Appearing in the middle of a heated debate over the inclusion of lesbians and gays in the United States armed services, Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf argues forcefully that homosexuals have always served in the U.S. military, for the most part honorably, and have become targets of inquiry and active persecution only during peacetime or when politicians and military leaders have needed a convenient scapegoat. Randy Shilts’s work demonstrates exhaustive research conducted over five years and recounts hundreds of case histories gleaned from eleven hundred interviews with military personnel and civilians. It tells a complex story of individual bravery and institutional hypocrisy and paranoia, as it narrates the tales of patriotic gays and lesbians who have served their country only to be repudiated and harassed when their services have not met the immediate needs of the military. Throughout, Shuts makes a compelling case for social tolerance and for full civil rights for homosexuals.
Like Shilts’s previous works, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982) and And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), Conduct Unbecoming humanizes history, portraying personal dramas against a backdrop of social conflict and changing attitudes. While it consists primarily of interconnected personal narratives, this study returns time and again to a strong central thesis: that homosexuals have played and continue to play key roles in all levels of the military in spite of persistent, though admittedly fluctuating, institutional hostility to them. In the 1980’s alone, Shuts estimates, the cost of investigating and replacing gay personnel ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. During wartime, however, gays with areas of expertise that were in short supply have often been accepted and even actively recruited by the military.
Such institutional hypocrisy dates back to the very beginnings of U.S. history. Benjamin Franklin engaged the services of a Prussian captain, Baron Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben, to provide much-needed training to American revolutionaries serving under George Washington, even though it was widely known that Steuben had a male lover and was a protege’ of the flamboyant King Frederick II of Prussia. Even though Steuben served the Americans honorably and perhaps provided the training necessary for the revolutionaries to defeat the British, his service coincided with the first recorded dismissal from the U.S. military for homosexual activity. Lieutenant Gotthold Enslin was court- martialed on March 10, 1778, for sodomy after being discovered in bed with a private; he was discharged in disgrace by George Washington. Such schizophrenic treatment of gays continued and intensified through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
It was not until 1916, however, that homosexuality was explicitly condemned by American military (rather than civilian) law. Following Sigmund Freud’s now thoroughly discredited theories, the homosexual man came to be seen in the early decades of the twentieth century as a weak and dangerously unstable individual. No longer were specific sexual acts alone punished; instead, individuals were rendered suspect and even punishable for desires that they may never have acted upon. This evolution from the perception of homosexuality as simply condemnable sexual activity to homosexuality as identity led to numerous purges of suspected gays and lesbians.
The vast bulk of Shilts’s book is concerned with recounting the details of such periodic purges from the 1950’s through the early 1990’s, as lives and careers were destroyed because of innuendo and paranoia. Tom Dooley, the bestselling author of Deliver Us from Evil (1956), was less than honorably discharged from the Navy in the 1950’s for “homosexual tendencies and activities” even though he performed heroically as a medical officer in Vietnam. As Shilts makes clear, Dooley’s discharge came before the beginning of full American involvement in the Vietnam conflict and before the armed services recognized that they desperately needed any individuals whom they could find to fill the ranks of the troops in Southeast Asia.
During the war itself, gays were often tolerated because of necessity. Shilts tells how one officer briefing Marines on where they could find prostitutes included information on engaging the services of young men. Scores of gay veterans report uninhibited sexual activity among soldiers in Vietnam; in times of stress and isolation, barriers seemed to fall quickly and easily. The draft situation also mandated a certain tolerance; so many young men were claiming to be homosexual to avoid military service that the excuse was rarely accepted. In 1966 the Pentagon directed draft boards to ignore all claims of homosexuality unless the draftee could offer incontrovertible “evidence.” This meant that few individuals were excused or barred.
Such hypocrisy is reflected in hard statistical and factual evidence. Shilts reports that from 1963 to 1966, the Navy expelled around seventeen hundred individuals a year for homosexuality. Yet as the Vietnam War intensified, these numbers dropped dramatically, to...
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