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An American Inquisition : CONDUCT UNBECOMING: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military, By Randy Shilts (St. Martin's Press: $27.95; 784 pp.)

May 02, 1993|Robert Dawidoff | Dawidoff chairs the history department at the Claremont Graduate School, and is the author, with Michael Nava, of "Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America."

In 1978, several gay crew members of the Nathaniel Greene lived, as did their fellow sailors, in an apartment complex the Navy had rented for them. The gay roommates had fixed up their house in "high House & Garden style, and took turns preparing gourmet meals for one another." They got used to unannounced visits around mealtime from their unmarried, straight shipmates, who lived student-style and ate frozen dinners. The gay sailors got talked into hosting a Tupperware party for the whole complex. Two dozen sailors and their wives and girlfriends crowded the apartment for cocktails and Tupperware. Thanks to the wives' talk ("Those guys just had to be gay, they agreed. The apartment was far too tasteful for them to be anything but . . . "), the news of the party and the sexual orientation of the hosts was all over the complex. One of the group, Gene Barfield, a nuclear training expert on his first assignment, was called in to see his captain.

"I heard you had a Tupperware party on Friday," the captain said.

Barfield was petrified. "Yeah, it was fun," he replied.

The captain had heard as much and was concerned that no officers had been invited and that all the enlisted wives were talking about what a good evening it had been. After this, the captain said, he wanted invitations to go out to officers, too. The gay men were included in the social life of their mates and were welcome to bring dates, so long as the men were "good looking."

Randy Shilts's new book, "Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military," abounds in such revealing vignettes, although few are this happy. Nonetheless, the history of homosexual people and the movement for gay and lesbian equality in the United States can nowhere be more clearly told than in the history of lesbian and gay service in the military forces.

The outlines of the story are relatively straightforward. Gay men and lesbians have not only always been warriors for their countries but archetypal in the forging of our civilization's understanding of the committed warrior: Just keep the Alexanders and Fredericks the Great in mind through all the contemporary discussion of what erotic preferences the proper soldier may profess. American military history properly began with the Prussian disciplinarian Baron Frederick Von Steuben, to whom historians have given credit only second to that due George Washington for training an army that could win the war of independence (Washington agreed). Von Steuben was also famously, notoriously, a lover of men. Then there is the story of Dwight Eisenhower's asking WAC Sergeant Johnnie Phelps, during World War II, for a list of the names of lesbians in the WAC battalion. She reminded him of how highly disciplined, decorated and efficient that unit was and concluded, "I'll make your list, but you've got to know that when you get the list back, my name's going to be first." Case closed, on this particular purge anyway.

During the Cold War, the homosexual scare added alarm to the red scare. Ironically it was J. Edgar Hoover who made persecution of other homosexuals a high priority. And it was Eisenhower who instituted the executive orders that defined homosexuals as security risks. Ike was playing politics; Hoover was playing Torquemada. Gays served as easy targets. Americans had grown up beating up fairies and tomboys. The gay man and lesbian had no recourse, the tiny homophile movement offered no protection, and the sudden glare of attention could isolate and root out servicepeople on the basis of rumor and intimidation. In a time when the debate over homosexuality is, at last, out in the open, it is important to remember how complete was the silence that surrounded the subject until the 1970s.

Shilts' book shows that homosexual women and men were randomly victimized in an almost parodic version of the images of tyranny the military claimed to be fighting. The shock of this book is its detailed revelations, based on government documents as well as hundreds of interviews, of how every principle of freedom, fair play, judicial correctness and basic loyalty were made mockery of by a U.S. government inquisition acting against members of our own military. It is worth remembering that the human rights to which former President Jimmy Carter was so devoted did not extend to the human rights of the American citizens who happened to be gay and who happened to be serving in the nation's armed forces.

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