Sexuality in Service

Exploring the changes in military life two years after the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell

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Homosexuality’s Military History

The history of gays in the U.S. military goes back to the earliest days of our fighting force. In 1778, a Lieutenant in George Washington’s Continental Army at Valley Forge, Gotthold Frederick Enslin, was court-martialed—literally drummed out of camp with his coat turned inside out—for committing sodomy.

The issue has surfaced over the years. One incident almost ended the political career of future U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. He was assistant secretary of the Navy in 1919 when an investigation into homosexual relations between gay sailors and Newport, R.I. residents turned out badly, prompting FDR to be rebuked by Congress in what was sensationalized in the press as the “Newport Sex Scandal.”

Over the years, through many conflicts, gay soldiers served honorably, if quietly. At the onset of World War II, when psychiatric screening was introduced at induction, homosexuality was labeled a mental disorder and became cause for exclusion. But there were legal cracks in the armor—such was the case of Fannie Mae Clackum, an Air Force reservist who served in the late ’40s and early ’50s. She became the first person to challenge a military discharge on the grounds of homosexuality.

“As early as 1957, the military began looking into its homosexual exclusion policy,” author Nathanial Frank writes in Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. “That year, the secretary of the Navy appointed a panel to investigate the homosexual exclusion policy; the outcome, known as the Crittenden Report, found that homosexuals posed no greater security risk than heterosexuals.”

The Crittenden Report—not unlike the later Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy—attempted to have it both ways. While the report downplayed the security risks of allowing gays to serve, it also editorialized that “Homosexuality is wrong ... evil ... and it is to be branded as such.” The Navy wouldn’t release the internal study to the public for two decades.

In the early ’80’s, with the Christian Coalition and other right wing groups coloring the Reagan administration’s social policy, the Department of Defense directed that “homosexuality was incompatible with military service.”

When he ran for the presidency, candidate Bill Clinton had promised to end sexual discrimination in the military; President Bill Clinton found that to be a stickier proposition. What emerged from his administration after much mud wrestling with Congress and the Defense Department was a 1993 policy—the full name was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue and Don’t Harass—that stopped gay hazing but also barred people who “demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the armed forces. Doing so, it read, would “create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.”

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” as it was eventually shortened, became the law for nearly 18 years. During that time, more than 13,000 servicemen were discharged for homosexuality.