Veterans reflect on the changing realities of LGBT soldiers
November 11 is Veterans Day.
In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower issued a proclamation stating, “On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
Yet by 1954 the US military had a long history of failing to honor the sacrifices of many who fought valiantly, from African American to LGBT service people. It is radically clear that only in recent years has our country moved toward truly honoring all who have fought to protect it.
According to the U.S. Naval Institute, Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin was ordered “drummed out” of camp in “abhorrence and detestation” of his “infamous crimes” (sodomy) by none other than General George Washington. Over the decades, little has changed. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an anti-homosexual sting on the Navy in 1919, and by 1920 Congress modified the Articles of War to criminalize sodomy. In 1921, U.S. Army standards allowed a male to be ruled unfit for military service if he exhibited “stigmata of degeneration,” such as feminine characteristics, or “sexual perversion” (i.e. homosexual tendencies).
For decades, the military and its overseers in Congress as well as the executive branch entrenched and reinforced the stigma—and legal remedies—against homosexuals. Countless men and women would be persecuted and eventually prosecuted, choosing not to reenlist or losing their rank and benefits to dishonorable discharges.
Legendary Nashville club owner Jerry Peek, for instance, served in 2020th Communications at Shaw AFB in South Carolina in the early 1960s. He proudly recalled decoding “the message announcing the mobilization for Cuban Missile Crisis.” But Peek couldn’t see himself lasting: “My urges were getting much stronger, especially for one guy in particular, who I was very close to. I know that he knew my feelings but it was never discussed.” It is impossible to estimate the cost resulting from “brain drain,” as qualified soldiers fled or were discharged from the military.
Bill Clinton’s election seemed to promise change, but Clinton ultimately lacked the political capital to deliver full LGBT inclusion. Instead, he signed on to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). Ironically, President Clinton, who initially wanted LGBT equality in the military, attempted a compromise that he hoped would improve prospects for gays in the military, but that compromise led to the dismissal of over 13,000 soldiers. How many more, like Peek, simply walked away, knowing they couldn’t hide forever?
Nashville residents Frank Moore (former Army, Legal Specialist) and Jonathon Herndon (retired Navy, Master at Arms) both enlisted prior to DADT. Both recalled signing documents swearing they weren’t homosexuals. Herndon said, “I lied on the form…. I knew from an early age my sexuality, but also felt I needed to serve my country.” Nevertheless, knowing he could be discharged were that lie discovered was a source of lingering anxiety. Moore, on the other hand, intensely recalled, “When I signed my enlistment paperwork [I had] that feeling of panic when I lied to the U.S. government and said I was not a homosexual.”
Both men were very secretive about their sexualities at first. “In the first few years,” Moore said, “I was very much closeted. Luckily in the Legal Corp the mindset was more liberal and I had friends I felt comfortable sharing my sexuality with, one or two people I could truly be myself with.” Herndon let down his guard a bit more, though revealed less: “My experience changed during my career. I started taking people I was seeing to military events as dates, but still lied about who they were. I would say a friend or roommate, etc.”
Ultimately DADT, Herndon said, brought “more hunts, with the military looking more into people’s sexuality. The policy seemed actually to open the door on learning personal things about service members and using that information for discharges.” Both men saw friends and acquaintances discharged.
An unintended effect was a kind of gay underground. “Traveling around the world,” Moore explained, “at different places there would be gay clubs. We would meet there, and then you know for sure that they are gay.” Once sexuality was confirmed, socializing quickly moved off site. “At that time we had to be very careful because the Army would send undercover officers into the gay clubs to see if there were soldiers there.” Increased monitoring and even witch hunts weren’t new tactics, as evidenced by Franklin Roosevelt’s 1919 navy sting. But they were throwbacks to an era thought past.
The psychic toll taken by the DADT culture was immense. “It was difficult to meet someone in a safe and above-board manner,” Moore explained. “You kind of had to develop skills at sneaking around. Who I was and what I did sexually was basically illegal: that brings baggage.”
Jennifer Ward and Tristen Jackson both joined the military during the death throes of DADT. Ward was an active duty combat medic from 2008–2012, who deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq, from 2010–2011 as part of a security element that escorted government officials. DADT was so entrenched, she said, “I was very conscious of my sexuality in fear of reprisal.” Ward’s experience was doubly compounded: She was a female soldier in an active zone, as well as a lesbian.
Jackson, a helicopter mechanic, felt fear of reprisal, too, from a different source: “There were always soldiers making jokes about beating up queers. It made it impossible to completely trust anyone, even my own squad mates.” Like Ward’s, Jackson’s situation was further complicated. “I was 17 when I enlisted,” he added, “but I was aware that I was not heterosexual. I also knew that I didn't identify with the gender that I had been assigned at birth.” Being transsexual in the DADT military is difficult to imagine. “I didn't want to risk anyone finding out that I was transgender or queer,” Jackson explained. “It made being deployed a miserable experience, and I spent most of the time angry and being a jerk to the guys in my squad.”
Both young soldiers were thus relieved when the policy was overturned. “Over time,” Ward reflected, “the military has become more accepting…. I felt extremely comfortable as the military grew and made strides to incorporate equality.” Jackson even got to enjoy some of the freedom Herndon felt when bringing a date to a military function. But, for Jackson, the day came when the lie wasn’t necessary: “After the repeal of DADT, I started to become more open about my personal relationships, and would bring dates to unit cookouts and events. Most of the people in my unit were accepting. After getting out of the military I … came out as transgender and started transitioning.”
Peek reflected on the more open and welcoming environment with something like amazement. “I really never thought I would see gays be able to be open about their sexual preferences. If it had come much sooner I probably would have had a career in the military!”
For Moore, who left the Army during the depths of DADT, the new freedoms soldiers can enjoy openly if they choose is refreshing. “I love the openness that post-DADT soldiers have. It’s wonderful … they are free to work and volunteer to better the LGBT community both on and off their bases and they are doing amazing work!”
The advances won by LGBT soldiers go hand in hand with those made by other groups. Herndon, who spent twenty-three years in the military, said, “I was able to personally view changes in the military for LGBT people, some good, some not so good. The most amazing changes I witnessed were women serving in more non-traditional roles and President Obama’s repeal of DADT.” For Herndon, this is a sign of more sweeping social change. “We are seeing more and more acceptance in our country, and that is an amazing thing to witness and live through.”
Jackson, too, sees the advances of LGBT people in the military as linked with social change. “I think the legalization of same sex marriage in so many states and service members being able to add their spouses to their health insurance policies is amazing.” But for a former soldier—and one who saw truly ingrained, institutional bigotry—nothing beats the little things. “The fact that a gay man can bring his boyfriend to a formal military ball without fear is amazing. The first time I saw a photo of a gay couple at a military ball I cried like a baby.”