DISMISSED! : The Purging of Gay and Lesbian Troops from the Armed Forces
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.
On May 16, an NIS agent hit pay dirt when questioning Helen Teresa Wilson, a mess specialist, third class, who delivered a four-page statement about lesbians aboard the ship. Wilson’s statement labeled 23 of the 61 female crew members homosexual. Wilson had not actually seen anyone have sex on the ship or anywhere else, but she could tell they were gay just the same.
She stated, for example, that one woman “likes to walk around the compartment in various stages of undress and enjoys watching the other women dress and shower. Since I have been aboard, I have not seen (her) express any interest in men.” Sailor Tangela Gaskins, she said, “likes to use endearing terms when talking to other women, especially the gays” and was therefore a lesbian. Another was a lesbian because she had befriended a gay male sailor. Wilson, a white woman, was particularly emphatic about black women on the ship, insisting that all but one of the crew’s nine African-American female members were lesbian.
There was another rumor, Wilson reported, that Engineman Second Class Carole Brock was a lesbian and had “married” another crew member a few weeks earlier. “She and Brock always go on liberty together and never sleep on the ship unless they have duty,” Wilson said.
Once they had taken Helen Wilson’s statement, the NIS called in the 38 women not named by her, presuming they were heterosexual. These sailors received a roster of female crew members and were asked to put a check mark next to the name of anyone they thought might be gay. From these, the NIS accumulated the names of 29 suspected lesbians, although no informant had ever seen anyone have sex. Now the agents began the task of gathering more convincing evidence.
Like most of the women aboard, Petty Officer Lynn Batey told the agent she did not know anything about homosexuality on the Norton Sound--only the rumors. Special Agent John Stevens warned that if she did not give him evidence, she could be court-martialed for homosexuality herself, according to Batey’s later testimony. Batey believed him and wrote out a statement accusing Brock and three others of being lesbians.
Similar tactics resulted in a dozen statements against alleged lesbians. Once these statements were compiled, the NIS interrogated the suspects themselves. Their line of questioning was often salacious. One agent began his interview with sailor Barbara Lee Underwood by inquiring, “Did you lick her juices?” He then assured her they had all the proof they needed, so she might as well confess.
Carole Brock knew that a number of the accused women, like Tangela Gaskins, were decidedly heterosexual. It was clear that the NIS had little more than rumors; nobody had buckled to the threats, Brock learned, though she also heard that a number had been asked about two women on board who had gotten “married” a few weeks earlier.
The agents were very solemn when they told Brock that her girlfriend had already talked to them and revealed that they had kissed. Brock knew that her girlfriend had not even been called in yet. She denied everything. When Brock was pressed to name others, she told investigators nothing.
On the Friday morning before Memorial Day weekend, captain’s call was held on the rear fantail of the ship. All the sailors assembled. Brock stood with the woman she was dating and some other gay friends. Their captain, Cmdr. J.E. Seebirt, announced through the ship’s loudspeaker system that an investigation had been launched of “homosexuality in the women’s berthing area.”
Brock shouted out a question--why were only women being investigated?
Like most stereotypes, there was some truth behind the assumption that an inordinate number of women in uniform were lesbian. In the days of the WACs and WAVEs, married women were not allowed to enlist, and women who got pregnant were immediately discharged. This almost guaranteed huge numbers of WACs, WAVEs and WAFs whose sexuality leaned toward the homosexual. By some counts, lesbians composed as much as 80% of the women who served in World War II. Those who composed the top echelons of the WACs and WAVEs well into the 1980s came largely from this group even after the marriage and pregnancy restrictions were dropped. Until the early 1970s, when the first rumblings of the women’s movement made non-traditional jobs attractive to women from all walks of life, women’s military units did tend to include a large proportion of lesbians.
