f you are seeing bright rainbow colors and parades, especially in urban areas, it may mean that Pride Month
has arrived. June is the month when LGBTQ+ communities across the United States and the world celebrate the freedom to be themselves. Today, approximately 85,000 LGBTQ+ individuals serve in the branches of the U.S. military.
Now, non-heterosexual people can serve in the U.S. military without hiding who they are. They can bring their spouses to functions with their unit as other families do. Department of Defense (DoD) policy
says that they should be treated as equal colleagues. But what is the story of this community's military service (and the barriers to it) in American history?
From the early days of the United States military until the mid-20th
century, there was no official policy on sexual orientation of military members. But, as in most of society at large, known homosexuals were excluded. Because many had to keep that part of their identity a secret until less than 10 years ago, we may never know for sure how many LGBTQ+ Americans served over time, but it's estimated there were hundreds of thousands.
During World War II, a formal military policy
was enacted that homosexuality would keep you from serving if a psychological screener discovered it. If you were found to be LGBTQ+ once in service, you could be discharged. This approach continued through much of the 20th
Fast forward to 1974: Air Force TSgt Leonard Matlovich has fought in the Vietnam War, for which he received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He knows he is gay but has long kept it a secret. He reads one day
that a gay rights activist is looking for a case to challenge the ban on gay military members via the judicial system and connects with this WWII veteran.
He writes a letter to his commanding officer declaring himself to be homosexual and assuring it in no way interferes with his duties, and by 1975, he's discharged and on the cover of TIME magazine
under the banner headline, "I Am a Homosexual." He fights to keep serving. His case never makes it to the Supreme Court but later receives a settlement. He says prophetically, "Maybe not in my lifetime, but we are going to win in the end."
But it would take time
. During the 1980s, some 1500 men and women were discharged from the Armed Forces every year for being homosexual. In 1988, a Department of Defense (DoD) study found that there was no significant security risk in allowing gay and lesbian individuals to serve in the military.
The American people found a renewed interest in the question of homosexuality in the military in the early 1990s. President Clinton signed the well-known "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 1993. It barred the harassment of military members not openly revealing their sexuality, but still allowed the discharge of military members who were found to have engaged in "homosexual conduct." One of the DoD's stated concerns was preventing division within military units. Over the next 16 years, the number of discharges due to homosexuality across all branches of the military decreased to about 800 per year.