On why telling the stories of LGBT+ service members is important

  • As long as an LGBT+ service member does their job well and can be relied upon when the going gets tough, why does their LGBT+ identity matter?
  • Why focus on the sexuality and gender identities of service members and veterans?

These questions have certainly been asked of me this month as I focus on the experience of LGBT+ service members during the Vietnam War era. In a way, I asked them of myself, though the answer was easy for me to find due to my own life experiences. Being a transgender man affects the way I study history, just as being a historian affects my life as a transgender man. Not everyone feels this way in their own experiences, which is completely valid, however this should not silence those who find importance in these overlapping identities.


The Department of Defense in 1949 unified the policies of the branches of service by declaring: “Homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to serve in any branch of the Armed Services  in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces me made mandatory.” The Uniform Code of Military Justice, adopted in 1951, maintained the prior criminalization of sodomy under Article 125. Prior to these dates, and indeed back to the Continental Army, gay servicemen were discharged from the military. “Consensual sodomy” committed by service members was deemed a crime in a 1920 revision of the Articles of War (precursor to  the UCMJ).


During peacetime, each military branch regularly drummed out suspected gay and lesbian service members. The military maintained they were unfit for service, despite the fact that they were often doing their jobs to the same degree of satisfaction as their heterosexual peers. Their ability was questioned not after any decrease in performance, but rather only after allegations of homosexuality were made and investigations begun.

The number of service members discharged under the anti-gay policies of the military dropped noticeably during wartime. While discharges of gays and lesbians still occurred, it was at a much lower rate. Considering the increase in overall troop numbers during times of war, sometimes massively, percentage-wise this meant even less service members were receiving discharges due to their sexuality. Obviously a larger military meant more people, which meant more gay people. Why a lower number of discharges?

Because they had skills needed. If the military discharged every alleged gay person, they would have lost a startling number of trained and skilled personnel. Clearly, the military only believed that gay service members were unfit for service when it suited them. It would look the other way in times of war, and ask gay service members to die for their country, and then disgrace that service in times of peace by denying them the right to continue serving. The military used and abused LGBT+ service members this way.

Vietnam War context

The 1960s is seen as a decade of great change for the United States. Movements gained incredible strength during these years, or were born into their more modern versions that we recognize today. Many of these movements became intertwined with the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement.

The gay rights movement came into existence during the 1960s and contributed to the anti-war movement. Much like members of the Civil Rights movement, who fought for racial equality and condemned the government’s willingness to let people of color serve in the military and die for their country, abusing them through an inequitable draft, while people of color at home were treated as lesser citizens. Many gay veterans came to see that they were treated similarly.

However the gay rights movement did not quite know where to place gay service members. Often they were seen as contributing to the problem, rather than as gay men and women who needed as much help as their civilian counterparts. Being part of the system should not have excluded them from the aims of the gay rights movement when the system would still gladly eject them and potentially ruin their lives.


The experiences of LGBT+ service members during the Vietnam War era bear historical significance. They highlight the inconsistencies in the carrying out of military policy, as well as the injustices of those policies and how they affected lives even after military service. They show the connections between the gay rights movement, the war, and the anti-war movement during a period of immense social change in the United States. They also provide context for ongoing civil rights issues regarding the military, such as the struggle of transgender service members to continue serving today.

The stories of LGBT+ service members need to be told to understand the struggle of serving in a military that discriminated against them.