to reinvigorate the party.

President Obama does not face the uphill battle that President Clinton did: the American people overwhelmingly support the repeal, Congress is much more favorable to GLBT rights, and Obama was elected in a landslide and maintains high approval ratings. The only disadvantage he shares with Clinton is the concern that by taking action on the ban it would appear that he was ignoring the economy, yet it is unlikely that Obama would face any backlash for it, especially considering the fact the Lt. Choi has provided the perfect example of a person whose discharge makes America less safe.

Aaron Belkin shows how President Obama could use an executive order to halt the discharges until Congress can officially remove the policy. The President needs to do this immediately and press Congress to finalize it.

America is ready to finally end 90 years of government sponsored discrimination and finally provide justice for our American heroes that served and continue to serve our country not just on the military battlefield, but in the struggle for full equality.

Resources Used in Researching This Post and Further Reading