Though statistics were difficult to unearth at the Pentagon, gays and lesbians clearly composed a huge share of all undesirable discharges handed out by the military. Commanders, who made the initial decisions regarding types of discharge, sought the toughest possible punishment for gays and lesbians, even if this conflicted with official mandates. In 1961, for example, fully 40% of all the Navy’s undesirable discharges had gone to presumed homosexuals. Nearly one in five undesirable discharges given to Marines that year had been for homosexuality. There was no indication that in the decades since, the quality of discharges had improved much for the approximately 2,700 gays who had been kicked out of the military each year on gay-related charges. A 1984 General Accounting Office study found that the policy of separating gays from the military cost the Defense Department at least $22.5 million a year in lost training and recruitment expenses. In the course of a decade, that figure would approach $250 million.
JUNE, 1980, NORTON SOUND, LONG BEACH
Carole Brock had learned to ignore the catcalls that always followed her through the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. Word of the investigation had spread throughout the installation within days of the Norton Sound’s arrival. Since it was the only ship in the yard with women, other sailors assumed any woman in the yard was a lesbian.
“Hey dyke. Want some of the real thing?”
“Too bad, you dyke. You got caught.”
The Norton Sound had been in Long Beach only a few days when 19 women received letters of dismissal from the Navy for “unsuitability . . . because of participation in homosexual acts.” Because of the regulation under which they were accused, none was entitled to a hearing, they were told. If they quietly resigned, which was clearly what the Navy wanted, they would be assured of an honorable discharge. Several of the women had as many as 10 years of service and knew they would lose substantial benefits if they earned less-than-honorable discharges. Still, none quit.
Fear had turned to anger by the time the Norton Sound’s executive officer called the 19 women into a meeting. The way the women recalled it, Lt. Cmdr. R. Myer, who later declined comment on the case, began his remarks by saying that the Navy already knew who would be discharged. The outcomes of the hearings, he implied, were preordained.
Brock sat directly in front of Myer. If they knew that, why were all 19 women being subjected to this, she asked. She demanded to see the statements being used as evidence against the 19 women, to which Myer replied that the captain would be happy to show them. Brock marched directly to the captain’s stateroom and asked for the statements.
“I don’t have them all yet,” Seebirt told her.
Brock was stunned by his admission. The brass had charged them before seeing evidence against them.
The ACLU, alerted to the Norton Sound purge, threatened to go to court if the Navy proceeded with its plan to discharge the 19 women without hearings. Within a week, the Navy announced that charges against 11 of the women had been dropped. The remaining eight women would be charged with misconduct, not unsuitability, which entitled them to an administrative hearing.
With the Norton Sound Eight receiving front-page coverage almost daily in Southern California, everyone on board felt obliged to take sides, and petty harassment of the women escalated. Armed guards were stationed around the clock in the female berthing area, presumably to prevent the nonstop lovemaking alleged by the NIS investigation. When the ship’s entire crew assembled for morning quarters one day, the executive officer ordered all other sailors to avoid contact with the eight women charged with homosexuality. “Unless you have to work with them, don’t have anything to do with these women,” he commanded.
Brock had transferred off the ship to shore patrol, but even this did not deter daily catcalls from the men. And Brock noticed that men in three-piece suits had started following her whenever she left the base. She might go as far as San Diego or Los Angeles, but there they’d be, not particularly hiding the fact that they were watching her. Two months earlier, she had been an enthusiastic member of the United States Navy, having joined in 1976 to escape a dreary life of factory work in San Jose. But now, because of one word that had been applied to her, she was followed like a criminal. Other Norton Sound defendants noticed tails, too, and strange clicks on their telephones.
Navy officials had problems of their own. The dates of the discharge hearings were near, and they still had not accumulated evidence that would pass muster, even in the “anything goes” format of non-judicial administrative hearings. For this reason, they were particularly interested in Petty Officer Joyce Arnold, who had been named on at least one statement as a lesbian and was a mother involved in a custody suit for her two children. Any hint that she was a lesbian could cost her the children. NIS agents would not comment, but during an administrative discharge hearing, defense attorneys suggested that such a threat had been made.
