This essay seeks to shed light on gay Vietnam War veterans whose experiences have remained overlooked; these gay service personnel have battled to be heard, if they ever wanted to be heard at all. The essay also seeks to explain how historical and societal factors impacted on the gay psyche and how individuals challenged an unequal society.
Numerous films, television series, books and music attest to the ‘straight’ experience; one finds acknowledgment by consuming media and, when one can not find that representation, it can negatively impact on personal growth, acceptance and happiness.
Gay experiences have occurred throughout history, but not always included in mainstream records for fear of challenging established perceptions of what makes a man/soldier and notions of love.
The Sacred Band of Thebes was a 300-strong band of men in 4th Century BC, which made Thebes the most powerful state for a generation, until its fall to Philip II of Macedon. Philip II was so impressed with their bravery during battle that he built a monument on their gravesite.
During the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783), General George Washington recognised the war was going badly, so charged Benjamin Franklin to create cohesive in his army. Franklin knew Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben could perform such a feat – one of Europe’s leading military luminaries.
Steuben fled persecution in Europe when his homosexuality was discovered and travelled to America where he created a united, disciplined army. Historians credit his service as indispensable to the winning of the war.
During the war against the Barbary Pirates in 1798, a gay couple became the earliest naval heroes. Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur were third and fourth midshipmen in the new United States Navy; James Fenimore Cooper served on the same vessel and noted they shared the same berth and an intense love for each other.
Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur
As the size of America’s military grew, so did the presence of gay personnel. Walt Whitman records in his Civil War diaries that he slept with Daniel Spencer from the Second New York Light Artillery, as well as other soldiers from two other regiments.
Progressing to WWI, writer Radcliffe Hall memorialized the heroism of lesbian ambulance drivers in her novel The Well of Loneliness. Wilfred Owen, famed British poet and decorated soldier, generally believed to be gay, wrote homoerotically of his fellow soldiers. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the German sex researcher, documented numerous stories of heroics of gay German soldiers during the same war.
WWI witnessed the punishment of gay soldiers codified in American military law. During later iterations, sodomy became a specific felony; in the 1920’s and 30’s, homosexuality became a crime – resulting in large numbers of gay military being imprisoned. The exclusion of gays for sexual orientation, rather than having committed homosexual acts, was born at the same time. In 1918, the psychiatrist Dr. Albert Abrams instructed that homosexuals were ineffective fighters, dangerous and should be removed for the safety of other soldiers. This was the first – but not last – purge of gays from the military.
WWII saw homosexuality shift from being classified as a crime to a disease. To help with the task of enlisting 16 million men during 1941–1945, the government used psychiatric profiling to remove less ‘able’ fighters. 1943 saw gays banned from the entirety of the military, which remained fundamentally unchanged for the next half century. The hypocrisy of the notion that gays were inadequate fighters was matched only by the hypocrisy of recruitment flexibility.
When it was obvious that more soldiers were needed in WWII, new edicts allowed the military to retain ‘reclaimable’ gays after a suitable time of treatment. Although the policy remained the same for the years, the rationale for it altered to better reflect current societal attitudes.
During the 1950’s Communist-fuelled McCarthy witch hunts, national security was cited for the ban; when this idea seemed less tenable, their presence became a threat to unit cohesion and morale. Without evidence, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deemed homosexuals as security risks, fuelling Communism. The irony being Hoover was in a longstanding gay relationship with his assistant, Clyde Tolson. It’s believed his own self-hate and fear of discovery contributed to the continued persecution, even when the FBI ordered its cessation.
Societal prejudice had not only succeeded in making heterosexuals hate gays, it had also succeeded in making gays hate themselves. Fundamental to the journey of a gay man was fear – fear of being discovered, fear of violence, ostracism, of remaining gay and of not being a ‘real man’.
The latter sits at the heart of some decisions to enlist: war would make you a man. What better way of making a homosexual a ‘real man’, than serving in Vietnam? The irony of the situation was that joining the military would put them under even more scrutiny than before. Conscripts were asked if they were gay – if that box were ticked, they would in likelihood still be accepted, but would be exposed to all manner of abuse, therapy and possible imprisonment.
