Lives of shame and secrecy: How gay veterans outed while serving are fighting back

Before 2011, thousands of service members were discharged for being gay. Time to correct the government's wrongs

Published September 16, 2015 10:57PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>DanielBendjy</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(DanielBendjy via iStock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetIn 1956, Hal Faulkner received an “undesirable” discharge from the United States Marines, the consequence of being a gay man during a time when the military not only banned gays from service, but classified homosexuality as a form of mental pathology. For almost 60 years, the designation remained on his military record, yet another aspect of his life he felt forced to cloak in secrecy and shame.

After being diagnosed with terminal cancer in late 2013 (he came out to his family in 2005 and lost his partner of two decades just a few years later), the ex-Marine decided to dedicate the remaining months of his life to one singular battle: upgrading his military discharge classification to its rightful designation of “honorable.” Aided by a pro-bono lawyer and with support from OutServe-Service Legal Defense Network, a reclassification was granted by the Department of Defense within just a few months. Nearly six decades after the U.S. government stained his military record with an “undesirable” dismissal, Faulkner’s discharge was upgraded and his years of service to his country finally fully recognized. Victorious in the last fight of his life, he died just a few short weeks later.

Though Faulkner’s story of military rebuke may be unique in its details, the circumstances are well-known to far too many gay veterans. According to American Veterans for Equal Rights, between World War II and 2011, the year President Clinton’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy was scrapped, “approximately 114,000 service members were discharged because of their sexual orientation.”

In the celebratory atmosphere that has followed LGBT gains of recent years, from the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision to essentially nullify the Defense of Marriage Act to its recent ruling that marriage equality is a constitutional right, it can be easy to forget how the U.S. military’s long-standing policies of homophobic exclusion and oppression continue to impact many veterans’ lives. Now, some of those who attempted to serve their country, only to be rebuked and rejected by the military for their sexuality, are attempting to correct the U.S. government’s wrongs.

For many LGBT veterans, being outed during their time of service has had lifelong punitive costs. A BuzzFeed profile on Otto Bremerman, a closeted gay naval office clerk whose job during the Korean war, ironically, was to type up the dishonorable discharges given to fellow gay sailors, enumerates the losses of outed gay veterans:

In many states, from Bremerman’s time until current day, a dishonorable discharge is treated as a felony. All service members with this characterization are barred from future military service, and depending on the severity of the discharge received, they may also be blocked from voting, unemployment benefits, participating in the GI Bill, or receiving veteran benefits such as health care, Department of Veterans Affairs disability, and ceremonial burial rights at military cemeteries.

Wikipedia further notes that “federal law prohibits ownership of firearms by those who have been dishonorably discharged.” The extensive economic, civic and social prohibitions the military has historically placed on those outed while serving has made the “undesirable” and other “less-than-honorable” discharges they received, in the words of the New York Times, “official scarlet letters...leaving many grappling with shame for decades.”

In a society where widespread homophobia made living or being outed as gay a dangerous proposition, for many gay veterans, military dishonor brought yet further disgrace.

The Times spoke with Donald Hallman, a private in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s, who before his military discharge had “been rated excellent in reviews and recommended for a good-conduct medal.” When 21-year-old Hallman was tossed from the Army in 1955, according to the Times, he “was so scared of being an outcast that he burned all his military records, save for a single dog tag he hid away.” Like Faulkner, Hallman kept his dismissal from the Army a secret from everyone he met going forward; in fact, he never again so much as acknowledged that he had once served in the military. As the era essentially demanded, he also kept his sexuality under wraps. “I hid it because it would have ruined my life,” he told the Times.