For whatever reason, it was clear that both the NIS and the ship’s executive officer targeted Arnold as a sailor likely to inform on the other women. In one week, Arnold later testified, the executive officer called her into his cabin on four separate occasions to insist that she accuse other women of lesbianism. NIS agents summoned her again and again, mentioning that she might be accused of being gay herself if she did not name other homosexuals. After two months of such pressure, Arnold made a statement of accusation. The NIS still did not let up, and Arnold provided a second statement and a third, until she had given five statements accusing other Norton Sound women, including a number of her close friends, of being gay.
AUG. 4,1980, NORTON SOUND, LONG BEACH
In an inelegant piece of staging, the Navy had, until the day of the first hearing, planned to try all three of the black women as one group. Only objections from their lawyers gained them separate hearings. The administrative separation board first took up the case of Petty Officer Tangela Gaskins.
Gaskins had joined the Navy 18 months earlier, hoping to earn an education that would lead to college and an accounting degree. She wanted to make enough money to send her 8-year-old son to private schools. Gaskins had risen from Seaman to Petty Officer, Third Class, in seven months, an impressive feat. She was the first black woman to advance beyond the deck crew on the Norton Sound. She was suspected of being a lesbian, it seemed, because she rejected the passes of male crew members. The real reason for her refusal was that she had a civilian boyfriend.
Although the Navy lawyers led off with what they seemed to think was their strongest case, the evidence lodged against Gaskins was problematic. Seaman Apprentice Pamela Tepstein was the only person who claimed to have seen anything resembling physical contact between Gaskins and another woman. Gaskins had kissed shipmate Williams on the mouth, she said. In fact, Tepstein’s statement accused a dozen Norton Sound women of engaging in brazen shipboard sex, providing the NIS with some of the only hard evidence it had accumulated in its exhaustive investigation. But Tepstein could not attend the hearing in person. She had been checked into the Navy hospital in Long Beach for psychiatric testing. When two Navy officers arrived to escort Tepstein to the hearing, she yelled that she never wanted to step aboard the Norton Sound again and took off screaming down a hospital hallway. Navy prosecutors overcame the absence of their star witness by simply submitting her statement in writing.
The most crucial evidence for Gaskins came from her boyfriend. The man was asked whether Gaskins was a good sexual performer; she was, he said.
On the fourth day of the hearing, the three-member administrative panel took 30 minutes to reach its verdict. “Petty Officer Gaskins, the board finds there is no credible evidence that respondent engaged in homosexual acts and recommends retention.”
“The guys think there are only two types of females in the Navy,” Gaskins said after the verdict. “You’re either there to serve the men--you’re a whore--or else you are a queer. They just discredited my name, myself, destroyed my life. I’ve been angry over it. I’ve cried about it. I’ve laughed about it. But it’s no joke.”
Despite all the press coverage, defense attorneys remained frustrated at the relatively minor focus on the coercive NIS tactics. Although the testimony concerning threats and intimidations was dutifully reported, reporters seemed strangely uninterested. Some were outright skeptical that such things really happened in the United States.
AUG. 15, 1980, WASHINGTON
Three thousand miles from the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, aides in the White House carefully watched the Norton Sound case. After meeting with gay leaders working on the reelection campaign of President Jimmy Carter, a White House staffer drafted a memo on gay concerns. Under Part III, headlined “Substance,” was the note: “Do something with the USS Norton Sound.” In response, another presidential staffer had scrawled alongside, “Prevent future purges until after November.”
AUG. 18, 1980, NORTON SOUND, LONG BEACH
Alicia Harris was asked to stand while the chairman of the administrative separation board read his decision: “The findings of the board are that the defendant has engaged in homosexual activity aboard the ship,” the officer read. “It is the recommendation that she be given an honorable discharge under honorable conditions.”
Four hours later, the discharge hearing for Wendi Williams began. The testimony against Williams was much the same as that against Harris. Their crew mate Yvonne Nedrick claimed to have seen them kiss. Under cross-examination, Nedrick admitted to four fistfights with Williams. She also said she would kill Williams if she had the chance but added that she would never lie about her, so Nedrick’s testimony stood. Helen Wilson, whose statement had begun the investigation three months earlier, reported having seen Williams and Harris on a couch together late one night. They were fully clothed, she said, but it looked sexual to her.
