The Mattachine Society of Washington picketed the Pentagon in 1965 in opposition to military gay exclusionary policy,” remembers pioneering activist Dr. Franklin Kameny. Forty-five years later, on Saturday afternoon, December 19, 2010, the United States Senate voted 65–33 to repeal the 16-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy, clearing the way for full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender service members. The repeal bill had cleared the U.S. House on December 15, with a favorable vote of 250–175. On Tuesday morning, December 21, 2010, at 8:15 a.m. Houston time, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
Michael Bedwell, a close friend of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who appeared on a 1975 Time magazine cover after his very public emergence from the closet, pays tribute to his friend’s pivotal role in the history of the struggle: “I’m grateful to everyone that got us this far, but Sgt. Leonard Matlovich is worthy of being singled out. While it’s ridiculous that it took us 35 more years, 35,000 more discharges, and seven presidents to get here, who knows how much longer it would have taken had Leonard not stepped forward in 1975 to first make the American public aware of how many gays were serving our country with distinction, and declared war on the ban.” Bedwell also praised Rep. Patrick Murphy and Lt. Dan Choi.
Terry Hamman, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1972 to 1976 as a Bulgarian linguist, remembers, “I got on the bus to the induction center early in the morning in front of the draft board in downtown Plainview, Texas, with my bag with three changes of clothes. I didn’t know anyone on the bus and scanned quickly to find someone I thought would be a good choice for the 1.5-hour ride to Amarillo,” continues Hamman. “There were five of us at the induction center that bonded very quickly. It was kind of like a secret fraternity, and I began to realize that there were a lot more men like me than I had ever dreamed.” Hamman studied at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and then worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington DC, with a top-secret security clearance, where he became acquainted with a number of gay employees, both civilian and military.
“The gay Marines I knew were fairly tortured souls. They had joined to become ‘real’ men and lose these feelings they had,” he states. “I hated DADT from the beginning and didn’t think it was much of an improvement over the existing code with no acceptance. The world has changed so much from the 1970s when I was in the Air Force. I think what is tragic is that I have lived
an out life for over 30 years, and there are young men and women who haven’t been able to do that because of the career they have chosen to serve their country. They give up who they are [in order] to serve, which is an even greater sacrifice and one that is so unnecessary and harmful to themselves as well as the military and country as a whole.”
Fairlee G. Skinner, who now goes by the name Lee Albin, was a sergeant in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in the early 1960s. “I am 69 years of age and so very grateful and happy that the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is over and that gay women and men can now serve their country without the constant fear of being turned in.”
Albin remembers hearing President Kennedy say in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” At the age of 19 she walked away from her junior year at the University of Florida in Gainsville and promptly signed up. During basic training at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, when she was a private first class, she had the honor of being the commander’s flag-bearer during parades.
“When I first joined, it was extremely difficult to basically force myself to have multiple personalities,” states Sal Bonaccorso. Bonaccorso served in the U.S. Navy from 1996 through 2007. “The desire to serve my country superseded my personal wants and needs, and so I had to live two lives. After some time, the burden was too much, and I felt it was necessary to tell my division chief. He actually told me I was very honorable and promoted me to class commander that day. He was straight, so I presume he respected what it took for me to come forward and knew that losing an asset would be more hurtful for the Navy.
“As every other partner nation in recent wars has done,” Bonaccorso continues, “America has finally followed by allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve their country. It gives me personal pride to be able to defend this country against those who would want to cause harm. Finally, fellow servicemen and women are able to be themselves and continue to honorably fight for this nation that grants them the freedoms to be equal among all.”
Ray Hill, longtime Houston activist, reflects, “The issue about DADT was always a mystery to me because I remember watching the World War II gay vets grow old, many decorated, suffering the discrimination heaped on them by an ungrateful nation: captain Bill Wheland served honorably in three branches (Marines, Navy, and Army) and Merchant Marines, under different names, only to be discharged without benefits because he was gay; Jim Kepner, U.S. Army, fought in the Normandy landing and was discharged without benefits to become a founding father of our movement; and Arthur Werner flew bombing missions in Europe before overcoming a bad discharge to teach at Princeton Law School and write the first model criminal code without criminal sanctions against gay intimacy.
