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Gay Vets Helped Form Backbone
of LGBT Equality Movement

By Michael Bedwell

This year, we’ve seen the issue of gays in the military draw more attention than any time since 1993 when Bill Clinton’s goal of eliminating the ban that had existed for more than 60 years was incinerated in a firestorm created by a ruthless coalition of civilian and military opponents to LGBT equality.

Some younger people seem to think that the ban on gays actually started with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and too many older are unaware of how long the issue has shared the top of the list of demands for gay equality. Both tend to be unaware of how many movement pioneers were/are veterans.  It is my considered opinion that this is because most LGBT histories are written by those antipathetic to anything related to the military.

Some believe that the gay movement started with 1969’s Stonewall Riots in New York City.  Others say it started in Los Angeles in 1950 with the Mattachine Society, and that it was the first gay organization in the United States to continue for a number of years after the first one, Chicago’s Society for Human Rights, was quickly shut down in 1924.  In fact, that distinction goes to the gay Veterans Benevolent Association, founded by four honorably discharged gay vets in New York City in 1945. While they made some efforts to provide help to gays that had gotten “blue discharges,” it was primarily a social organization whose dances often drew hundreds of attendees. It lasted nine years until efforts by some to make the group more political resulted in it imploding, and some of those moving on to other gay groups that had formed by then.

The more studious may know that Henry Gerber was the primary founder of that earlier historic Chicago group, but few seem to know that he served in the United States Army in both WWI and WWII.

Most LGBT histories insist that the first demonstration for gay rights was the picket of the White House in 1965. In fact, the first was the year before when a handful of protestors denounced the ban on gays in the military at Manhattan’s Whitehall Induction Center. They were led by multitalented movement pioneer Randy Wicker and Craig Rodwell who, among his several accomplishments, would open the first LGBT bookstore in the United States, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.

Photos by Randy Wicker 1964

Sometimes people don’t realize that parts of this history are right in front of them. Entering the GLBT Historical Society’s Passionate Struggle exhibit at 18th & Castro in San Francisco, the first large photo one sees is of late lesbian rights pioneer Del Martin, cofounder with her partner Phyllis Lyon of the Daughters of Bilitis [DOB]. The context of the photo is unidentified so few visitors know it’s of Del speaking to a crowd of 4-500 at a protest of the military’s ban on gays at San Francisco’s Federal Building on Armed Forces Day in 1966. Signs read, "EVERY MAN HAS A RIGHT TO SERVE HIS COUNTRY," "SEXUALITY DOES NOT DETERMINE PATRIOTISM,"  and “STOP WASTING TAX PAYERS’ $$$ ON WITCH HUNTS FOR HOMOSEXUALS.”

One of simultaneous events across the country Martin had suggested at the National Planning Conference of Homophile Organizations held that February in Kansas City, Missouri, it was sponsored locally by DOB, the Society for Individual Rights [SIR], the forerunner of today’s Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, the Tavern Guild, et al.

While Del and others were speaking in San Francisco, former high school ROTC member and Mattachine cofounder Harry Hay was one of the leaders along with WWII Army veteran Don Slater, the cofounder of legendary gay magazine ONE who defeated the US Postal Service in a landmark Supreme Court free speech case, of a motorcade through some twenty miles of Los Angeles streets protesting the ban. Thirteen car roofs carried four-sided, four-foot tall signs with such messages as, “10% OF ALL GIs ARE GAY,” and “WRITE LBJ TODAY.”

According to C. Todd White’s Pre-Gay L.A., their Los Angeles Committee to Fight Exclusion of Homosexuals from the Armed Forces had earlier released a statement saying, “millions of homosexual men and women have served with honor as soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in the wars of our country” while having to “swear falsely before the examining boards, denying the truth about themselves under oath.” They urged people to write the president and members of Congress, “to protest this waste of needed manpower and the unjustified denial of the right of a loyal citizen to serve his country in war.”