Throughout the hearing, looking up only occasionally, Williams sat at the defense table drawing pictures of a small rubber Donald Duck doll she kept propped up in front of her. She was going to be found guilty, she knew, because her defense, like that of Harris, lacked the component that had saved Tangela Gaskins: a boyfriend to provide a positive masculine review of her sexual performance.
“I would like--if this board decides to discharge me--to discharge me for stupidity, not for misconduct,” Williams said softly to the board shortly before the panel went into deliberations. “My work in the Navy has been real good. Therefore, I must be real dumb--the dumbest nigger in the Navy--if I had let these things happen, to commit these acts in a room with 60 people where they could see me.”
The unanimous verdict was returned on the afternoon of Aug. 20. Williams listened emotionlessly, her chin set on her hand.
Williams, the panel ruled, was guilty of “one or more homosexual acts,” and it ordered she be dismissed from the Navy with a general discharge under honorable conditions.
The Navy had two convictions. Now they could call the whole thing off.
The next day, Cmdr. Seebirt told Brock that the pending charges against the remaining women were being dropped for “insufficient evidence.”
“I could have told you that three months ago,” snapped Brock.
“It’s over, it’s done, it’s through,” he said.
“Maybe for you it is,” Brock answered.
Brock left the Navy when her tour of duty ended in 1980; she now lives in Northern California.
SEPTEMBER, 1982, USS ENTERPRISE, SOUTH PACIFIC
A chief petty officer, dressed only in his underwear, grabbed the young sailor’s head and pressed it between his thighs. The other men hooted their approval. This was better than the previous night’s drag show, at which King Neptune’s “queen” had been enthroned beside his husband.
On the flight deck, meanwhile, older sailors, armed with mock shillelaghs--long strips of cut-up fire hose--had formed a gantlet through which the younger initiates had to pass. They shouted “Wogs!” as they applied their lashes to the young backs and buttocks of their juniors. The whips slapped across the flesh, and the men grinned and howled “Wogs!’
Once the wogs had made it past the gantlet, they congregated on the fantail and stripped, then hurled their clothes, soiled and torn from hours of initiation, into the ocean. No one rushed back to his locker for new clothes. They joked and laughed and strutted around the deck. Their nudity was evidence of having passed the test.
The players in the games aboard the Enterprise--experimenting with transvestism, simulated fellatio, sadomasochistic role-playing and group nudity--were not gay. They were sailors participating in a time-honored Navy tradition, the “shell-back” ceremony that marked the first time a sailor, referred to as a “polliwog” or just “wog,” crossed the Equator. After the crossing and the ceremonies, the sailor became a “shell-back.”
For all the gay undertones to be found throughout the military, the service with the most pervasive homosexual subtext was the Navy, in which the level of veiled homoeroticism seemed directly proportional to the amount of time sailors spent at sea away from women. Winston Churchill once barked to a British admiral, “Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.”
During the 1980s, as it had for decades, the Navy discharged more people for homosexuality than all other services combined. Of course, Kelly Kittell had not known that in 1978, when he’d left Reno, Nev., to enlist in the Navy at age 17.
Three years after his enlistment, Kittell had become part of a gay crowd on the Enterprise. The formation of such communities reflected an urban trend of the ‘70s, when gays began to coalesce in neighborhoods. These were not merely homosexual networks, as had been evident in the military since World War I, but genuine communities of people who shared common interests, a common culture--and common dangers.
The Enterprise was known as the “Big E” or the “Big Easy,” so its gay sailors referred to themselves as the “E-girls” or the “Easy Girls.” Kittell had not imagined that there could be such an openly gay community on a Navy ship, but he found gays in every area, particularly his own, the medical department. There were ways to tell. Kittell learned to drop the word nelly to see if it raised a glimmer of recognition or to mention the word family , a term that military gays used to describe themselves.
