While military service often demands sacrifices from those in uniform, historically, LGBTQ+ veterans have faced a unique set of challenges. Many of these veterans, following a call to serve, meant keeping their private lives entirely private, fearing that exclusionary policies would hold them back or end their careers altogether. There are an estimated 1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans in the United States.
LGBTQ+ soldiers have always been part of the American military. In an era before gay marriage or open pride, military men fell in love, formed passionate friendships, and had same-sex encounters. Due to social and official discrimination, though, most of their stories have gone untold. But in the case of one of the military’s founding heroes, homosexuality was always part of the story. Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian military man hired by George Washington to whip the Continental Army into shape during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, is known for his bravery and the discipline and grit he brought to the American troops. Historians also think he was homosexual—and served as an openly gay man in the military at a time when sex between men was punished as a crime. Benjamin Franklin recommended von Steuben to Washington and played up his qualifications. He also downplayed rumors that the baron had been dismissed from the Prussian military for homosexuality.
Von Steuben may have been one of early America’s most open LGBTQ+ figures, but he was hardly the only man whose love of other men was well known. And though he was to have helped save the American army, his contribution is mostly forgotten today. Even with an exception like von Steuben, few LGBTQ+ service members have served openly in the military until recently. However, exceptions were always made for LGBTQ+ individuals as long as they generally remained discreet and deemed useful to the US military. Since the Revolutionary War, homosexuality was grounds for discharge from all US military branches until 2010. During World War II, the military began enforcing specific policies based on sexual orientation. Homosexuality was a disqualifying trait as soon as the military added psychiatric screenings to its induction process. During the war, the blue discharge became the “discharge of choice” for homosexual service members — which, though neither honorable nor dishonorable, prevented former service members from utilizing the GI Bill and held extremely negative connotations, often preventing veterans from integrating back into civilian life.
Still, LGBTQ+ individuals continued to serve while in the closet. After World War II, members of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest LGBT (gay rights) organizations in the United States, protested the US policy against gays serving in the military. They believed they should be able to serve their country in any capacity, whether it be in government or the military. They felt that service in the military would lead to more acceptance for gay men. However, that would change during the Vietnam War. Young gay men rebelled against early organizations like the Mattachine Society. Young gay men had to choose whether to reveal or conceal their homosexuality when they came before the draft board because with the draft board being composed of local citizens, this could mean being outed to friends, neighbors, or parents. The dilemma faced by gay youths polarized the gay liberation movement, and young gay men joined in on the antiwar protests. With the Vietnam War and the draft still very much a reality, gay rights groups turned their backs on the issue of military service because they did not want to be drafted. However, the government also turned their backs on the ban and forced many gay men who were drafted to serve, deciding that they needed the manpower more than they needed to uphold the ban on military service. When personnel shortages occurred, the US military was all too happy to allow LGBTQ+ individuals to serve, particularly gay men.
The LGBTQ+ rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s once again changed positions and advocated for LGBTQ+ individuals to serve in the military. They raised the issue by publicizing several noteworthy dismissals of gay service members. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time in 1975. In 1982, the Department of Defense issued a policy stating, “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” It cited the military’s need “to maintain discipline, good order, and morale” and “to prevent breaches of security.” In 1988, in response to a campaign against lesbians at the Marines’ Parris Island Depot, activists launched the Gay and Lesbian Military Freedom Project (MFP) to advocate for an end to the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the armed forces.