In its dismissal of Hallman, the Army labeled the soldier a “Class II homosexual,” a designation that offers insight into the bizarre yet official system of codes the military used for categorizing punishable sexualities of service men and women. A U.S. Naval Institute timeline of military policies toward enlisted gays dates the very first discharge based on sexuality to 1778. That year, Lt. Gotthold Frederick Enslin was kicked out of the military “[u]nder an order from General George Washington which states ‘abhorrence and detestation of such infamous crimes [as homosexuality].’ Lt. Enslin [was] drummed out of the Continental Army after being found guilty of sodomy.” According to accounts from fellow soldiers, the aforementioned “drumming out” of Enslin from the military was literal; the diary of one witness describes him being chased from camp by a “grand parade” of “all the drums and fifes in the army.”

In 1914, the military began distributing “blue discharges” or “blue tickets,” so named because they were written on blue slips of paper. (Wikipedia quotes a newspaper of the time as stating that blue discharges were also used as a way of “punishing Negro soldiers who [did] not like specifically unbearable conditions.”) In 1919, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, called for a closer look into "vice and depravity” among sailors, a mandate that launched a series of undercover sting operations designed to entrap closeted Navy recruits. Between 1920 and 1941, numerous policies were enacted to criminalize sodomy and make “effeminate” behaviors among male servicemen justifiable cause for rejection from service or less-than-honorable discharge. (A so-called “queen for a day” rule allowed those who were caught having gay sex to avoid being thrown out of the armed services if they showed they “did not have a propensity of intent to engage in homosexual acts” — meaning, it was okay if they swore it was a one-time thing.)

By 1942, military psychiatrists began labeling homosexuality a "psychopathic personality disorder.” A few years later, the military created the three-tiered scale of gay and non-heteronormative behaviors for which a man or woman in the military might be punished. As Craig M. Loftin, author of the book "Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America," explains:

Throughout most of the 1940s, the military made no distinction between consensual sex and homosexual rape, nor did it distinguish homosexual behavior from a mere confession of homosexual desire. In October 1949, the military revised its policies and began categorizing homosexuals into three classes. A Class I homosexual was an individual accused of homosexual rape, seduction of a minor, intimidation, or blackmail. These cases usually resulted in a dishonorable discharge or imprisonment. Class II, the most commonly applied category, applied to individuals who had engaged in consensual homosexual acts or had propositioned others for sex. These cases usually resulted in an undesirable discharge. Class III homosexuals were those with homosexual desires who claimed they had not committed an actual homosexual act. These cases could result in general or honorable discharges, depending on the individual’s record.

To merely be accused or suspected of being gay was often cause for removal from the military. The New York Times states that as late as the 1980s, “military investigators, usually working in pairs, employed long interrogations and threats of public humiliation to coerce the service members to confess and name names.”

Otto Bremerman, whose life is the subject of the 2015 documentary "The Typist," recalled the fervor with which the Navy quickly rooted out those suspected of being gay. “There were quite a few flaming queens in my boot camp, and most of them were kicked out before the end of the boot camp period,” Bremerman said in an oral history recorded before his death in 2007. “They just disappeared. They were there one day and gone the next. You never knew. Everybody suspected that they got caught and got shipped out, but you didn’t know what really happened to them.”

Jim Estep is a former Navy fighter pilot and would-be astronaut whose career dreams were dashed when a letter to a friend revealing his sexuality was discovered. Now 80 years old, Estep says that in 1964 he was “forced to sign a false confession which stated he had had a number of one-night stands with men, some of them in the military.” Estep described to the Times the conditions under which his confession was extracted. “They put me in a hospital room for three or four days, no contact with anyone before questioning me,” he says. “They said they knew everything about me, which now I suspect was a lie...They had rifled through my room and gotten my address book, and told me they would call everyone in there and their employers and tell them what was going on.”

In 2011, following the Obama administration’s repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," gay veterans punished with less-than-honorable discharges were invited to apply to have their releases upgraded to honorable, provided there were no other outstanding charges relating to their dismissal. The New York Times cites Department of Defense statistics that show approximately 500 veterans have sought this remedy, and 80 percent of those requests have been granted. Some of the cases have made local and national headlines. In 2011, former Navy corpsman and World War II veteran Melvin Dwork succeeded in having his discharge reclassified to honorable from undesirable after almost seven decades. Ex-U.S. Army soldier Lisa Weiszmiller— who has said her PTSD went untreated because she couldn’t receive medical benefits — had her discharge similarly reclassified in 2014.