At the top of the family hierarchy was the “mother,” the senior enlisted crew member who doled out advice and warnings to young seamen. By the time preparations were in earnest for the annual Western Pacific cruise, or WEST-PAC, Kittell felt as if he was indeed part of a big family. He began publishing a newsletter, the Family-Gram, written with such discretion that a straight sailor would be unlikely to decode its gay references.
With their huge populations, aircraft carriers had the largest and best-organized gay communities. By the ‘80s, gay cliques had dubbed their ships with campy nicknames, usually based on the wife of the ship’s namesake. The carrier John F. Kennedy, for example, was called the “Jackie O” by its gay crewmen. The Eisenhower was the “Mamie”; the America was the “Miss America.”
The carrier communities had their own institutions; the America had its own secret drag contests for the gay community’s Miss America crown. The gays aboard the Forrestal had enjoyed their own disco since 1976, down in the storerooms where other sailors rarely went at night. On the 1982 WEST-PAC cruise, the Eisenhower published its own gay newsletter, Mamie’s Pages, passed covertly to gay sailors with the ship’s official paper whenever the ship pulled into a foreign port. Toward the end of WEST-PAC, sailors were distributing 1,500 copies of Mamie’s Pages at every port.
Some Enterprise sailors joked that the brass must have been blind not to see the gay subculture on the ship, but, as subsequent events later indicated, officers were not so much blind as cautious, taking their time to stage a crackdown.
In October, 1982, a memo from the ship’s skipper congratulated the Enterprise crew for lack of prejudice on the ship. They should feel grateful to be part of an organization that did not tolerate discrimination, the captain said, and if anyone became aware of any type of discrimination on board the Enterprise, that sailor should report it directly to him. Intolerance would not be tolerated.
As he read the memo, Kittell felt his hackles rise. In the Navy, they routinely kicked gay people out of their jobs, dispatched spies to monitor them and sent some to prison, all the while maintaining that the service would not tolerate prejudice. By remaining silent, Kittell would be tolerating the prejudice, too. Kittell decided he couldn’t do that, and he quickly dashed off a letter to the ship’s captain asking that gays be recognized as contributing and valuable members of the crew.
The ship’s legal officer was blunt when he met with Kittell later. As Kittell remembers it, his first words were, “You’re in a lot of trouble.” Then he mentioned the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. Of course, everything would go easier on Kittell if he would give them names of other homosexuals. Kittell thought it was odd that the brass believed he would turn on other gays after passing them a rather strident statement for gay liberation. They obviously had not gotten the point. He refused. Eventually, Kittell was removed from the Enterprise in a small jet and flown back to the United States, where he was discharged.
The NIS had had an informer planted among the “family” on the ship for some months; an officer later told Kittell that the mole had even had sex with the gay men. That was how the ship’s officers had known all along that it was Kittell publishing the Family-Gram. Shortly after Kittell’s departure, the informant also left the ship. When NIS agents started calling sailors in for interrogation, they explained that Kittell had already told them everything and that they should make it easy on themselves by admitting their homosexuality. Many did.
Kittell had wanted to make a statement of pride and even insurrection; instead, his letter had been used to brand him a traitor. The Navy had the last laugh after all.
MARCH, 1982, SAN FRANCISCO
A sergeant had come to the Letterman Army Medical Center complaining that he couldn’t even walk up the hill to his apartment at the end of his workday. The doctor who examined him suspected he might be suffering from Pneumocystis carinii , the rare pneumonia that struck AIDS sufferers. He asked whether the man was gay. The sergeant vigorously denied it. Subsequent tests confirmed that the sergeant did indeed have Pneumocystis carinii. Treatments for the disease were very primitive, and within three months the man lay dying. About to put a respirator tube down the sergeant’s throat, his doctor told him he would not be able to talk. Fighting for breath and sweating profusely, the sergeant clutched the doctor’s lab coat and said, “I’m gay.”
The doctor realized that the sergeant believed the admission would make a difference, that something could be done now that the facts were out. It could not. The sergeant died in July, the first known AIDS case in the military.