In 1989, reports commissioned by the Personnel Security Research and Education Center (PERSEREC), an arm of the Pentagon, were discovered in the process of Joseph Steffan’s lawsuit fighting his forced resignation from the US Naval Academy. One report said that “having a same-gender or an opposite-gender orientation is unrelated to job performance in the same way as is being left- or right-handed.” Other lawsuits fighting discharges highlighted the service record of service members like Tracy Thorne and Margarethe (Grethe) Cammermeyer. The MFP began lobbying Congress in 1990, and in 1991 Senator Brock Adams (D-Washington) and Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-California) introduced the Military Freedom Act, legislation to end the ban entirely. Adams and Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colorado) re-introduced it the next year. In July 1991, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, in the context of the outing of his press aide Pete Williams, dismissed the idea that gays posed a security risk as “a bit of an old chestnut” in testimony before the House Budget Committee. In response to his comment, several major newspapers endorsed ending the ban, including USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Detroit Free Press. In June 1992, the General Accounting Office released a report that Congress members had requested two years earlier, estimating the costs associated with the ban on gays and lesbians in the military at $27 million annually.
During the 1992 US presidential election campaign, the civil rights of gays and lesbians, particularly their open service in the military, attracted some press attention, and all candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination supported ending the ban on military service by gays and lesbians. Republicans did not make a political issue of that position. In an August cover letter to all his senior officers, Gen. Carl Mundy, Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps, praised a position paper authored by a Marine Corps chaplain that said that “In the unique, intensely close environment of the military, homosexual conduct can threaten the lives, including the physical (e.g., AIDS) and psychological well-being of others.” Mundy called it “extremely insightful” and said it offered “a sound basis for discussion of the issue.” The murder of gay US Navy petty officer Allen R. Schindler, Jr. on October 27, 1992, brought calls from advocates of allowing open service by gays and lesbians for prompt action from the incoming Clinton administration.
President Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on the promise to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation. Clinton called for legislation to overturn the ban but encountered intense opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress members, and portions of the public. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) emerged as a compromise policy. On December 21, 1993, the Clinton Administration issued Defense Directive 1304.26, which directed that military applicants were not to be asked about their sexual orientation. The full name of the policy at the time was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue.” The “Don’t Ask” provision mandated that military or appointed officials will not ask about or require members to reveal their sexual orientation. The “Don’t Tell” stated that a member may be discharged for claiming to be a homosexual or bisexual or making a statement indicating a tendency towards or intent to engage in homosexual activities. The “Don’t Pursue” established what was minimally required for an investigation to be initiated. A “Don’t Harass” provision was added to the policy later. It ensured that the military would not allow harassment or violence against service members for any reason.
Fast-forward to the 2008 US presidential election campaign. Senator Barack Obama advocated a full repeal of the laws barring gays and lesbians from serving in the military. Nineteen days after his election, Obama’s advisers announced that plans to repeal the policy might be delayed until 2010 because Obama first wanted “to confer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his new political appointees at the Pentagon to reach a consensus, and then present legislation to Congress.” As president, he advocated a policy change to allow gay personnel to serve openly in the armed forces, stating that the US government has spent millions of dollars replacing troops expelled from the military, including language experts fluent in Arabic, because of DADT.
In December 2010, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a bill repealing DADT, and President Obama signed the repeal into law on December 22, 2010. Restrictions on lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members ended in 2011. In 2016, the Obama Administration lifted the ban on transgender people serving in the military. However, under the Trump administration, transgender individuals have been banned from serving in the military. On July 26, 2017, Trump announced on his Twitter page that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed “to serve in any capacity in the US Military.” At the time, close to 15,000 transgender troops serve in the military, and Trump’s ban was denounced by former military leaders, Members of Congress from both parties, and the American Medical Association.
For 234 years, the United States had anti-LGBTQ+ policies that prevented many thousands of brave, talented soldiers, sailors, and marines from stepping up to serve in national defense. Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals can now serve openly in the military, and once the Biden administration enters office, transgender individuals will once again be able to serve in the military. Just as we owe so much to heterosexual servicemembers, LGBTQ+ service members have not only sacrificed their lives for this country but, for most of its history, had to serve in silence. On this Veterans Day, let us not forget the millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans who have served in the United States military.
*The nation’s largest LGBTQ military event of the year, the American Military Partner Association National Gala celebrates and honors our modern military families for their service and sacrifice.