Remembering LGBT voices in military history

In the United States, Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who have died in service to our country. Social media will likely flood with images of widows and widowers mourning at grave sites, videos of soldiers reuniting with loved ones at airports and stories about selfless acts of valor. This somber, commemorative day is intended to evoke a deep sense of patriotism in all Americans.

But what’s missing from this picture? Would stories about military personnel mourning, rejoicing or sacrificing elicit the same sense of pride if the soldiers were members of the LGBT community? Unfortunately, the military has a long, complicated history with mistreating queer people.

Until President Obama repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, being gay was grounds for termination from the military. This makes it nearly impossible to determine how many queer people made the ultimate sacrifice for our safety.  But, being allies and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, we have an obligation to remember these unsung heroes with vigor equal to that of their straight and cisgendered counterparts. This blog post is an attempt to highlight the service of these queer voices and depict the hardships they faced throughout history.

As you can imagine, it was difficult to be a member of the LGBT community while enlisted in the military. These brave women, men and gender nonconforming people were forced to lie about their sexual orientations just so they could protect and serve this country. In addition to risking their lives on the battlefield, LGBT service members faced potential violence in their own units and immediate discharge if their sexuality was discovered. In the 1940s, people with homosexual or bisexual orientations began receiving a “blue discharge” which made them ineligible for G.I. Bill benefits. During this time, service members suspected of queer orientations would receive an “undesirable discharge” while those guilty of homosexual activity (or engaging in “same-sex behavior”) would be “dishonorably discharged.” 

Sergeant Leonard Matlovich famously contested the armed forces’ discriminatory policies against queer people in 1975. Matlovich, who had served for 12 years in the Air Force, was a highly respected member of the military.  He had received a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and shrapnel wounds during the Vietnam War. Simply put, Matlovich was an exemplary member of the military. However, when he chose to disclose his sexuality to his superiors, Matlovich was immediately discharged.

In September of 1975, his story made the cover of TIME magazine and prompted outrage in both proponents and opponent of gay rights. Some called him “a disgrace to the uniform of an honorable service” while others supported his bravery in challenging an outdated system. Tragically, Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988 but used his tombstone as a poignant and permanent reminder of the prejudice he endured. It reads: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran… when I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Matlovich’s grave

It’s no secret that ever since the Revolutionary War people “have been drummed out of the U.S. military for homosexual acts.”  In 1919,  for instance, Navy officials encouraged some enlisted men to “entrap and seduce suspected gay sailors” so they could “obtain information and evidence pertaining to cocksuckers and rectum receivers.” During World War II, doctors even placed tongue depressors into patients’ throats to gauge their gag reflexes. The assumption was that men who performed oral sex on other men would lack this natural reflex.

Despite the severe repercussions of homosexual activity, some members of the military still risked their lives to have profound relationships with members of the same sex. In 1939, Gordon Bowsher and Gilbert Bradley did exactly that. Before he joined the British Army, Bradley was already in love with Bowsher.

In fact, the two men were so enamored with each other that they exchanged hundreds of romantic letters throughout the war that were only recently discovered.  Bowsher and Bradley risked imprisonment and death just to write about their desire for one another and fantasies for their future together. Unlike their heterosexual counterparts who could proudly discuss their sweethearts back home, these men were forced to hide their affection. The hopeful, albeit melancholic, tone of these letters is best summarized in the line: “wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our letters could be published in the future in a more enlightened time? Then all the world could see how in love we are.”

In discussing these letters, Peter Roscoe, a gay rights activist, explains that they serve as an important reminder that “there is a gay history and it isn’t always negative and tearful…despite all the awful circumstances, gay men and lesbians managed to rise above it all.”

Letters between Bowsher and Bradley

Two decades after Gordon Bowsher and Gilbert Bradley penned these letters, Fannie Mae Clackum became the first person to successfully challenge her discharge on the grounds of homosexuality from the U.S military. During the late 1940s and early 1950s Fannie served as a US Air Force Reservist and developed a close relationship with fellow Air Force Reservist, Grace Garner. Due to the pair’s intimate relationship, they were suspected of homosexual activity. In an attempt to prove these suspicions, the Air Force arranged for Fannie, Grace and a fellow solider to stay overnight in a motel together. In a cruel act of deception, the fellow solider served as an informant for the Air Force. Shortly after their motel stay, and despite Fannie’s and Grace’s denial of anything romantic occurring, the two women were dishonorably discharged from the Air Force.

Once discharged, Fannie and Grace moved in together, under the pretense of better fighting their dismissal. After eight years of court hearings, the pair finally prevailed in 1960 and the Air Force invalidated their discharges. Both women were awarded back pay for the remainder of their enlistment periods. [It’s important to note that both women denied having a sexual relationship but, considering that they lived together and had a very close relationship, it’s highly likely they were closeted.]