His doctor proposed sending a case report to the journal Military Medicine so that military physicians could familiarize themselves with the syndrome. An editor’s reply was concise: “This is not pertinent to the practice of medicine in the United States military.”
Most of the military, like most of civilian society, was refusing to come to grips with this mysterious new disease. As one Army colonel explained to an infantry captain at Fort Benning, Ga., “AIDS won’t be a problem for us. The infantry doesn’t have any gays.” The captain to whom he made the remark was gay.
Overwhelmingly, uniformed personnel with AIDS were gay men. Drug screening had all but eliminated intravenous drug users from among uniformed personnel, and hemophiliacs were screened out before enlistment. For the rest of the ‘80s, the AIDS epidemic would present gay men in uniform with their greatest challenge--and the military establishment with compelling evidence that gays were not only a crucial part of every branch of the military but also possessed some of the most sensitive military jobs. By 1992, the Veterans Administration, one of the biggest providers of AIDS care in the country, was tending more than 16,000 AIDS patients.
JUNE 25, 1985, SAN DIEGO
With his thick brown hair and chiseled features, Hospitalman Third Class Byron Garry Kinney had been handsome once, but by this morning, the purple lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma had stained his face, and his Navy uniform hung loosely on his wasted body. Kinney was also terribly tired. The doctors said he had perhaps four months to live--at most, 10 months.
But no matter how close to death he might be, the Navy appeared to have only one purpose: to punish Byron Kinney for being gay. That was why he was here in Courtroom 3 of the 32nd Street Naval Station, so the administrative board could separate him from the Navy.
This official posture came at a time when the armed forces could no longer procrastinate in deciding how they would cope with the growing number of AIDS patients. Three months earlier, the Food and Drug Administration had licensed the first blood tests for antibodies to the virus believed to cause AIDS. Since the antibody test kits were only then coming off the production line, the test’s use was largely restricted to blood banks; once it became more widely available, its presence could have staggering social implications, especially for the Defense Department.
Already there were calls for screening all 2 million active-duty service members. But what would the service do with soldiers who tested positive for HTLV-III? Military doctors had already pressed their case: If testing revealed a soldier was stricken with cancer or heart disease, that soldier was medically retired and allowed a pension and use of military medical facilities. This tradition dated back generations and reflected a covenant between the military and its members.
But AIDS was never to be treated like just another disease in the United States, given the fact that its first cases were detected among gay men. Though the military’s medical people called for compassion, some officers in the more conservative branches would hear nothing of it. As the civilian leadership of the Defense Department still floundered for official policies, individual commands began implementing their own. Which was why Byron Kinney stood, exhausted, before a separation hearing in San Diego that morning, and also why he was fighting his separation, so that other sick and tired people would not have to suffer as he was.
The crescendo had been building over the previous year. Naturally, the service most dedicated to punishing homosexuals took the hardest line against service members with AIDS. In March, Hospitalman Second Class Bernard (Bud) Broyhill was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma at his duty station in Puerto Rico. His Navy doctor insisted that it was essential for his diagnosis to know whether Broyhill had ever engaged in homosexual conduct. When the corpsman was reluctant to answer, the physician assured him that any answer would be held in the strictest confidence. Broyhill said he was gay. A few days later, the NIS informed Broyhill that he was being charged with sodomy and homosexuality.
The first references to Byron Kinney’s sexuality were scrawled on his chart on Oct. 23, 1984. “The patient became sexually active with men at age 21,” the doctor wrote. Two weeks later, when the AIDS diagnosis was made, another doctor noted, “The patient has a history of homosexuality and has had several partners.” These notes did not prejudice the Navy captain and lieutenant commander who composed the medical board that in December ruled Kinney qualified for medical retirement. They also deemed that Kinney was entitled to his base pay and continued medical treatment from the Navy.
