Military is the armed forces of a people, and most often refers to the armed forces of a sovereign nation. Traditionally, the trained combatant (including the soldier, sailor, pilot, marine, and support personnel) has been an icon of heterosexual masculinity, even in countries where women are admitted into the armed forces as combatants.
The military has been the site for persecution of Gay-related males, a place of refuge for masculine women, and concurrent homophobic-homoerotic fantasies across the orientation/gender/physiology spectra. On one hand, conservative notions of masculinity in many cultures hold that homosexual men, effeminate men, transpeople, intersex people, and women are unfit to serve as combatants. On the other hand, the need for able-bodied individuals regardless of sex, gender, or orientation has opened the doors for women and LGBTQ people to join, either openly or in secret.
Homosexuality in Military History
The most significant discourse on homosexual military men in antiquity comes from the writings of a few ancient Greeks and Romans. Some sources supportive of same-sex love between men frame homosexuality as a potentially positive motivating factor on the battlefield, an incentive for men to fight harder in the presence of their fellow soldier-lovers. But discourse is not uniformly held in favor of homosexuality, or even tolerant of it, in supposedly tolerant societies such as the ancient Greeks. Lycurgus, the legendary founder of Sparta, was said to have found same-sex love among soldiers to be shameful if it went beyond intense friendship and into erotic attraction.
On the other hand, the Roman historian Plutarch (46-120 CE) wrote of the Sacred Band of Thebes, Greek warrior-lovers who fought against Philip of Macedonia. Plutarch relates that, after destroying the Band of Thebes in battle, Philip had a monument built in their honor that said, “Perish miserably they who think that these men did or suffered aught disgraceful.” Plutarch’s account, however, should be considered more a matter of Plutarch’s opinion rather than established historical fact because the battle to which he refers happened centuries before his birth.
The usual pattern in Western civilization going back to the ancient Greeks is to ascribe effeminate behavior and same-sex love to the armies of others, not one’s own nation. For instance, Herodotus writes, in his 430 BCE history of the Persian Wars, of a feminized Persian army en route to battle with Greece. The Persian king Xerxes favored a woman, Artemisia I of Caria, as his greatest general. But, according to Herodotus, having Artemisia in charge of an army feminized that army and was the reason that the Persians lost to the masculine Greeks.
Notable exceptions to the notion that same-sex love was equivalent to effeminate and/or weak behavior in men are the heroic lovers Aristogeiton and Harmodius, who became the symbols of Athenian democracy and patriotism for killing the tyrant Hipparchus. This male couple was honored in the sixth century BCE by being the first public figures to have statues paid for from city coffers. Though not soldiers per se, Aristogeiton and Harmodius were praised for being patriots who fought tyranny, thus were inspiration for other men who fought on behalf of Athens in the city-state’s wars.
Although there is scant evidence of same-sex loving women in the military before the twenty-first century, there are plenty of examples in legend and in recorded history of women cross-dressing as men in order to become combatants. Many of the stories describe soldiers that served unnoticed until something happens, often after being wounded or sick, that revealed their female physiological characteristics. Notable examples of women warriors who cross-dressed in men’s clothing (not all disguised themselves as men) are Hua Mulan (China), Zhao of Pingyang (China), Joan of Arc (France), Catalina de Erauso (Spain/Basque Country, supposedly granted a special dispensation by Pope Urban VIII to wear men’s clothing), Mai Bhago (India, Sikh), Joanna Zubr (Poland), Ecaterina Teodoroiu (Romania), Nadezhda Durova (Russia), Hannah Snell (Britain), Deborah Sampson (Massachusetts, USA, Revolutionary War), “Samuel Gay” (Revolutionary War, identity as woman unknown), Sarah Emma Edmundson (also known as “Franklin Flint Thompson,” New Brunswick, Canada and Michigan, USA, Civil War), and Cathay Williams (Missouri, USA, Civil War). Williams was the first recorded African American woman to serve in the US military.
Stories surrounding these women do not often suggest same-sex attraction, neither do they push the issue of transgender identity. But there are exceptions: Maria van Antwerpen (eighteenth-century Dutch woman who dressed as a man, became a soldier, and married another woman), Catalina de Erauso, and Native American warriors such as Running Eagle of the Blackfoot (who dressed, behaved, and was treated like a man) and Woman Chief of the Crow (who lived as a man and took four wives).
The gender choice of famous women who led armies depended mostly on political expediency because their people knew they were born female. Two notable commander-monarchs were women who took on the trappings of masculine identity: Pharaoh Hatshepsut of Egypt, who is depicted dressed as a man (complete with a pharaonic beard), and Nzinga (also known as Queen Ana de Sousa) of Angola, who was rumored to dress like a man for battle, and kept a male harem that dressed in women’s clothing. But women did not always have to become men or dress as men in order to establish themselves as military commanders. Dihya al-Kahina of the Berbers, Elizabeth I of Britain, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Yaa Asanteawaa of Ghana are remembered as female warriors with feminine identities and, for the most part, wearing feminine dress.
Notable male warriors who cross-dressed as women are Achilles (as a teenager, his mother made him pretend to be a girl so he would not be forced to fight in the Trojan War), Hercules (as punishment for his murderous temper), Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie (as a maid servant to escape from a lost battle) and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (disguised in women’s clothing in order to assassinate members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization). The warrior-god Shango of the Yoruba in West Africa cross-dressed to escape the captivity of ghosts that his first wife, the warrior-goddess Oya, had set about his house to keep him from cheating on her. Arjuna, the Hindu warrior from the Mahabharata, also cross-dressed as an emasculated male dance instructor named Brihanalla to avoid his enemies. After the Civil War in the United States, President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis was reportedly captured in his wife’s clothing while attempting to elude his Union captors.
