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Brief History of Gays in the Military

2 minute read
Kayla Webley

There are, according to a recent study, some 66,000 gays, lesbians and bisexuals serving in the U.S. armed forces, all of whom are compelled to hide their sexual orientation. On Feb. 2, Congress opened its first hearings on gays in the military in 17 years, following up on President Obama’s State of the Union pledge to “finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love.”

For the ancient Greeks, the issue was no big deal. Plato wrote that an army in which homosexuality was encouraged would be invincible, for “love will convert the veriest coward into an inspired hero.” But for the most part, such enthusiasm waned over the centuries. By the Napoleonic Wars, British sailors could be hanged for “buggery.” In 1778, General George Washington discharged an American soldier for homosexual acts.

The U.S. banned gays from the military in 1916. During World War II, it began screening draftees for effeminate behavior and body features. In the Vietnam era, some sought to avoid the draft by trying to appear homosexual, though it wasn’t always a disqualifier: in 1968, Perry Watkins, a 19-year-old from Washington State, was inducted despite admitting to “homosexual tendencies” and served for 16 years. He was later discharged for his orientation, filed a lawsuit and, in 1990, won.

Enter “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Despite opposition from military officials and the public, President Bill Clinton attempted to unilaterally repeal the ban after taking office in 1993. The effort foundered. Congress instead passed a law under which gays could serve as long as they kept quiet about their orientation. But while the Pentagon agreed to stop asking about sexual orientation during the recruiting process, it continued to investigate those serving in the military. Since 1994 more than 12,000 service members have been discharged because of their sexual orientation.

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