While open service for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals is relatively recent, and transgender open service still being fought for, there is a long history of LGBT individuals serving in the United States military. For example, the U.S. Naval Institute notes that the first person discharged for homosexuality was Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin in 1778. LGBT individuals have continued to serve in the military throughout American history, though not with impunity. Homosexuality was first criminalized by the military in 1917 under Article 93, which was approved by Congress in 1920.
As the homophile movement began in the United States in the 1940s, so too did the use of psychiatry to attack homosexuality through the government. As historian Michael Bronski notes, “a direct link was being made between homosexual behavior and a threat to national security.” With the approval and authority of the psychiatric discipline, the government began to systematically codify homophobia. Shortly after the prohibition on sodomy was added to the UCMJ in 1951, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an Executive Order listing “sexual perversion,” which included homosexuality, “as a security risk and grounds for termination or denial of employment. Scholars today note that this was applied, at least as early as 1960, to ban transgender individuals from serving as well. These policies continued over the next few decades, with explicit homophobia finding its ultimate expression in 1981 with the Department of Defense Directive making clear that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” In terms of transgender individuals, the 1980s were a time when “the military was applying its medical regulations more forcefully” to exclude this population from service.
Although anti-LGBT laws and policies continued to be enforced since the time of President Eisenhower, a significant report, commissioned by the Department of Defense and published in 1988, found that homosexuality was not a threat to national security. While there was no talk of removing bans on transgender individuals, there was renewed hope that bans on homosexuality would be lifted, especially after then-Governor Bill Clinton promised in his campaign for presidency to lift the ban. However, President Bill Clinton never fulfilled that promise, signing the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy into law in 1993. Although President Clinton portrayed this policy as “a dramatic step forward,” his compromise created a policy that forced LGB servicemembers to remain closeted in order to join and serve in the military.
Despite this major setback, there was hope: the creation of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). SLDN began working in 1993 as a nonprofit providing free legal services to lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers and veterans. The organization represented LGB servicemembers under DADT, challenging both the DADT policy and the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) as unconstitutional. After 17 years of fighting for LGB servicemembers under this policy, Congress finally took action in December, 2010, voting to repeal the DADT policy. The bill repealing DADT was signed into law by openly supportive President Barack Obama before the years end. During the process and aftermath of repealing DADT, two other organizations were founded to address the inequalities LGB servicemembers were facing: OutServe and the Military Partners and Families Coalition, both of which have since merged with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Founded in 2010 under the name “Citizens for Repeal,” OutServe was the first member-based organization to represent the interests of LGB servicemembers. It wasn’t long until these two crucial organizations combined their efforts through a merger in 2012, forming what is now known as OutServe-SLDN, “a non-partisan, non-profit, legal services, watchdog and policy organization dedicated to bringing about full LGBT equality to America’s military and ending all forms of discrimination and harassment of military personnel on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC) was the only organization founded by the partners of actively-serving military personnel. Their mission was to provide support, education, resources, and advocacy for the LGBT military family community. They proudly represented and served all aspects of the military family from parents to partners/spouses to children, as well as all branches and components of the United States Armed Forces from active duty to the National Guard and Reserves to Veterans.
Although the repeal of DADT and organizations such as OutServe-SLDN as advocates were great achievements for LGB servicemembers and veterans, there were still federal laws and policies preventing open and equal service. For starters, transgender individuals continued to be banned from military service, a policy that continues today despite a short commitment to open service (for more, see the “Transgender Service” section below). Another prominent issue for LGB servicemembers was DOMA, which provided a federal definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Though this was challenged many times, it was the case of U.S. v. Windsor which ruled the federal definition unconstitutional. This historic victory meant that same-sex couples could have their marriage recognized by the federal government, and could access a plethora of military benefits previously unavailable to them, though they could only seek marriage licenses in certain states. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 that same-sex marriage became a reality for all Americans, and LGB military families receiving full recognition and benefits as a result. With these rulings as law, as well as updates to the Military Equal Opportunity program and the UCMJ, LGB servicemembers are now able to serve freely in the military without formal laws or policies preventing them from joining or punishing them on the basis of sexual orientation. In light of these victories, we continue to fight for the rights of transgender individuals to serve openly in the military, with the hopes that the LGBT community will gain full equality to serve in the military.