History of Discrimination Against Homosexuals
Phobias concerning homosexuals in the military include fear of homosexual advances from a fellow combatant, fear that homosexuality in the military is a sign of moral weakness, and fear of being shamed by the enemy. During the Cold War, there were fears In the USA and among its allies that homosexual men and women were easy targets for blackmail, and that Communist spies could gain easy access and information from homosexual members in exchange for silence about their sex lives.
Homosexual service members who were found out prior to the Second World War (a time when all service members were male) were tried at court martial under the 62nd Article of War and discharged dishonorably. Between 1897 and 1928, there were 150 men held in Fort Leavenworth prison alone for charges of sodomy, pederasty, crimes against nature, etc. However toward the end of the twentieth century, the number of members investigated and discharged was exponentially greater.
After the Second World War, the United States Army and other military branches had become overstaffed and inefficient for peacetime purposes. President Harry Truman ordered General Dwight D. Eisenhower – the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time – to downsize the military in any way possible. One of the first grounds of dismissal that Eisenhower used was that of sexual conduct. Those accused of sexual deviancy were collected and put into holding camps before being discharged dishonorably from the service.
Between 1980 and 1990, the United States Military discharged an average of 1,500 service members annually on the grounds of homosexuality – its highest was 2,000 members discharged in 1982 and its lowest was 1,000 in 1990. It is difficult to say why the numbers grew so vast in comparison to former years. The rise in discharges could have been due to another downsizing period at the end of the Cold War tensions. The most discharges in the decade were in 1982, perhaps due to a new epidemic, GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, later known as AIDS), which caused a nation-wide “gay panic” and fear of homosexual men as disease-carriers.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
During the presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s, the Gay community received some relief that was discriminatory in itself: Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (DADT) allowed for homosexuals to serve in the military discreetly. They were theoretically safe from discharge so long as they did not display their sexual preference. The military was no longer allowed to ask upon recruitment if an enlistee had any homosexual tendencies. The policy had been controversial since the beginning. The Gay community denounced DADT, finding the policy to be a highly discriminatory because heterosexual members could flaunt their sexual preferences freely, and because too many authorities in the military kept looking for evidence of homosexuality, regardless of how discreet the personnel in question had been.
American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN, founded in 1993), nonprofit organizations for LGBTQ veterans, were created to help American Armed Forces personnel with problems they might encounter due to discriminatory policies or homophobic treatment.
In 2010 (and perhaps more discreetly in 2009), the Obama Administration began actively dismantling DADT. The US Military allowed certain units to have openly Gay personnel, and solicited input from LGBTQ servicepeople. In 2011, DADT was officially discontinued.
But discrimination continued. On February 10, 2013, Chief Petty Officer Charlie Morgan died of complications due to breast cancer. She had worked with OutServe-SLDN, an organization dedicated to the rights of LGBTQ military personnel to end the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The day after her death, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a directive granting same-sex families of military personnel the same benefits as heteronormal families if those privileges were not in direct conflict with DOMA. Prior to Panetta’s directive, benefits such as military ID were not available to Morgan’s wife. “I would ask other families like ours to tell their personal story and educate their family and friends on the importance of this issue,” said Morgan in an October 2012 interview with Mickey Weems for eXpression! Magazine in Hawai‘i. “We’re all in this together.”
On June 26, 2013, the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages was struck down by the US Supreme Court. The Obama Administration then set about giving all rights of married couples to LGBTQ military personnel.
Leather Folklife, Pornography, and Military Balls
Within the Gay male community, iconic images of masculinity are invoked for the purpose of display including images of soldiers, sailors, marines, and pilots. Military clothing is utilized within Gay male festive folklife and private erotic play. In large part, it is erotic appeal of the warrior and the physically flattering design of the form-fitting dress uniform that attract many LGBTQ people to military/warrior uniforms. The paramilitary design of Leathermen’s uniforms (black leather caps with small bills, jackets, chest harnesses, pants, chrome accoutrements, shiny black boots) reflects that appeal. Contests in the Leather community are held to judge men in these outfits on stage. Military scenarios are a standard theme in Gay men’s pornographic photographs and videos.
In the Gay male festival culture known as the Circuit, some of the weekend-long dance events include Leather balls and military balls. During the military balls, participants wear military clothing as they dance and socialize together.
The use of men’s military and paramilitary clothing can be seen as the accessorizing of masculine gear for the purpose of consensual pleasure (even when used in consensual sado-masochism in Leathersex) rather than war. As such, the uniform is simultaneously honored as a valid masculine marker and trivialized when made into an accessory for erotic stimulation.
Military Folklife in Video
There have also been folk-related videos about LGBTQ people in the military, such as Open Secrets (José Torrealba, homosexuality and cross-dressing in the Canadian military during World War II) and Tell (Tom Murray, homosexuality in the US military at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries). Both Torrealba and Murray showed their documentaries of LGBTQ military folklife during the Qualia Festival of Gay Folklife in Columbus, Ohio (2005 and 2008, respectively).
Baird, Robert and M. Katherine Baird, eds. Homosexuality: Debating the Issues. Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 1995.
Chauncey, George Jr. “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War One Era.” Journal of Social History, Vol. 19, No. 2, Winter, 1985: 189-211. (This is also a chapter in a book that he edited with another person – Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay Past, Meridian: 1995)
Herek, Gregory M., Jared B. Jobe, and Ralph M. Carney, eds. Out in Force: Sexual orientation and the Military. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1996.
McGrath, Ben. “The Military Life: A Soldier’s Legacy.” The New Yorker. August 4, 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/08/04/080804fa_fact_mcgrath (accessed August 4, 2008).
Williams, Colin J. and Martin S. Weinberg. Homosexuals and the Military: A Study of Less Than Honorable Discharge. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1971.