Why We March: The Long Fight for LGBT Equality in the U.S. Military
Forty-Five years ago I began coming out to myself while serving as a 19-year-old “slick sleeved” Private in the U.S. Army at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. I was excited to spend my first weekend off base in Boston with a small group of women from “G” Company, under the command of the Army Security Agency training center.
I would make a fateful first visit to a gay bar called the “Other Side” in Boston that would alter the beginning of my Army career and ultimately reshape my values and shift the priorities of how I would live my life.
In this seminal life moment my identity as a lesbian was certainly not solidified as I was in the exploratory stages of acknowledging my attraction to women, something that had occurred to me when I was a sophomore at Indiana University in 1973. But when I was romantically approached by a woman on my dormitory floor, I was immediately frightened of my feelings, burying them almost instantaneously and avoided this woman until I left. I was shocked by my feelings for her almost instantaneously.
Four months later when I stepped onto the dance floor at the Other Side to gay disco music, I was at the very beginning of a fragile realization that I might be a lesbian — I had kissed a woman for the first time in the laundry room of Company A, Basic Training at Ft. McClellan, Alabama. But I would soon come to understand that the Army was a virulently anti-gay environment that possessed the power to absolutely destroy my life.
In historical context, it was only four years following the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City that kicked off a nascent national movement that was yet to celebrate its fifth Pride march. There was no Ellen DeGeneres program on television every day; there were no Gay community centers or academic centers for gay studies. Indeed, in looking up the definition of “homosexual” or “lesbian” in Webster’s Dictionary included references to Radclyffe Hall’s iconic novel A Well of Loneliness. considered the first lesbian novel, which doomed lesbian lovers to a tragic existence wrought with suicidal ideations. None of it was reassuring. It was a swirling mixture of a feelings that swung between the exhilarating realization of discovering who I truly was which gave way to a frightening sense of full blown fear that as excited as I was, I knew I could not share my thrilling self discovery with anyone because it could be used against me — ending my Army career with a pejorative discharge which would cause irreputable damage to my life.
Almost immediately upon my return to Ft. Devens, I was ordered to report to a security investigator’s office and was summarily read my rights, accused of being a lesbian and in violation of the military ban that prohibited homosexuals from serving in the military (1941–1993). I was charged in violation of Article 125, sodomy under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which was a standard charge of anyone accused of being homosexual.
I would later discover that one of the women who went with us to Boston was an undercover agent, having been compromised by using drugs, she was now working for security investigators by employing entrapment against her fellow soldiers. This tactic underscores just how corrosive the full gay ban policy was and its implementation actively sought to undermine unit cohesion, the very old “chestnut” rational used by critics who opposed lifting the ban. The truth was the policy itself was detrimental to unit cohesion because it compelled service members to lie about who they were, violating a basic principle of integrity and honor while serving in the military.
Ft. Devens would go on to become ground zero for arguably one of the largest lesbian investigations in the U.S. Army history. In the midst of a flurry of launched security investigations, the G company commander gathered us for a commander’s call and announced a believable threat: “If you are a lesbian, I will find out who you are and I will discharge you from the Army.”
Many women, when hearing these threats, readily turned themselves into security investigators, more than willing to forgo the vicious investigation tactics that were employed by the Army. Both heterosexual and gay women were investigated, humiliated, entrapped, threatened and discharged under less than honorable conditions. Many women began to drink heavily and others took drugs to numb the horror of our circumstances. Two women would bravely come forward and publicly announced they were gay: Barbara Randolph and Deborah Watson, although they were overshadowed by the celebrated Vietnam War veteran Leonard Matlovich who would come out to America on the front cover of a Time magazine in September 1975. Both Randolph and Watson would both be discharged with less than honorable conditions.