When people were forcibly drafted in the Vietnam War, straight men were advised to tick that same box to avoid service – naïve to the possibility that becoming a ‘hoaxosexual’ could create a major impediment to finding a civilian job – one of the most famous cases being Chevy Chase. Better understanding the need for subterfuge, gays would often subjugate sexual feelings, hope to remain invisible and, in the process, become a ‘real man’.
Danny Joseph Flaherty was a gay university student, but knew that subterfuge was the best policy. At that point, students in full time study could defer the draft; however, someone had given the authorities his name as a homosexual. Soon afterwards, he was in front of the university panel and given an ultimatum: name other gays and be allowed to withdraw from classes – refuse, flunk classes and be drafted. The irony was that, after flunking and being drafted, Flaherty still wouldn’t tick the infamous box for fear his family would find out; so he became a gay soldier in an army the government wanted to keep straight. Like many others, he wanted to serve because he believed it was his patriotic duty – even if the authorities didn’t want him.
Flaherty knew personal correspondence would be monitored so, when he wrote to his partner back home, he changed his boyfriend’s gender – thereby circumventing any possible fallout. Stories abounded relating to out-ed military personnel; disappearances were common. One day a man would be in training and be gone the next – bed stripped and possessions removed, as if he never existed. Soon afterwards, rumours would circulate that the man was queer. It became accepted reality – they were strange people, so strange things happened to them. If you questioned it, people asked questions about you – then you risked disappearing, too. There were even stories of gay soldiers being lynched by their fellow G.I.s, and of gay sailors being thrown overboard.
These recruits could be transferred to ostracised Special Training Units. These STU’s underline another inherent hypocrisy in America’s policy; gay or suspected gay recruits would undergo harsh, terrifying treatment in order to make them ‘fit’ again for active duty – discharge often being the last option at a time when the government was losing the war and desperate for bodies.
Edward C. Patterson’s book, ‘Surviving an American Gulag’, dramatises the author’s own experiences in one such barrack, Fort Gordon, Georgia. He recounts how the recruits of B Platoon were abused, humiliated and constantly monitored, with the palpable threat of a ruined life or murder. There was something else to fear and that came from the facultative homosexuality of straight colleagues.
This term justified why straight men could have sex with other men: thousands of miles from home, from wives and girlfriends, from Caucasian women and surrounded by Vietnamese females who, they were told, were riddled with diseases. It was understandable they should seek ‘solace’ in other (American) men.
Perry Watkins found it less justifiable when faced with gang rape. Private Watkins was stationed in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and had informed his superiors of his sexuality – who were prepared to turn a blind eye for the sake of maintaining numbers. News of his sexuality spread and, in 1968, he was faced with five men demanding oral sex; when he declined, the group turned violent and attempted to rape him. Watkins escaped, asked his supervisor for a discharge and demanded protection others took for granted.
Four days later an investigation began, not into the attempted rape, but to find evidence of Watkins’ homosexuality to support his discharge request. The men Watkins named as sexual partners denied knowledge and the investigating unit dropped the discharge request on the basis of no evidence. The men involved in the attempted rape were never investigated.
This highlights why so many gay men were discharged, rather than court martialled for their sexuality; to be court martialled successfully, investigating officers had to provide conclusive evidence of sodomy. Given that most people conducted sexual liaisons in private, it was difficult to catch men in flagrante delicto.
Not that a dishonourable discharge was necessarily more lenient than a court martial. The lengthy process was constructed to wreak maximum terror – people were coerced and intimidated into giving names of other gays, using techniques familiarly found in torture.
Rich McGuire, was driven miles off-base by Office of Special Investigations agents to a small, padded chamber in a sub-basement where he was ‘interviewed’ and untruthfully told that his crime of homosexuality carried a twenty thousand dollar fine and life imprisonment at hard labour. If he unable to pay, the government would seize his parents’ home; they then asked if his parents knew he was queer. McGuire was 21, scared and naive to their techniques. He was persuaded to sign a statement that paved the way for his less than honourable discharge.
During the mid 1970’s, sociologists Drs. Colin Williams and Martin Weinberg (from Dr. Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research) conducted research into the effects of less than honourable discharges on gay veterans. Discharges came in five levels:
- Honourable discharge – recipients given full rights and privileges
- General discharge – less than honourable (i.e. no rights or privileges)
- Undesirable discharge – one step above a:
- Bad conduct discharge
- Dishonourable discharge – given only after a person has been found guilty of a serious crime at court martial
Their study showed 39% received general discharges, 55% undesirable discharges and 6% dishonourable discharges. Results indicated the accused did not fight; 81% waived their rights to hearings, which basically guaranteed their dishonourable discharge. Why? 26% who had received less than honourable discharges felt shame and guilt; more than 50% had difficulty in finding a job after discharge; but a staggering 58% had contemplated suicide in the aftermath of the investigation.
