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Military Justice: Looking Forward


“The contributions made by progressives, feminists and anti-militarists to the struggle for justice, often against their own beliefs are substantial. They should not be erased. Indeed, they invite a reconsideration of the idea of solidarity, and perhaps a revival of that outdated notion.”

“There was a time before liberation.”
— Tom Wilson Weinberg

The lyrics of Tom Wilson Weinberg’s song from the 10% Revue have been ringing in my ears as read and listen to the responses following Judge Virginia Phillips decisions, first holding Don’t Ask Don’t Tell unconstitutional, and then ordering a stay on all discharges. The spineless response of the Obama Justice Department reveals clearly that we still live in the “time before liberation.”

Equally revealing, however, are the surprisingly a-historical commentaries and reactions from our own communities. We live in the present tense, but there was indeed a past of long struggle, earned by a lot of people who our movement does not remember nor accurately claim.

I was prompted to write this in part to correct the impression that somehow gay Republicans and conservatives are most responsible for the current agenda and wins of the LGBT movement. This is historical revisionism at its worst. Log Cabin Club and its attorney Dan Woods deserve tremendous praise for the lawsuit, originally filed in 2004. However, we need to be clear that the struggle to end military discrimination against lesbian and gay people is decades older than this recent wave of lawsuits. Its heroes include a lot of people far less known than today’s gay conservatives. And they include many gay anti-war activists, lesbian feminists, progressives and people of all ideological stripes.

One hero is the late Allan Berube, the radical historian, whose ground-breaking history, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, first published in 1990, documented the unjustifiable bigotry of the military’s policies. As Publisher’s Weekly observed in a review of Berube’s book, “From 1941-1945, more than 9000 gay servicemen and women were diagnosed as sexual psychopaths and given “undesirable” discharges.” Berube’s research came in the context of many key number of law suits brought by gay servicemembers against the policy. Randy Shilts in his important book, Conduct Unbecoming, continued the critical documentation of the damage done to people by the policy.

watkinsPerry Watkins’s law suit was one such case, brought initially in the mid-1980’s. Watkins was represented by the same lawyer (James Lobensz) who recently won Air Force Major Margaret Witt case in 2010! Perry Watkins struggle against the military, for example lasted 9 years, out of a 16 year career in the Army, culminating in 1990 when the Supreme Court let stand a lower Circuit Court ruling in his favor. If you read the chronology of Perry’s struggle, laid out in Gay Military and you get a sense of the resilience and perseverance of gay men and women in the military.

I remember the Watkins win. I was working at NGLTF in DC at the time as its executive director and had founded the Military Freedom Project, the first full-time effort on gays in the military at any of the national political organizations. The irony of working on gays in the military as an anti-military peacenik radical feminist was not lost on me. But there was no doubt in the mind of many LGBT progressives that we needed to fight back.

Anti-gay witchunts were a huge problem in the 1980’s, as the Congressional Research Service’s 2009 report documents, as they are today. In 1982 alone, 1,998 gay men and women were kicked out of the military for homosexuality. Gay Community News, the radical weekly from Boston covered the stories of witchunts consistently, often drawing the ire of its anti-war readers, but maintaining its insistence that this persecution had to end. I reported some of those stories from DC for the paper and the experience of sneaking around military bases to interview closeted members of the service made me even more committed to ending this policy.

Military justice was a demand at the 1987 March on Washington for Rights and Liberation – a huge gathering that brought us face to face with the realities of our losses from AIDS (through the AIDS Memorial Quilt) and whose demands and agenda was far more progressive than those formulations of today’s gay rights organizations.

The 1988 witch-hunts at Parris Island Marine base tipped me over the edge. We got letters from women at the base that they were being brought to court martial for having consensual, private sex with another woman. (Indeed, Corporal Barbara Baum served “226 days in the brig for allegedly having sex with another woman.” Her 1988 conviction was reversed in 1990. Washington Post, February 19, 1990). Working with my co-worker Sue Hyde at NGLTF, we created the Military Freedom Coalition – which in its early years consisted almost entirely of lesbians and feminists – Nan Hunter from the ACLU, Nancy Buermeryer from NOW, Vicki Almquist from the now defunct Women’s Equity Action League, Sandra Lowe, from Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Kate Dyer, at Congressman Gerry Studds’ office.