Having been a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) during high school, I did not think twice about calling the Boston ACLU and sought legal representation for myself and other women who were also under investigation. I was the first soldier to obtain legal counsel during this witch hunt and I would remain under investigation for almost 13 months. Despite the investigation, I continued to train and successfully completed my highly skilled immersion in Morse code and signal interception. My attorney, Jerry Cohen, would ably defend me and eventually I would be cleared of being “lesbian.” Without notifying my attorney, the Army administratively downgraded my top secret security clearance which was used as the basis to prevent me from performing a highly classified job in South East Asia during the waning days of the Vietnam war. A final humiliation was availed to me by higher ups who permitted me to attend my graduation ceremony, although I would never be allowed to serve in this top secret position that I had successfully mastered. The Army swiftly cancelled my orders that had originally assigned me to Udorn,Thailand.
Abruptly, I was assigned to cook school, an apparent punitive action no doubt delivered as payback for resisting the investigation by obtaining legal counsel that was life saving measure. Investigators charged me as a “barracks lawyer” accusing me of advising others to not cooperate with the investigation(this assignment would not stand because I successfully lobbied Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Birch Bayh (D-IN) and Congressman Father Robert Drinan (D-MA) who convinced the Army to send me to train in a job that was more highly technical).
While I would later be investigated again when I was a Captain in the Military Police corps serving at Ft. Shafter and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii during my company command tour in 1988, my Ft. Devens experience had seared my soul and served as a life-long cautionary lesson that the government could literally destroy a person’s life. I was fortunate in that I did not suffer more dire consequences than that of many predecessors, peers and those who followed me. Although my body was wracked with anxiety from the sustained investigations I underwent resulting in a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, I refused to be defeated by the government’s incursions into the most private aspects of my life. Because of colitis I was able to leave my military career intact with a medical discharge, albeit a honorable one. Somehow I had managed to survive the investigators, while paying a high price with my body and my soul.
I was not only inspired by Leonard Matlovich’s powerful coming out, who I met in 1975, but by the time I became a civilian in 1990 I was sufficiently angry to take action about the military ban itself. With other gay veterans, including Gene Barfield and James Darby, among others, together we formed the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual Veterans of America (GLBVA) in 1991, launching the first such advocacy group for former gay and lesbian service members in America, giving us a platform to network from and organize with gay and lesbian veterans across the country.
In 1992 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) gave me one of the best political platforms available to a gay veteran when I was hired as the director of Military Freedom Initiative to take on the fight to repeal the full ban as promised by Bill Clinton who would be elected president in 1992.
Working for NGLTF in the early 1990s enabled me to psychologically integrate my identity as a lesbian: out of the closet and unashamed, while advancing social justice work that was at the center of a national debate. I also experienced it as a thrilling experience of self empowerment that salvaged and healed my battered psychic from all the years of leading a closeted life in the Army, hiding from investigators and myself. In solidarity, my NGLTF colleagues taught and sustained me as I learned about the LGBT rights movement and its history. In this dynamic environment, only two years following active duty, I learned massive amounts of information, living “dog years” gulping it down as we scaled up to bring this fight to the American public.
In representing NGLTF I testified before the House Armed Services Committee in May 1993, the first such hearings in the history of Congress and traveled throughout the country with fellow veterans for the Campaign for Military Service that went on a national tour to 25 states and 32 cities by helping lead a national conversation about what it meant to be a member of second-class citizenry who were forced to hide from investigators while serving our country in uniform because we were gay and lesbians.
The Department of Defense had established bigoted and cruel policy in 1941: “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” Psychiatrists had determined that homosexuals were mentally unfit to serve in the military during the buildup for the draft for World War II. While not precisely known, the policy most likely resulted in the discharge of thousands of homosexual service members who were issued “blue discharges” to those who were considered gay or lesbian. It is estimated that at least 68,000 service members, if not more, were discharged under this cruel system that was brutal in its implementation. These derogatory discharges destroyed many lives, forever marked as a deviant, denied them the GI Bill and other benefits afforded to veterans who were honorably discharged, resulting in life long deprivation, including dire economic consequences because many employers declined to hire them for moral reasons.
