Books about gays in the military, and the history of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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In view of the content of my own books, it’s useful to survey the major books on gays in the military, including the history of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which was effectively passed into law at the end of 1993 and officially repealed in 2011.

The basic reference was by journalist Randy Shilts, “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military”, originally published by St. Martins in 1993, and reissued, slightly updated, in paper by Fawcett Columbine in 1994.  Really, this is a history of gays in the US military, all the way back to the Revolutionary War, up to the beginning of DADT.  A critical time came in 1981, just before President Reagan took office, when the Pentagon came up with the notorious “123 words” (“Homosexuality is incompatible with military service” and the following litany or word salad), and a uniform absolute ban on gays in all the services, technically including the Coast Guard and Surgeon General corps.  Shilts also gave a history of the Vietnam era, when the Army had to try to stop men from claiming homosexuality to get out of the draft.  Shilts included a case of a man thrown out of a civilian college in Illinois in 1995 (officially “flunking out”), getting drafted and discharged again.

There was also a “book” by the Rand Corporation, the official study commissioned by Les Aspen in the Clinton Administration, “Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy”.  The book surveyed many other countries, including Canada, Britain and particularly Israel, before concluding that “sexual orientation was not germane to assessing fitness for military service” and recommending a “code of military professional conduct.”

But the really interesting books were the autobiographies by the individual gay and lesbian soldiers who had to deal with the ban

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The best of all of these books was “Honor Bound: A Gay Naval Midshipman Fights to Serve his Country”, by Joseph Steffan, from Villard (Random House) in 1992.  I actually bought this book at a signing party at Lambda Rising in Washington in September of that year and met the author, I read it in one night and couldn’t put it down.  It woke me up.  Steffan was about to graduate third in his class in 1987 when, in a bizarre set of circumstances, he was outed, and did tell the honor board and cadre that he was gay, and was denied graduation.  He had many accomplishments, such as signing the National Anthem at the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia.  He did a summer cruise on a submarine without incident, and was apparently quite skilled at chess.  There was a great line in the book: “Personal honor is an absolute. You either have or do not have honor”.  For all its importance, I’m surprised that this book is no longer in print and seems to be available only from resellers.

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Marc Wolinsky and Kevin Sherrill authored “Gays in the Military: Joseph Steffan vs. The United States”, Princeton University Press, supplements Steffan’s book with all the legal papers.

Mary Anne Humphrey authored an anthology of cases “My Country: My Right to Serve” (Harper Collins), again, pre-DADT.

James Hollobaugh, in “Torn Allegiances” (1993, Alsyon) told the story of his life as an ROTC cadet.  Discharged after outing himself, he was pursued for recoupment of scholarship monies. One of the most harrowing passages, though, occurs in civilian life when he gets lost in a blizzard in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina (yes, it gets cold there).

Soldier of the Year: The Story of a Gay American Patriot”, by Jose Zuniga, 1995, Pocket Books, is the story of the Sixth Army Soldier of the Year who enlisted at Fort Bliss in 1989.

Serving in Silence” is the story of Grethe Cammermeyer, to be covered in another posting.

Rob Graham’s “Military Secret”, published in Dallas, was a first-person account of Desert Storm.

One of my favorite later books is Reichen Lehmkuhl’s “Here’s What We;ll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S. Air Force“., from Carroll Graf.  By clever manipulation, Reichen survived his four years at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and graduated.

Of special interest as Scott Peck’s “All American Boy” (Scribner, 1995).  Peck was the gay son of a Marine Corps general who opposed lifting the ban and who hosted a radio talk show about gay rights on Sunday nights in 1993.  He one time had a discussion with Frank Kameny on his program about security clearances for gays.

There were books by men in civilian fields similar to the military. There was Frank Buttino’s “A Special Agent: Gay and Inside the FBI”.  Mr. Buttino describes his meeting with the closety J. Edgar Hoover, and his own relationship with a gay sailor, who never was discharged and served without incident.

There are a couple of books by gay atheletes:  “The Dave Kopay Story”, and then Esear Tualo’s “Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL”.  There is also Mark Tewksbury “Inside Out: Straight Talk from a Gay Jock”, by a Canadian Olympic swimmer (sorry, that means “all that body shaving”).  And there is Greg Louganis, “Breaking the Surface.”

My own “Do Ask, Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back” (1997) inverts the usual story, where I was thrown out of a civilian college (William and Mary) for admitting homosexuality in 1961, then took the draft physical three times and eventually was drafted in 1968 and “served” two years without incident.  But Shilts relates a somewhat similar incident at one point.

We should mention John Barrett’s “Hero of Flight 93; Mark Bingham: A Man Who Fought Back on September 11

Regarding the history of the Repeal, I recommend Aaron Belkin and the Palm Center (at UC Santa Barbrara), “How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’” on Kindle.  Previously Belkin had authored “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military” (2003).  I met with Dr. Belkin at his office in Santa Barbara in February 2002.   Another book of important is Nathaniel Frank’s “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America”  (2009). Vincent Cianni will publish a photographic book “Gays in the Military” April 30, 2014.

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