A study into major employers showed that 41% of employers admitted they had discriminated against those with undesirable discharges and 73% would not hire anyone with a dishonourable discharge. Suicide played a recurring role in the gay experience throughout Vietnam; another study of gay veterans concluded:
Among the causes which drive homosexuals to war perhaps the most tragic one is that wish or hope, expressed by more than one of their number, that a bullet might put an end to their life… Driven by this feeling, many a (gay) officer exposed himself to the thickest rain of bombs and the most deadly attacks. Only recently a flier whom I had congratulated on his distinctions replied that, in truth, his disregard of death was nothing more than disgust with life. (Shilts, 1993, p.34)
Jess Jessop, hospital corpsman second class, was a high performing marine known for his unselfish heroism in attending field injuries. Jessop was patriotic, but also suicidal – he would rather die a man than live queer. The shame and abhorrence with which he was conditioned allowed him to race through the most dangerous situations to tend the dying because, to him, death would be a release.
It was a common story for gay Vietnam veterans – their disgust would be eradicated and their families spared the shame were they to be killed in action, a real man’s death. However, some gay military personnel would challenge their unjust treatment, accept themselves and become major players in gay rights. Jessop was one of those people; he survived a Naval discharge and injuries sustained saving others to become an integral force behind the San Diego chapter of the Gay Liberation Front – the conscious-raising group instrumental in affecting change in the States. Their newspaper’s first issue declared:
The passive acceptance of homosexuality as a perversion or emotional illness IN YOUR MIND plays into the hands of your persecutors. This is called THE SANCTION OF THE VICTIM. (Shilts, 1993, p.95)
Gay Liberation Front letter
The movement called the gay community and its supporters to affirmative action – enough was enough. They were to proclaim and accept their sexuality, to state it and be proud of it. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were fertile ground for emerging civil rights campaigns; popular support turned against the war, civil unrest was rife and people demanded change, acceptance and equality. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy acted as catalysts for the black rights movement, a June evening in 1969 in New York had similar impact for the gay rights movement – the Stonewall Riots.
Police raids on gay bars were routine; bars were subject to draconian rules, for instance, it was illegal for customers to face bartenders. There had been five raids in three weeks and when the police raided The Stonewall Bar, the gays fought back.
Years of anger and persecution erupted that night and spawned a radicalisation and cohesion of the gay movement – things were changing and, as Allen Ginsberg told a Village Voice reporter, ‘They’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago’, (Shilts, 1993, p.93).
One of the most important campaigners in US gay rights was Leonard Matlovich: a highly decorated sergeant in the Air Force, receiving the Commendation Medal, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, a staunch Republican and strident Christian – the embodiment of the All American Hero. Except that he was queer. He begged God to change him, desperately wanting to fit in but, the older he became, the more he realised things couldn’t change. In 1969 he was wounded in action and, during his convalescence, the Stonewall Riots occurred and changed his perception forever.
Matlovich contacted Frank Kameny, a gay activist who had been counselor to numerous military gays, after reading his interview in the Air Force Times. They spoke and Kameny recounted his search to find a serving gay with an unblemished record with whom to challenge the military ban. On 6 March 1975, Matlovich gave his commanding officer a letter titled ‘Brown vs the Board of Education’ – referring to the Supreme Court case of 1954, which outlawed public school racial segregation.
During the discharge hearing, Matlovich was offered reinstatement if he promised never to practice homosexuality again; he declined. Despite his decorations and untouchable service, the panel deemed him unfit for service and was given an honourable discharge in 1975. Matlovich sued to be reinstated without barrier and, after many years, subsequently won – although he accepted the Air Force’s financial package instead.
Winning his case set a precedent for the remaining serving homosexuals and a lasting legacy for the gay rights movement. Matlovich continued to be an international figurehead and activist for gay rights until his death in 1988; his tombstone has become a focal point for gay rights, a symbol of the continuing struggle for equality and as a memorial to all gay veterans:
When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one
Leonard Matlovich’s tombstone
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