The entire matter might have ended there but for Rear Adm. David L. Harlow at the Naval Personnel Command. He insisted that Kinney not be medically retired but separated for homosexuality instead. Kinney’s offense was not only that he was gay, but also that he had perpetrated an act of fraud against the Navy with his answer to question 35f on his enlistment application: “Have you ever engaged in homosexual activity?” Because of the fraudulent enlistment charge, Harlow wanted Kinney to receive a general discharge rather than an honorable one.
By now, Kinney had been evacuated to San Diego. Though military personnel are not guaranteed confidentiality in their relationships with physicians, the Navy doctors who indicated that Kinney was gay were appalled at the Navy’s moves against the dying man. One, Lt. Cmdr. Fred Millard, furnished a blistering memo for Kinney’s lawyers. “The information . . . was obtained from Byron with the understanding that it would be used purely for purposes of medical diagnosis and treatment,” Millard wrote. “Any attempt to use this information for other purposes without Byron’s permission represents an unconscionable breach of the principle of confidentiality between patient and care giver.”
Navy spokesman Lt. Stephen Pietropaoli countered: “Homosexuality is incompatible with military life. It is the Navy policy that all homosexuals be separated from the Navy. No punitive action is taken when someone has AIDS, that is a medical diagnosis. . . . There is only punitive action when a person is homosexual.” For all their denials, admirals in the Pentagon were not reviewing the records of medical retirement boards for evidence of homosexuality or fraudulent enlistment in sailors with heart conditions or diabetes. They were doing so only for sailors with AIDS.
Kinney could sit up for only some of his separation hearing. For much of the procedure, he lay on a bench in the rear of the courtroom while the lawyers argued among themselves. In his opening argument, Lt. Nels Kelstrom, acting on behalf of the Navy, announced that he would present no witnesses, because he did not have to. Kinney’s records spoke for themselves.
Kinney’s attorney, Ted Bumer, brought in AIDS experts from UC San Diego to testify how long they thought Kinney could be expected to live. Bumer’s intent was to show that the Navy had little to lose in the way of good order, discipline and morale by allowing Kinney to have a medical retirement. Kelstrom was angered by the line of questioning and asked that it be halted. The Navy legal adviser ruled for the Navy.
Though Navy regulations called for an honorable discharge for gay sailors, Kelstrom argued against mercy for Kinney, saying the “fraudulent enlistment” charge outweighed “the positive aspects of his performance” while a Navy corpsman.
In his closing argument, Bumer begged the board to consider the impact a separation would have on the military’s ability to deal with AIDS. Sailors would be afraid to talk to their doctors; doctors would be afraid to talk to their patients. Before Bumer could get far into his closing argument, however, Kelstrom objected. AIDS was not the issue, he said, only homosexuality and fraudulent enlistment. None of this was relevant, he stated. The board ultimately voted to separate Kinney with a less-than-honorable discharge.
In the end, though, it was the specter of more bad publicity that prompted the Navy to reverse itself and grant the medical discharge Kinney sought. Bernard Broyhill was also notified that he would be medically retired and not discharged for homosexuality. “I feel great!” Kinney told a gay newspaper. “This is what I wanted. I hope this case has helped others.”
Five days later, on Oct. 21, Byron Kinney died. Bernard Broyhill died in November.
The drama continued until the Defense Department adopted policies in November, 1985, ensuring confidentiality and non-discrimination against soldiers with HIV. One reason: So many high-ranking officers tested HIV positive that the Pentagon feared it would be embarrassed if it tried to discharge them all.
NOVEMBER, 1990, MINNEAPOLIS
Greg Teran had never considered discrimination against homosexuals until he began filling out the required questionnaire for his admittance to the ROTC program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was the question that asked if he were gay that stopped him cold. He had no doubts about his own sexuality; he was heterosexual, but the question rankled him because he saw it as the means for the ROTC to exclude gays from the program. It was bigotry staring him in the face. It was wrong.
Teran had strong feelings about prejudice. Signs separating the “colored” and “white” still hung on restroom doors where he grew up in Texas. But Greg was born in 1970 and grew up pro-civil rights, with his immigrant father’s drive to succeed.
