Celebrating
Pride Month
A HISTORY OF LGBTQ+ MILITARY MEMBERS
By: Tandice Strausbaugh | June 24, 2019

If 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-20thcentury, 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 20thcentury.

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.

Photo: Heather Mount
America's attitudes continued to be diverse but changing, regarding LGBTQ+ individuals in general and in the military in particular. In 2011, President Obama and his administration repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The next year, General Tammy Smith became the first openly gay brigadier general in the Army or flag officer of any branch. Of her wife being able to participate in her promotion ceremony, General Smith said, "It was more about the recognition of family, and the fact that Tracey is indeed my family."

In 2015, DoD edited the military equal opportunity policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. This officially addressed more LGBTQ+ individuals than before and legally protected and included these soldiers, airmen, sailors, officers, enlisted men and women, etc. Many past and present service members may remember the classes they receive or even teach on equal opportunity.

In addition, in 2016, the Army got its first openly gay Secretary of the Army (or any other military branch), Eric Fanning. He emphasized the importance of diversity, saying, "It is in fact a dynamic that has often been at the center of the Army's success."

The "T" part of LGBTQ+ seems to be the focus of today's decisions and approaches. In recent years, several transgender service members and veterans have let the public know they exist. After President Trump announced in 2017 that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve, the government and courts went back and forth. The current policy regarding transgender individuals only excludes from service those with "gender dysphoria" who are identified as needing substantial medical care.

Celebrating Pride Month at Fort Carson in Colorado this month and now able to include her wife in her military community, Army 1SG Melissa White told military.com, "Now we are free to be who we are."

Visit the LGBTQ+ Travel Association's website for a list of Pride Month events around the country and the world!


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