But the proverbial wheels of justice often turn slowly, and the process of correcting an unwanted and undeserved discharge can be both time consuming and painful. Lori Gum, who works for Ohio’s Stonewall Columbus, told the Times, “These stories are buried deep; it can be traumatic to dredge it up again.” She describes how she has aided six veterans with the slough of having their records wiped clean, only to have three give up, finding the experience too emotionally taxing and distressing.

For many other veterans, particularly those at the older end of the spectrum who served during the 1940s through the '60s, health issues left unattended without access to care can quickly worsen even as an application slowly winds its way slowly through the system. And as is often reported, the backlog of veterans benefits claims remains significant, even under the most ideal circumstances. As OutServe-Service Legal Defense Network points out on its site, even when a veteran is successful in getting his or her record changed, there is no recourse to make up for lost time or benefits. “The Defense Department has said that there will be no reparations or other compensation for those who were discharged under DADT,” the organization notes. “This includes credit for the time former service members would have served or other monetary and non-monetary damages.”

Some legislators have become aware of the issues facing gay veterans discharged before DADT, and are pushing for comprehensive legislation to address them. In 2013, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, the co-chair of the congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and one of only six openly gay members of the House, and Charles Rangel, an Army veteran who served in the the Korean War, introduced the Restore Honor to Service Members Act. The bill would not only prompt an across-the-board reclassification of dishonorable discharges to ensure “gay veterans who served honorably have their records rightfully upgraded to honorable,” it would omit any mention of the veterans’ sexuality from their military records to guard against potential future discrimination. Unfortunately, the bill, which was reintroduced this year with added sponsorship by U.S. senators Brian Schatz and Kirsten Gillibrand, has yet to make meaningful progress through Congress.

While there have been enormous strides for LGBT rights in recent years, and gay-identified men and women can now serve openly, the military continues to discriminate based on gender identity. Rob Smith, author of the book "Closets, Combat, and Coming Out: Coming of Age as a Gay Man in the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Army," explains how transgender veterans may someday face the same issues that now confront their gay predecessors.

[T]hough the repeal of DADT allows LGB (no T) soldiers to openly serve, it is not, in fact, a nondiscrimination policy: harassment remains common and transgender soldiers can still be dishonorably discharged...I get angry when I realize that while our LGB (no T) soldiers can now serve openly, they remain unprotected by a nondiscrimination policy. I get angry when I realize that transgender soldiers still cannot serve openly and can be dishonorably discharged for being who they are. I get angry when I realize that thousands of soldiers who were dishonorably discharged because of DADT are now unable to claim the educational and healthcare benefits which they are rightfully owed in exchange for serving their country. LGBT veterans who were dishonorably discharged — already at a greater risk of unemployment, homelessness and suicide due to PTSD-related mental health issues — now find themselves abandoned by the very government under which they served and in many cases, suffered.

When Hal Faulkner’s military record was upgraded to reflect his honorable discharge, the story brought attention to a problem endured by thousands of gay veterans. Two uniformed marines were on hand to give Faulkner his newly corrected papers. The emotional scene was witnessed by Faulkner’s family and Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT rights organization.

"What happened today is that a dying man, his dignity was restored,” said Hainz, speaking to NPR. “He will die here knowing that he served his country honorably. You certainly can't right the wrong of six decades, [but] you can make it right going forward. And that's what happened today, and that's what we hope will come to thousands of Americans similarly situated."

By Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway is the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She co-curated the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetLiveArts 2017 summer performance and film series, “Theater of the Resist.” She previously worked on the HBO documentary Southern Rites, PBS documentary The New Public and Emmy-nominated film Brooklyn Castle, and Outreach Consultant on the award-winning documentary The New Black. Her writing has appeared in AlterNet, Salon, the Guardian, TIME, the Huffington Post, the National Memo, and numerous other outlets.

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