“Military life well suits many gay, lesbian, and transgender people,” Hill states. “We have suffered the closet to serve admirably in every war in my lifetime and, according to Walt Whitman’s poetry in the Civil War, on both sides. Perhaps, at last, we may proudly serve and even die for the freedoms we are just now achieving.”
Longtime transgender activist Phyllis Randolph Frye thinks there more to
come. “I am both moved and surprised that DADT was legislatively repealed,” states Frye. “High school and college ROTC led to my commission in the Army during the Vietnam era, but I was medically expelled for being transgender before I went to Vietnam. While the repeal of DADT will not protect transgenders from being medically expelled, it is a huge move for the civil rights of all LGBT people. I believe that, in a mere decade, transgenders will be accommodated in the military as well.”
Gay and Lesbian Veterans Celebrate
Larry Lingle, legal clerk in the U.S. Army in Alaska, 1958–1966: One of my jobs was processing paperwork for discharging soldiers found to be gay. I handled 17 such cases, and fortunately I answered to a codeine-addicted colonel who would sign whatever I put in front of him. I saw to it that all 17 received honorable discharges, although I never met a single one of them during my service.
Harley Baade, first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps in Germany, 1964–1966: I rarely heard the words “gay” or “homosexual” and didn’t know anyone who was gay. Training warned that communists would blackmail gays and therefore we were a security risk. I was in the Intelligence Service wearing civilian clothes working along the border with East Germany. Staying in the closet was yet another layer of secrecy.
Brenda Kruger, served in the U.S. Navy before and during “don’t ask, don’t tell”: Some of us felt the DADT rule was a vast improvement over what was before it. At least it cut down on the witch hunts so many of us had to endure. I was one of the lucky ones who survived at least two such hunts during my 16-and-a-half years on active duty, partly by having friends in some key positions. The repeal is one of the most monumental things that could happen to those who choose to serve their country.
H.B., served in the Women’s Army Corps: You can’t imagine how hard it was in the olden days, and I myself was the target of two separate investigations, as were most of us WACs. I know for an absolute fact that two of the directors of the Women’s Army Corps were gay, but had to go along with the straight charade. And why sexual orientation would affect job performance was indeed a mystery.
R.B., served in the U.S. Air Force: I was in the Air Force before “don’t ask, don’t tell” was in effect. During my time, they would
send out OSI agents [undercover MPs] to the gay bars and have the civilians who worked on the base identify the active duty members who were there. I was married at the time, but went to a gay bar when my wife was out of town. They called my wife into the JAG office and asked her if our marriage was a cover-up for my homosexuality. And thus I was outed.
Bill Colburn, specialist fifth-class in the U.S. Army Combat Engineers, 1969–1971, including a tour of duty in Vietnam with the 937th Combat Engineer Group: Forty years ago I kept my mouth shut about my sexual orientation. I was reflecting on that a lot this past Saturday as the Senate conducted its two historic votes on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I got chills, goose bumps, and even misty-eyed.
J.D. Doyle (popular radio host of Queer Music Heritage on KPFT), served in the National Guard, 1970–1976: On the application for the National Guard there was that question about being homosexual, and I can still
clearly picture myself sitting at that desk, answering it, and lying. I put up with the six months of training and two weeks a year playing soldier, hating every minute of it. I had pushed my gayness way back into my psyche, and didn’t deal with it at all.
Rick Dickson, captain in the U.S. Army, 1990–2000, discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell”: I feel the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been long overdue. It will relieve a lot of stress for those already serving—they will not have to live in denial or under undue stress. Personally, it was very difficult to uphold the policy and teach classes about “don’t ask, don’t tell” while being a gay service member myself.