The gay controversy exploded in the press and on the MIT campus in early 1990. Across the country, universities were debating whether to eject the ROTC from their campuses. By 1990, most colleges had rules prohibiting them from doing business with any organization that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. The military clearly violated these codes. To exacerbate tensions further, ROTC programs were discharging growing numbers of gay cadets and then slapping them with bills to repay the tuition the program had provided.
It had become the most serious threat to the ROTC program on college campuses across America since the Vietnam War. Opponents to the presence of the ROTC at MIT had organized their own group, called Defeat Discrimination at MIT, and had collected 2,000 signatures of students advocating the ouster of the military because of its anti-gay policies.
Assigned to do a full briefing on any military-related issue for his ROTC class, Teran delivered a report to the 15 other Air Force cadets and his unit commander, arguing that the regulations banning gays should be rescinded. Not one student rolled his eyes or looked away in disgust. Several cadets were sympathetic; some asked about sharing foxholes with gays, some wanted to know whether handling bleeding gay soldiers could put them at risk for AIDS.
After the class, Teran’s commandant asked to see him in his office. Teran expected a dressing down for challenging policy; instead, the commandant said it was the finest briefing he had seen in his career at ROTC, and awarded Teran the best grade he had ever given--100 out of a possible 100 points. The military ban on gays “will change,” the commandant said. “It absolutely cannot last.”
But Teran found strong resistance to gays in other quarters. When his flight-training officer assembled the cadets and asked them to state their goals for military service, Teran said his was to serve in an Air Force that did not discriminate on race, sex, or sexual orientation. The captain looked back at him somberly. “You might have to fall on your sword for that one,” he said.
By October, Teran had made his decision to attend “About Face,” a national conference at the University of Minnesota. He joined 150 college students and gay activists bent on ousting the ROTC from campuses unless the Defense Department changed its anti-gay regulations.
Men like Teran taking up the cause indicate that a segment of the young heterosexual population is becoming aware of something wrong in the way society treats gays, and that they must help change it. Their attitude suggests a future in which gays would not be altogether alone in their fight for social acceptance.
By formulating a national strategy to focus attention on the issue of gays in the military, the conference, the first of its kind dedicated solely to this issue, spurred renewed activities against the ROTC across the country. By April, 1991, more than 120 campuses participated in a National Day of Action against ROTC. Though few campuses moved to abolish their ROTC programs, the threat was deemed great enough that Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) introduced legislation in Congress to deny federal funds to any school that did not allow ROTC or military recruiters on campus.
At the end of the daylong conference in Minneapolis, a group of conferees assembled a modest picket line at the University of Minnesota’s ROTC building. Nearby, small knots of ROTC cadets watched the protesters suspiciously. What would happen to their scholarships if the ROTC was disenfranchised? they asked. Why should they be made to suffer for policies they had no role in implementing?
When asked how they felt about serving with gays once they were commissioned, the cadets fell into two camps. “I don’t want them staring at me in the shower,” said one 20-year-old cadet. “This is not like a regular job--in the military, you live where you work.” Some cadets seemed resigned that the policy would change, even though they were not enthusiastic at the prospect. Once in the military, they said, their job would be to follow orders. If new orders came through on gays, they would obey them. None evinced wholehearted support for policy changes.
Clearly, resistance to reform among many of the next generation of military officers would be strong. Idealists like Greg Teran are the exception, not the rule. Most heterosexual males remain uncomfortable with the notion of homosexuality, less because of a dislike for gays than for a fear of what accepting homosexuality as a norm would mean to the entire structure of what is considered masculine. The ideology of masculinity has remained a strong cultural imperative in the United States despite the best efforts of the gay and women’s movements. The old ways are receding, but new ways to assert manhood, or more accurately personhood, have not yet taken shape, and many young men are lost, clinging to the old as if to a life preserver.
It seemed clear, watching these University of Minnesota cadets earnestly debate whether they should serve with gays, that even a presidential order to allow gays into the military would not mark the end of the campaign for acceptance of gays in the armed forces. It would only be the beginning.