Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S. Military:
Historical Background
The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy can be better understood in historical context. A historical perspective is also relevant to comparing policies toward service by gay and lesbian personnel and policies affecting racial minorities, mainly African Americans.

Since the birth of the Republic, government decisions have been made about who shall be permitted or required to serve in the U.S. military, and under what conditions. These decisions have frequently reflected societyís attitudes toward its stigmatized minorities. Early in the Revolutionary war, for example, Black Americans were barred from service in the Continental Army. Similarly, Negroes were barred from military service early in the Civil War, despite the eagerness of many Northern Blacks to volunteer. Both policies were later reversed – when, respectively, the British began offering freedom to Black slaves who would join their side, and the Union Army faced a serious shortage of troops.

Homosexuals and the Military



When they were allowed to serve, Blacks soldiers were treated differently from their White counterparts. Although led by White officers, they were segregated from White troops. When not in battle, they were often assigned to menial occupations in peripheral units. After the Civil War, for example, Blacks were assigned to distant outposts where they fought against Indians. During World War I, most African-Americans were assigned noncombat duties and menial jobs, such as mess orderlies. All-Black units were commanded by White officers, who typically considered such an assignment to be stigmatizing.

At the beginning of World War II, as in the past, personnel needs dictated that Black recruits be accepted for military service. Once again, Black enlisted personnel were segregated from Whites – usually led by Black officers – and placed in support roles. As the war effort progressed, however, the Navy experimented with integration of enlisted personnel, which was less expensive than maintaining combat-ready segregated units. By the Warís end, more than one million African-Americans served efficiently in various service branches. Inter-racial conflict did not appear to be a problem in combat zones, although some tensions were reported in rear areas. As Stouffer and his colleagues concluded in their social scientific study of the American soldier, events in World War II demonstrated that Blacks were effective fighters and that racial integration in the military would not compromise unit effectiveness.

Nevertheless, racial segregation remained official government policy until President Harry Truman's historic Executive Order 9981, issued a few months before the 1948 election, which "declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." Following this order, the armed forces began to institute a policy of racial desegregation. Desegregation proceeded slowly, however, and met with resistance.

Most civilians and military personnel opposed racial integration. One month before President Truman's Executive Order, a Gallup poll showed that 63% of American adults endorsed the separation of Blacks and Whites in the military; only 26% supported integration. A 1949 survey of white Army personnel revealed that 32% completely opposed racial integration in any form, and 61% opposed integration if it meant that Whites and Blacks would share sleeping quarters and mess halls. However, 68% of white soldiers were willing to have Blacks and Whites work together, provided they didn't share barracks or mess facilities.

As the 1993 RAND report noted,

"Many white Americans (especially Southerners) responded with visceral revulsion to the idea of close physical contact with blacks. Many also perceived racial integration as a profound affront to their sense of social order. Blacks, for their part, often harbored deep mistrust of whites and great sensitivity to any language or actions that might be construed as racial discrimination" (National Defense Research Institute, 1993, p. 160).

As in past wars, the Korean conflict created a shortage of personnel and Black Americans helped to fill this need. Because of troop shortages and the high costs of maintaining racially segregated facilities, integration rapidly became a reality. In 1951, integration of the Army was boosted by the findings from a study of the impact of desegregation on unit effectiveness of troops deployed in Korea. The researchers concluded that racial integration had not impaired task performance or unit effectiveness, that cooperation in integrated units was equal or superior to that of all-White units, and that serving with Blacks appeared to make White soldiers more accepting of integration. By the end of the Korean conflict, the Department of Defense (DOD) had eliminated all racially segregated units and living quarters.

By the 1960s, the proportion of Black personnel had dramatically increased. Evidence remained, however, of both personal and institutional discrimination. At this time, the DOD took new and stronger steps to combat racial discrimination, including housing and other types of discrimination in civilian areas near military installations. The DOD also established civil rights offices to monitor the treatment of minorities. Because of lack of personnel and resources, however, these offices were only minimally effective.

In the late 1960s, racial tensions resulted in violent confrontations between Blacks and Whites, significantly affecting morale. As a consequence, the service branches instituted a variety of programs designed to address racial inequities and reduce interracial conflict. In 1971, the Secretary of Defense established the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI), which was later renamed the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI).

DRRI/DEOMI has developed and implemented a series of race relations and equal opportunity training programs with an evolving scope. Early efforts, for example, included extensive coverage of racial and ethnic minority history, as well as sensitivity training to the perspectives of minority personnel. Later programs focused less on attitude change and sensitivity training, and more on behavioral compliance with non-discrimination policies and regulations. From 1971 to late 1992, DEOMI trained 12,352 recruits in race relations and equal opportunity issues.

