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DISMISSED! : The Purging of Gay and Lesbian Troops from the Armed Forces

April 25, 1993|RANDY SHILTS | This article is adapted from "Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military," copyright 1993 by Randy Shilts, reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press. Shilts' previous book was "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic." He lives in San Francisco.

\o7 Much of the current debate over gays and lesbians in the U.S. armed forces has been entirely irrelevant to the genuine problems posed by excluding them. Opponents of lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military talk incessantly of the problems posed by gays' announcing their sexuality. This betrays an appalling ignorance of how the ban actually functions.

Ever since the anti-gay regulations were first enacted in 1943, they created a dilemma for military investigators. How do you find gays? You cannot tell by looking at them; you cannot tell by examining service records, since sexual orientation has no bearing on the quality of military service; you cannot find these people by investigating victims' complaints, since homosexual behavior generally occurs between consenting adults in privacy and off-base. About the only way the policy can be implemented is by coercing gays to turn themselves and others in to authorities.

Routinely, military investigators tell the frightened young soldiers and sailors--most of whom are 19 years old or, at most, in their early 20s--that they will do hard labor in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth if they do not confess to being gay -- and turn in others. If the subject is a single mother, investigators sometimes threaten to turn her in to child-welfare authorities, who could take her children away.

These are effective tactics, not only for obtaining confessions but, more significantly, for forcing gay service personnel to provide names of other gays in the military. One frightened sailor, for example, will give the names of five others, each of whom, when subjected to similar questioning, will give the names of five more, and so on. This is how the policy banning gays in the military is executed. The coercion and egregious invasions of privacy are not unfortunate side effects of this policy; they are part and parcel of it. This is the only way that most lesbians and gay men can be removed from the service.

During the Reagan and Bush administrations, even as social attitudes toward gays were growing more accepting, the military's stance seemed to harden. When the first AIDS cases appeared in the armed forces, the initial response was to simply discharge anyone with the disease on the assumption that if they were sick, they must be gay. Cadets in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) were regularly separated from the program if they were found to be gay--and then ordered to repay tuition bills that were sometimes as high as $50,000.

It was the massive purges, however, that were the most brutal features of the Pentagon's attempts to exclude gays. Between 1986 and 1990, the military conducted 3,663 such investigations, according to Pentagon figures. In 10 years, more than 14,000 gays were summarily ejected from the armed forces.

What follows are some stories from this terrifying period of American military history, stories that raise a profound question: Is America truly a free society?

MAY, 1980, USS NORTON SOUND, PORT HUENEME

By 1980, Navy lawyers, judges and masters-at-arms told a joke about the Naval Investigative Service: Call the NIS and tell them you've got a dead body, and the agents may show up in a week or so. Call and say you've got a dead body and you think the murderer was a homosexual, and the agents will be there in 30 seconds. The NIS was an agency not merely preoccupied with homosexuality; its pursuit of homosexuals was an obsession.

Just where the fixation came from remains murky. The NIS has existed in its present form only since the 1970s. In the conversion to an all-volunteer military, the Defense Department had mandated the transfer of non-military jobs from uniformed personnel to civilians whenever possible, so the Navy had replaced sailors with a largely civilian force of investigators at the NIS. Among Navy prosecutors who relied on NIS reports, the agency quickly fell into disrepute. NIS investigators were thought to be FBI rejects, referred to as Keystone Kops or, as one top Pentagon official in the early 1980s said, "the gang that couldn't shoot straight."

It has been suggested that the NIS pursued gay investigations so avidly because such probes were easier than criminal cases. Homosexuals did not think like criminals; it was simpler to extract confessions and names of other gays from them. Homosexual investigations yielded results and netted discharges, the kinds of things you could write up on a productivity report to demonstrate that your agency deserved to exist.

The agency had plenty of work in the 1980s, as women, breaking two centuries of tradition, were allowed to serve on noncombat vessels. Though Navy brass could not discharge the unwanted new sailors because they were women, they could discharge them for being lesbian. The first ships to allow women on board also became the first ships to purge lesbians. Among them was the missile test ship Norton Sound.

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