Conduct Unbecoming

by Randy Shilts
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2166

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.

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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 around eleven hundred in 1967, eight hundred in 1968, and six hundred in 1969. The fluctuations of such numbers stand in direct conflict with the explicit policy of the Department of Defense: “The presence of homosexuals would seriously impair discipline, good order, morals and the security of our armed forces.”

Conduct Unbecoming makes clear, however, that unlike gay men, lesbians have been rarely tolerated, even during times of dire staffing needs. Organized around principles of masculinity and power, the military has always had a problematic relationship with its female personnel. Shilts does a superb job in tracing the interconnections between sexism and homophobia, and recounts ample testimony proving the extreme constraints under which both heterosexual women and lesbians have attempted to serve their country. In a nation where women are seen as signifiers of weakness and as sexual property, lesbians are often perceived as the most threatening affront imaginable to patriarchal values. Historically, they have been targeted for vicious attacks and investigations by the armed services.

Penny Rand, for example, was not only sexually harassed but also, like other women in the services, ordered to make herself more attractive to men by wearing makeup and shaving her legs. When she complained, her superiors suspected that she had been “infected” by the terrible illness that they feared was spreading among the women on her base: lesbianism. In a typically confused and erroneous rationale for their investigation, they claimed that lesbians were harassing other women, when in truth it was heterosexual men who were constantly harassing the female personnel. Rand could not live with this hypocrisy; she joined antiwar protesters at her base, defied direct orders from superiors, and was finally discharged from the service, after which she went to work for the antiwar movement full time. In a way, Rand was lucky; other suspected lesbians were physically assaulted, locked in closets for days on end, and even imprisoned for years.

In the 1970’s, with the end of the Vietnam War, the witch-hunts of lesbians and gays intensified, even though the larger American culture seemed to be growing more tolerant of homosexuals. The Civil Service was forced to open its 2.6 million jobs to gays and lesbians in 1975, when it could not prove that there was a job-related rationale for excluding them. Yet the military continued to react paranoically and hypocritically. Men who had been decorated for service in Vietnam were expelled less than honorably after the war. Some dischargees, however, became willing to fight their superior officers in court. With the birth of the gay rights movement in the late 1960’s, lawyers and activists started looking for clear-cut cases of discrimination with which to challenge government policy. They found many.

Leonard Matlovich’s story is worth repeating here. Matlovich received the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, two Air Force commendation medals, and an Air Force Meritorious Service Medal during three tours in Vietnam. On March 6, 1975, he directly challenged the Air Force policy excluding homosexuals by writing a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force in which he disclosed his sexual orientation and asked to be allowed to continue to serve. When no evidence of poor conduct and service by Matlovich could be unearthed, Air Force officers simply changed records. They carefully chose members of the panel hearing Matlovich’s case to make sure that no tolerant individuals were included. He received death threats and was placed in embarrassing situations with nude airmen in an attempt to manufacture evidence that he had harassed other personnel. Finally Matlovich was less than honorably discharged; the only career that he ever desired was denied to him. When he died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1988, the Air Force would not even allow an American flag to be draped over his coffin, though they could not deny him a space in a military cemetery. His grave marker reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.”

Through the 1980’s the gay civil rights movement was inextricably tied to the AIDS crisis, and so was the plight of gay men in the military. AIDS added fuel to social homophobia even as it galvanized gay leaders and provided a rallying point for political activism. The military’s response to the AIDS crisis was predictable. Just as Ronald Reagan was slow to react to a disease that many interpreted as divine retribution against homosexuals, so too did the military ignore the possibility that sexually active troops were at risk for HIV infection. When the Defense Department did finally take notice, it did so slowly and without regard for truth. HIV-positive soldiers were harassed and summarily discharged in the early 1980’s. Later, when the military agreed to stop discharging them, infected military personnel were still treated as pariahs, often beaten and scorned as they were summarily assumed to be gay by their peers. Yet when the military conducted the first survey of HIV’s prevalence among enlisted men in the mid-1980’s, it doctored the results so that almost all the soldiers were said to have contracted the disease heterosexually; this allowed the Department of Defense to continue to claim that homosexuality was practically nonexistent in the military, even as it continued its witch-hunts to locate lesbians and gays. Later, when questioned by nonmilitary personnel, most of the soldiers who had claimed to be heterosexual were found to be gay. The AIDS crisis in the military has proved to be hopelessly complicated and muddled because of the military’s intransigence and prejudice.

Conduct Unbecoming takes the reader up to the early 1990’s. During the war in the Persian Gulf, the military actively recruited previously discharged gay servicemen because there was a shortage of translators of Arabic. Even so, for those with less essential skills, the story was one of ongoing misery. In 1989 and 1990, Sergeant Dan Bell of the Air Force was repeatedly locked inside bare closets in order to coerce from him the names of other homosexuals. In 1990, the Supreme Court let stand two federal appeal rulings that allowed the discharge of Army Reservist Miriam Ben-Shalom and Navy Ensign James Woodward. The military even started demanding that gays and lesbians repay all ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship money that they received. This decision, however, worked to galvanize groups and individuals opposed to the military ban.

In the early 1990’s, colleges and universities across the nation responded to the new recoupment policy by expelling ROTC programs, stating that the military’s continued discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violated their own campus policies. In 1990, several leading college organizations wrote to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney asking him to rescind the military ban; Cheney, who was known to view the ban as outdated and impractical, nevertheless refused. He did, however, order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to stop the vindictive attempt to recover tuition money and to halt massive purges of gay servicemen and women. The tide seemed to be turning as the military establishment came face to face with changing social beliefs and the political power of the gay and lesbian rights movement.

Shilts’s book cannot provide a real conclusion. Published just as President Bill Clinton was taking office, it cannot tell the reader what will happen finally to the military ban. The court cases that it traces in its last chapters were still subject to being appealed or overruled, and the careers of many individuals questioned were in limbo. Even so, Conduct Unbecoming is a powerful and rich narrative of social discrimination and institutional hypocrisy. Shilts completed the book while hospitalized with AIDS. His death in 1994, at the age of forty-two, brought an end to a distinguished journalistic career characterized by first-rate reporting and a passionate commitment to gay issues.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. May 30, 1993, XIV, p.5.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 5, 1993, p.7.

The Nation. CCLVI, June 7, 1993, p.806.

National Review. XLV, April 26, 1993, p.12.

The New York Review of Books. XL, September 23, 1993, p.18.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, May 30, 1993, p.2.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, July 5, 1993, p.35.

Time. CXLI, May 24, 1993, p.76.

The Wall Street Journal. May 18, 1993, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, April 25, 1993, p.1.

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