Homosexuals and
the Military

In contrast to its escalating efforts to promote racial integration and its increasingly nonrestrictive policies concerning gender, opposition in the armed forces to admitting and retaining gay male and lesbian members has intensified since World War II. Historically, the military did not officially exclude or discharge homosexuals from its ranks, although sodomy (usually defined as anal and sometimes oral sex between men) was considered a criminal offense as early as Revolutionary War times. In 1778, Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin became the first soldier to be drummed out of the Continental Army for sodomy. Throughout U.S. history, campaigns have purged military units of persons suspected of engaging in homosexual acts.

Racial Integration


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As the United States prepared for World War II, psychiatric screening became a part of the induction process and psychiatry's view of homosexuality as an indicator of psychopathology was introduced into the military. Instead of retaining its previous focus on homosexual behavior, which was classified as a criminal offense, the military shifted to eliminating homosexual persons, based on a medical rationale. In 1942, revised army mobilization regulations included for the first time a paragraph defining both the homosexual and "normal" person and clarifying procedures for rejecting gay draftees.

Homosexual Americans were allowed to serve, however, when personnel shortages necessitated it. As expansion of the war effort required that all available personnel be utilized, screening procedures were loosened and many homosexual men and women enlisted and served. This shift was temporary. As the need for recruits diminished near the war's end, antihomosexual policies were enforced with increasing vigilance, and many gay men and lesbians were discharged involuntarily. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, acknowledging a homosexual orientation barred an individual from military service (see Bérubé, 1990, for a comprehensive history of the U.S. military's response to homosexuality during the World War II era).

In the 1970s, however, a new movement emerged in the United States that pressed for civil rights for gay men and lesbians. The military policy was one target of this movement, dramatized by the legal challenge to the policy mounted by Leonard Matlovich. Similar challenges continued throughout the 1970s. Although largely unsuccessful, they highlighted the wide latitude of discretion allowed to commanders in implementing existing policy, which resulted in considerable variation in the rigor with which the policy was enforced.

In 1981, the DOD formulated a new policy which stated unequivocally that homosexuality is incompatible with military service (DOD Directive 1332.14, January 28, 1982, Part 1, Section H). According to a 1992 report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), nearly 17,000 men and women were discharged under the category of homosexuality in the 1980s. The Navy was disproportionately represented, accounting for 51% of the discharges even though it comprised only 27% of the active force during this time period. Statistical breakdowns by gender and race revealed that, for all services, White women were discharged at a rate disproportionate to their representation. Overall, White females represented 6.4% of personnel but 20.2% of those discharged for homosexuality.

By the end of the 1980s, reversing the military's policy was emerging as a priority for advocates of gay and lesbian civil rights. Several lesbian and gay male members of the armed services came out publicly and vigorously challenged their discharges through the legal system. In 1992, legislation to overturn the ban was introduced in the U.S. Congress. By that time, grassroots civilian opposition to the DODís policy appeared to be increasing. Many national organizations had officially condemned the policy and many colleges and universities had banned military recruiters and Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) programs from their campuses in protest of the policy.

By the beginning of 1993, it appeared that the military's ban on gay personnel would soon be overturned. Shortly after his inauguration, President Clinton asked the Secretary of Defense to prepare a draft policy to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and he proposed to use the interim period to resolve "the real, practical problems that would be involved" in implementing a new policy. Clinton's proposal, however, was greeted with intense opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, members of Congress, the political opposition, and a considerable segment of the U.S. public.

After lengthy public debate and congressional hearings, the President and Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reached a compromise which they labeled Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue. Under its terms, military personnel would not be asked about their sexual orientation and would not be discharged simply for being gay. Engaging in sexual conduct with a member of the same sex, however, would still constitute grounds for discharge. In the fall of 1993, the congress voted to codify most aspects of the ban. Meanwhile, the civilian courts issued contradictory opinions, with some upholding the policyís constitutionality and others ordering the reinstatement of openly gay military personnel who were involuntarily discharged. Higher courts, however, consistently upheld the policy, making review of the policy by the U.S. Supreme Court unlikely.

The policy remained in effect until 2011, although the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and other organizations monitoring its implementation repeatedly pointed out its failures. Discharges actually increased under the policy, and harassment of gay and lesbian personnel appeared to intensify in many locales.

The failure of the policy was dramatized in 1999 by the murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell at the hands of Pvt. Calvin Glover, a member of his unit. Glover beat Winchell to death with a baseball bat while he slept. Prosecutors argued that Glover murdered Winchell because he was a homosexual. Glover was sentenced to life in prison. Subsequent inquiries by civilian groups revealed an ongoing pattern of policy violations and antigay harassment that had been ignored by higher-level officers. However, a report by the Army Inspector General exonerated all officers of blame in Winchell's murder and found no climate of homophobia at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the base where Winchell was bludgeoned to death.

In the wake of the Winchell murder, Hilary Rodham Clinton, then-Vice-President Al Gore, and even President Clinton labeled the Donít Ask, Donít Tell policy a failure. Campaigning for the Democratic Partyís 2000 presidential nomination, candidates Gore and Bill Bradley each promised to work to reverse the policy if he were elected. Meanwhile, candidates for the Republican nomination reaffirmed their support for the current policy or declared that they would seek to completely prohibit military service by homosexuals.

