Wednesday, April 24, 2013

LGBTQ Veterans and the Military

The U.S. military has a long “history of discrimination” (DOJ Brief against DOMA) against LGBTQ service members and applicants. From its beginnings to 2011, the U.S. military has upheld a firm discriminatory stance against LGBTQ persons and excluded them from service. The Second World War played a major role in this context as it caused two contradictory patterns to evolve. On the one hand, due to the sheer necessity of working power and the resulting creation of homosocial spaces, WWII served as a major catalyst for a national coming out experience. On the other hand, due to the advancement of psychology and the medical model which put emphasis on sexual identity and declared LGBTQ persons as mentally ill, LGBTQ Americans emerged from the war as a stigmatized, marginalized and persecuted group. To put it in Vicki Eaklor’s words, there was “pride, visibility and organizing on one side and backlash, erasure, and oppression on the other.” (Eaklor, 68)

The war, its aftermath, and the rest of the 20th century saw massive waves of discrimination against gay and lesbian members of the military and those who wanted to become ones. Oppressive military policies, specifically military as well as adopted - anti-sodomy laws, psychiatric screenings, blue discharges, dishonorable discharges, and undesirable discharges – were the rule and gay men and lesbians were prohibited to enter the military, discharged, or denied any recognition with regard to their service for their country; they were considered “[…] too gay to be seen as heroes.” (Estes, p.35) The G.I. Bill f.ex. was a major governmental discriminatory instrument and its introduction in 1944 institutionalized homophobia by granting a whole range of benefits for returning WWII veterans, while at the same time excluding gay men and lesbians from these services.

The article “Ask and Tell: Gay Veterans, Identity, and Oral History on a Civil Rights Frontier” by Steve Estes (which you can access through JSTOR*), provides a comprehensive understanding of 20th century history of LGBTQ Americans and the military. It is based on fifty interviews with veterans who talk about their military careers during the major conflicts of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War, and speak their minds about current military policies, especially the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. Their voices shed light on various topics within the debate about homosexuality and the military. Steve Estes identifies four distinct themes: 1) the relationship between racism and homophobia and the military; 2) varying attitudes about military service within gay communities; 3) contrasting experiences of gay men and lesbians in the military; 4) the evolving nature of gay veterans’ identities.

The DADT policy banned questions about sexuality on Armed Forces recruiting forms and discrimination against suspected or closeted LGBTQ military members, but it also denied openly LGBTQ Americans access to military service and continued to allow for expulsion if any evidence of LGBTQ identity was revealed. What the DADT policy effectively did is that it forced LGBTQ military members into the closet.

By clicking on this link below, you’ll find a timeline about the DADT policy, published by the Washington Post:

Very intersting also, if you find the time to take a look, here’s the link to the U.S. Army official comic book on the DADT policy (2001):

The oral LGBTQ history project Steve Estes mentions in his article is part of the larger Veterans History Project:

On September 20, 2011, President Obama signed the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act. He reinforced the understanding that one’s sexual orientation does not stand in connection to one’s ability to perform: “[S]acrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed. … There will never be a full accounting of the heroism demonstrated by gay Americans in service to this country; their service has been obscured in history. It’s been lost to prejudices that have waned in our own lifetimes. But at every turn, every crossroads in our past, we know gay American fought just as hard, gave just as much to protect this nation and the ideals for which it stands.” (DOJ Brief against DOMA)

While the DADT policy was repealed and gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans are now able to openly enter and serve in the military, transgender Americans are still not given this right.

Here are some links to LGBTQ veterans and active member organizations which continue the struggle for visibility, equal rights and recognition:

The United States Department of Veteran Affairs has an Office of Diversity and Inclusion which features a special LGBT program:

A footnote on my post: Re-reading it, I realized that I interchangeably used LGBTQ, LGBT, gay men and lesbians to talk about their relationship to the military. This confusion of terminology is partly due to my struggle with using the appropriate terminology that is reflective of its specific historical period and context, and partly due to my fear not to exclude anyone. If anyone has a great idea how to avoid this confusion, I'm glad for every advice!
* Steve Estes, “Ask and Tell: Gay Veterans, Identity, and Oral History on a Civil Rights Frontier,” The Oral History Review, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer – Autumn 2005), pp. 21-47.

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