 In DC, movement icon and WWII Army veteran Frank Kameny—at one time the only real source of help to both active duty and veteran gays—led a four-mile march from the White House to the Pentagon, then flew to New York to speak at the DOB-sponsored rally there. Other events were held in Philadelphia and Kansas City. Together, the demonstrations got more mainstream media attention than any previous gay events, if not always sympathetic. An LA Times columnist wrote, “It’s almost tragic that they chose to make their stand for acceptance by demanding the right to join the army. Such a totally impractical idea turns a serious social problem into material for a burlesque skit.”

At the back of the Historical Society’s exhibit is the startling display that often brings tears to the eyes of many who see it. There under Plexiglas are the bloodstained suit, shirt, tie, and shoes that Harvey Milk was wearing when he was murdered. Few realize the significance of the belt also in the case. Its buckle has the insignia of a Master Diver which Harvey became during his four years in the US Navy, and remained proud of through his last breath.

Kameny, Slater, and Milk were not the only gay veterans to play major roles in the broader LGBT movement. Mattachine cofounder Dale Jennings, a WWII Army veteran, was the first to publicly fight [and win] a phony police entrapment case. SIR and Toklas cofounder Jim Foster, the first out gay man to address a Democratic National Convention [1972] had moved to San Francisco after being kicked out of the Army for being gay. As reported by Randy Shilts in Conduct Unbecoming, during two weeks of interrogation, going over every name in his address book, they asked,

“Sarah Whiteside, is she a dyke?”

“That’s my 84-yr. old great aunt,” Foster replied.

 “And this one—is she queer, too?”

“That’s my grandmother.”

Jose Sarria, famous both as the Widow Norton and the first out gay to run for public office in the United States—in 1961, twelve years before Harvey Milk,—is a WWII Army veteran.  Gay Games founder Dr. Tom Waddell represented the US Army in the official Olympics. The Rev. Troy Perry, who’s saved countless lives by building gays a welcoming home for their starving souls with the Metropolitan Community Churches, is also an Army veteran.

In addition to Milk, Bay Area Reporter founder Bob Ross was in the US Navy, as was Herb Donaldson, California’s first out gay male judge [and possibly the first in the nation], and, before he became the beloved troubadour of Tales of The City, author Armistead Maupin.

 In rare cases, gay activism preceded military service. Inspired, as so many, by Frank Kameny, Robert Martin [aka Stephen Donaldson] started the first gay student group at an American university while attending Columbia in 1966. He later enlisted in the US Navy and, after being outed, was the first to publicly fight for an honorable discharge.

Pat Bond, star of the early gay documentary, Word is Out, escaped a witch hunt in the WACs by marrying a gay man. To date, the best known former gay US Marine has been Vietnam veteran Oliver Sipple who saved President Gerald Ford from an assassination attempt in 1975. And, of course, the movement’s first internationally known leader, Leonard Matlovich, went beyond fighting just the military’s ban on gays to battles for equal employment opportunity and adequate prevention and treatment of HIV-AIDS.

With the advent of the all-volunteer military, fewer LGBT activists today involved in more than just the fight to end the military ban are veterans, though there are exceptions including West Point graduates and Iraq veterans Anthony Woods and Dan Choi. Woods, currently running for Congress, was discharged under DADT, and, barring action by the President, Lt. Choi soon will be.

But the leading roles the issue of gay military service and gay veterans themselves played in creating the broader movement for LGBT equality mustn’t be forgotten.

 “And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. “ Symposium, Plato.

Michael Bedwell is the former president of the gay rights group at Indiana University and of DC's Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. He is also the creator of www.leonardmatlovich.com.

1964 Whitehall protest photos courtesy of Randy Wicker.

The San Francisco exhibit of the GLBT Historical Society continues through October.
For more information: www.glbthistory.org

For more information about Anthony Woods: www.anthonywoodsforcongress.com

For information about other gay vets: http://www.leonardmatlovich.com/lgbtveteransgallery.html

  2009 Gay Military Signal