New veteran groups emerged in the fight to overturn DADT which included Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN) that provided invaluable legal advice and advocacy led by Michele Benecke and Dixon Osborn who had worked at the Campaign for Military Service. Civil disobedience returned to LGBTIQ politics in America for the first time since the days of ActUp! initiated by GetEQUAL a lose knit grassroots group that escalated pressure on the Obama Administration by staging arrests by veterans. led by Dan Choi, an Iraq war veteran and allies by iconically chainimg themselves to the White House fence.
While the military battle for equality would be extended by the passage of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT)” compromise that was negotiated in 1993 between President Bill Clinton and openly gay Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass)allowing soldiers to serve while being gay, but gagged in silence, bound to the closet. If a soldier violated the speech ban, they would be be discharged. It was a bitter and stinging defeat. DADT was in effect for 17 years before lesbian, gay and bisexual soldiers would finally be freed from the closet when President Barack Obama kept his word to end it in 2011 by signing the revocation legislation that was fast tracked by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Democratic leaders of Congress. More than 13,000 Americans would be discharged under DADT.
The next generation’s work to seek open transgender service was staked out in 2012 spearheaded by SPARTA,* a LGBTQ military advocacy organization with a focus exclusively on transgender service under the leadership of its then-President Sue Fulton (a well known DADT activist) and trans military veteran activists Alyson Robinson and Brynn Tanehill. Despite initial successful efforts to finally authorize open trans service in 2016, the Trump Administration ended its nascent implementation in February 2018, a tragic casualty of the 2016 election results. This setback and remaining battle for equality and dignity needs to be formally embraced by the LGBTQ civil rights movement more broadly, while there is no doubt that SPARTA,* the Modern Military Association of America and the Palm Center all seem to be settling in for a protracted battle.
This is why we march each year during June Pride month: the effort to advance equality never yields. The fight to protect transgender lives and create an uncontested space for them within our society is this moment’s clarion call — especially as the federal government is viciously targeting trans lives that should serve as a wakeup call to everyone in the LGBTIQ community.
As military LGBT veterans we stand on the shoulders of those who paved a path forward from the earliest comings out of Leonard Matlovich, Barbara Randolph and Deborah Watson in 1975.
The heroes who successfully forged winning legal claims by the late Perry Watkins and Miriam Ben-Shalom during the 1970s-1980s.
The DADT heroes included Joe Zuniga, Keith Meinhold, Justin Elzie and Tracy Thorne-Begland in the 1990s.
The noble courage of Colonel (ret.) Margarethe Cammermayer who exposed the hypocrisy of the full ban when refused to lie during her security clearance update interview. And Major (ret.) Margaret Witt, whobrought a successful law suit challenging DADT which reinstated to active duty in 2010, just a few months before the policy was revoked.
The martyrs who we will never forget: Allen Schindler, a Navy sailor stabbed to death in a public toilet in Nagasaki, Japan in 1992 and Barry Winchell who served in the 101st Airborne was murdered in his sleep by platoon members wielding a baseball bat, the first such casualty under DADT in 1999.
Until we are all free, equal and protected, none of us are ultimately free. This spirit animates every American generation. As we step off to march on June 29th, we LGBT veterans march with a proud history and distinguished legacy.
Fifty years into a global human rights movement we are always aware of repressive tactics that are employed against our community here in America and elsewhere in the world, But even in the darkest of circumstances, nothing has ultimately stopped LGBTIQ from coming out. March. Celebrate. Remember. Resist. #PrideMonth
Tanya Domi served 15 years in the U.S. Army and later worked in the U.S. House of Representatives as a defense policy analyst and legislative assistant to the late Congressman Frank X. McCloskey, (D-IN) who was a member of the House Armed Services Committee. As a human rights scholar, she teaches at Columbia University as a faculty affiliate of the Harriman Institute and is also an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College, Roosevelt House.