Fannie, Grace and other members of the Air Force

As time progressed, attitudes toward homosexuality began to soften. Interestingly, Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was actually intended to lift the ban on homosexual service. The policy, which went into effect on October 1, 1993, instructed that military personnel “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue and don’t harass” queer members of the armed forces.

An article written prior to the establishment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” examined the role of allowing lesbians to serve in the military. The article cited a 1984 study in the Journal of Homosexuality that found gay women were “significantly more likely to have served in the military than heterosexual women” and referenced research that estimated 25% of all woman in the armed forces were gay. Unfortunately, this presumed prevalence of lesbians in the military made all women easy targets for discharge and dismissal.

During the 1990s, “mass investigations and discharges [for homosexuality were] far more common for women than men” largely due to the inappropriate sexual conduct of men. If a woman spurned the advances of a man then she was instantly accused of being a lesbian. For instance, Captain Victoria Hudson, was investigated for lesbianism after refusing to write her superior an erotic letter. In the military, loving a woman was comparable to committing a crime and proponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” hoped it would reduce these accusations of lesbianism and empower women to fight sexual harassment.

However, regardless of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s” original intent, the overtly discriminatory policy resulted in the discharge of 13,000 service members. These women, men and gender nonconforming people were forced to hide their private lives. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Major Adrianna Vorderbruggen couldn’t tell anyone about the impending birth of her son. In fact, she had to guess when to take time off to coincide with his birth. She was expected to keep her identity hidden while she risked her life for our country.

As soon as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, Vorderbruggen married her wife, Heather, and became one of the first openly gay service members to get married. Unfortunately, in December of 2015, Vorderbruggen made history again by becoming one of the first openly gay women to be killed in action.  [She is preceded by Army Staff Sergeant Donna Johnson, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan during 2012]

Adrianna and Heather

However, due to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Vorderbruggen’s son and widow were acknowledged as her family and granted the ability to greet her body at the Air Force Base. In response to her death, the Military Partners and Families Coalition released a statement saying, “we do find comfort in knowing that Heather and their son Jacob are no longer in the shadows and will be extended the rights and protections due any American military family as they move through this incredibly difficult period in their lives.”

Sue Fulton, an army veteran and president of Servicemembers, Partners, and Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All (SPARTA), echoed that sentiment by saying, “many LGBT troops have given their lives in service to our country. Thanks to the repeal of DADT, their families will be honored instead of hiding in the shadows. This is a tragedy for any family, and that’s why it is so important that we as nation embrace their loved ones and that we remember them for who they really were. This is why we continue to fight for our transgender service members as well.”

Between 2-11,000 transgender people are estimated to be currently serving as active members of the US military. Unfortunately, prior to 2016, transgender people could not openly serve in the armed forces which makes it difficult to determine how many laid down their lives for our country. However, they deserve the same amount of reverence and respect that is shown to their cisgendered counterparts.

Sadly, the fate of transgender military personnel is still unclear. In July of 2017, President Donald Trump callously tweeted that, “the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”   This ban, which forbids “transgender persons who require or have undergone gender transition” from serving in the military has jeopardized the livelihood of thousands.

Kristin Beck, a 20-year veteran of the Navy SEALs who was deployed 13 times to Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others, is transgender. Beck, who was born Christopher, has received a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and 27 other medals for her service. She strongly believes that the open presence of transgender service members will not negatively alter the morale of troops. She says, “a very professional unit with great leadership wouldn’t have a problem [with someone being transgender].”

Kristin Beck before and after coming out

Beck, whose gender identity was the motivation for her to join the Navy SEALS, struggled immensely. “The SEALs were the toughest of the tough…”[I thought] I could totally make it go away if I could be at that top level. … Maybe I could cure myself.” However, her attempt to become cisgendered did not succeed and Beck reconciled herself with her transgender identity.

In response to President Trump’s proposed ban of transgender service members, Beck says “[Trump’s] taken away my liberty and the liberty of a lot of other people. That’s not the American way.”

Today, we remember all of the LGBTQIA+ people who died in service of our country. We may never know their names or their faces but we remember their actions. We remember those whose bravery paved the way for our freedom. It’s our duty to respect their sacrifices by fighting homophobia and transphobia every single day.

Thank you for your service. 

I’m going to end this commemorative post on a positive note and share this adorable news.

In January, an 100-year-old veteran of World War II, John Banvard, married his 72-year-old lover, Gerard “Jerry” Nadeau, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. [I think Gordon Bowsher and Gilbert Bradley are smiling down on them :)]

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To all the LGBTQIA+ members of the military, we recognize you, we respect you and we are forever grateful for your service!

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