With the beginning of the new century, the White House and Congress were controlled by Republicans who were on record opposing service by openly gay personnel. Prospects for eliminating the ban appeared slim.

In 2002 and 2003, however, calls for changing the policy gained new momentum. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the war on terrorism and U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq created a renewed need for personnel. In that context, many objected when nine military linguists - including six who were fluent in Arabic - were discharged in 2002 after their homosexuality became known. In 2003, three high-ranking retired military officers publicly disclosed their homosexuality and challenged the DADT policy's legitimacy.

Throughout this time, public opinion appeared to favor allowing service by openly gay personnel. A December, 2003, Gallup poll registered 79% of US adults (including 68% of self-described conservatives) in favor of allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly.

It would be another seven years, however, until Congress repealed the policy, and nearly another year before the repeal took effect. Meanwhile, the "Donít Ask, Donít Tell" policy – and broader questions concerning whether and how gay men and lesbians should serve in the military – remained volatile issues with great symbolic potency.

For more information about the history of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, see:


Racial Integration

Ambrose, S.E. (1972). Blacks in the army in two world wars. In S.E. Ambrose & J.A. Barber, Jr. (Eds.), The military and American society (pp. 177-191). New York: Free Press.

Berryman, S. E. (1988). Who serves? The persistent myth of the underclass army. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Racial Integration

Homosexuals and the Military

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  Binkin, M., Eitelberg, M.J., Schexnider, A. J., & Smith, M. M. (1982). Blacks and the military. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Bogart, L. (Ed.) (1992). Project Clear: Social research and the desegregation of the United States Army. New Brunswick: Transaction.

Day, H. R. (1983). Race relations training in the U.S. Military. In D. Landis & R.W. Brislin (Eds.), Handbook of intercultural training: Issues in training methodology (pp. 241-289). New York: Pergamon Press.

Foner, J. D. (1974). Blacks and the military in American history. New York: Praeger.

Hope, R.O. (1979). Racial strife in the U.S. military. New York: Praeger.

Kauth, M.R., & Landis, D. (1996). Applying lessons learned from minority integration in the United States military. In G. Herek, J. Jobe, & R. Carney (Eds.), Out in force: Sexual orientation and the military (pp. 86-105). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Landis, D., Dansby, M. R., & Faley, R. (1993). The Military Equal Opportunity Climate Survey: An example of surveying in organizations. In P. Rosenfeld, J.E. Edwards, and M.D. Thomas, (Eds.), Improving organizational surveys: New directions, methods and applications. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

MacGregor, M. J., Jr. (1981). Integration of the armed forces 1940-1965. Washington, DC: United States Army Center of Military History.

National Defense Research Institute. (1993). Sexual orientation and U.S. military personnel policy: Options and assessment. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Schubert, F. N. (1993). Buffalo soldiers, braves and the brass: The story of Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane.

Stillman, R.J., II. (1968). Integration of the Negro in the U.S. armed forces. New York: Praeger.

Stouffer, S. A., Lumsdaine, A. A., Lumsdaine, M. H., Williams, R. M., Jr., Smith, M.B., Janis, I.L., Star, S.A., & Cottrell, L.S., Jr. (1949). The American soldier (Vol. 1-2). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thomas, J. A. (Ed.) (1988). Race relations research in the U.S. Army in the 1970s: A collection of selected readings. Alexandria, VA: United States Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.

and the Military
  Bérubé, A. (1990). Coming out under fire: The history of gay men and women in World War II. New York: Free Press.

Chauncey, G., Jr. (1989). Christian brotherhood or sexual perversion? Homosexual identities and the construction of sexual boundaries in the World War I era. In M.B. Duberman, M. Vicinus, & G. Chauncey, Jr. (Eds.), Hidden from history: Reclaiming the gay and lesbian past (pp. 294-317). New York: New American Library.

General Accounting Office. (1992a). Defense force management: DOD's policy on homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author. (Document GAO/NSIAD-92-98)

General Accounting Office. (1992b). Defense force management: Statistics related to DOD's policy on homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author. (Document GAO/NSIAD-92-98S)

Herek, G.M., Jobe, J.B. & Carney, R.M. (Eds.) (1996). Out in force: Sexual orientation and the military. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hippler, M. (1989). Matlovich: The good soldier. Boston: Alyson.

Jacobson, P.C. (1996). Sexual orientation and the military: Some legal considerations. In G. Herek, J. Jobe, & R. Carney (Eds.), Out in force: Sexual orientation and the military (pp. 39-61). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Katz, J. N. (1976). Gay American history: Lesbians and gay men in the U.S.A. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Murphy, L.R. (1988). Perverts by official order: The campaign against homosexuals by the United States Navy. New York: Haworth.

Sarbin, T.R., & Karols, K.E. (1988). Nonconforming sexual orientations and military suitability. Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center.


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