With a number of closeted women still in active duty, we organized testimony at DACOWITS on the particular experience of women who were sexually harassed to have sex with men or face the threat of being “reported” as lesbians. We pushed for reports and data collection (by CRS and the DoD) that have become the archive which we can now draw on to finally destroy this hideous policy.

The reality for women and lesbians in the military is grisly even beyond the fact that women ar disproportionately discharged (see the Service Women’s Action Network, Fact Sheet on LGBT Women in the Military, March 2010, In addition, women face the pervasive reality of sexual harassment, violence and sexual assault (as many as 2 out of 3 women reported sexual harassment in a survey in 1990; and a 2009 report by the DoD Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services documents the problem has not ended).

Throughout the 1990’s and the past decade the work of fighting for LGBT service members has been led by LGBT and straight allies coming from a broad spectrum of ideologies: Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Palm Center, Log Cabin, GOP Proud, SWAN, NGLTF, HRC, LLDEF, ACLU, Servicemembers United, Get Equal to name just a few.   All are important.

Furthermore, the contributions made by progressives, feminists and anti-militarists to the struggle for justice, often against their own beliefs are substantial and curious. They invite a reconsideration of the idea of solidarity, and perhaps a revival of that outdated notion. There is a difference between the more open-minded, multi-level and spacious thinking of an independent politics that allows us to fight for justice, and a more narrow, self-centered, tunnel vision perspective of rigid ideologues. Unlike our conservative counterparts – like Kenneth Mehlman or Ted Olson — who actively worked against the interests of the gay and lesbian community when they were in power, only to apologize when they come out or otherwise see the light, LGBT progressives have consistently worked for the rights of ALL LGBT people, even against our own political interests. We owe no apologies.

As the movement “wins” formal legal equality – which we must and which we will, it would do us well to remember the idea of solidarity and thinking beyond our own narrow universe of people and problems.

The experience of other movements reveals that when rights are won, the movement enters a new phase – often of demobilization. One problem with this is that rights made available are not universally available to all. Equality will not be equally distributed even if universally given. The poor, the rural, the closeted, the people of color who are not plugged in to LGBT infrastructures, the gay men on SSI and disability or Medicaid, the kids who are homeless or incarcerated, the lesbians in corporate America, for example, will each experience “equality” in unique and different contexts. Implementation of rights is a challenge we will need to prepare to meet.

In addition, no struggle to change the fundamental order of things takes place solely in the realm of law – it requires huge cultural shifts and an abandonment of privileges enjoyed by people that are hard for them to give up.

Heterosexism and heterosexual privilege will not disappear on its own with legal equality. The military will have to write regulations to incorporate gay people legally, but military cultures will have to change. How will we retrain the thinking of its generals, clerks, contractors, and rank and file about gender stereotypes, how will open gayness as a non-stigmatized category require a change in “basic training” and its constant put down of “sissies” and “girls”? What will the long term effects of our integration into society do to ideas of maleness and myths of masculinity? Of femaleness?

The grant of formal rights is not the end of a movement. It merely brings us to a new stage.



(1)  Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire:  The History of Gay Men and Lesbians in World War II, with a forward by Estelle Freedman and John D’Emilio.  (University of North Carolina Press, 20th Anniversary Edition, 2010).

(2)  Randy Shilts, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US Military (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005)

(3)  David F. Burelli and Jody Feder, Homosexuals and the US Military:  Current Issues (Congressional Research Service, July 22, 2009).

(4)  Michael Bedwell, “From Watkins to Witt: Remembering Perry Watkins,”

(5) Report of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services, January 2010.

(6) Tom Wilson Weinberg can be reached through

(7)  Archives of Gay Community News can be found in libraries around the country, including the Boston Public Library.  They are not yet available online.

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