Ryan Reft is a historian of 20th and 21st-century American history at the Library of Congress. He can be reached on twitter at ryanreft. When we talk about advances in civil and gay rights, we often talk in terms of famous firsts: Los Angeles' first Black Mayor Tom Bradley or the state's first openly gay elected official, San Francisco's Harvey Milk.
Armed forces. These are the voices explaining what it has been like to be a gay man 1 in the American military over the previous seventy or so years, from World War II veterans in their late eighties to young servicemen on active duty. How we got here: Inmany people thought that the discrimination was nearly over.
A military veteran turned organiser, Democrat Kerri Evelyn Harris campaigned to be the first woman, the first African American, and the first openly gay person to represent Delaware in the US Senate. When we started looking for a Senate candidate to put forward this year, I was looking for someone closer to the traditional image of a senator, but I realise now that was a mistake. We need more diversity in gender, sexuality, race, and life experience — because time and again, the lack of that diversity has led to legislation that ignores the needs of our communities.
As recently as three years ago, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans in the armed forces were forced to keep their sexuality a secret or risk being discharged—a risk that would become a certainty if attempting to marry a person of the same sex. Therefore, the idea of extending military spousal benefits to same-sex spouses was inconceivable. Fortunately, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, Americans have experienced historic progress over the past three years.
Recently, I read a really interesting piece by Raul Felix about the Generation Y Division that inevitably existsbased on those who entered the military versus those who went to college. It further resonated with me because although I first went to college, I also worked in contingency operations in Bagram, Afghanistan from Yes, I was objectified.
Yet surveying the various panel discussions left me confused. Gay people were once policed as criminal subversives, depicted in the popular culture as deviants, and pathologized by the medical establishment as mentally ill. Now most of America views homosexuality as benign.
I think there were seven witnesses, but I remember only four distinct faces. Inside the courtroom, there were high ceilings, brass fixtures, pews for spectators, flags, and wooden jury benches that rose up like stadium seating. Men in dress uniform stood as sentinels at every exit and by every important figure present.
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Periodically, the military stepped up its efforts to drive them out. Infor instance, a young Franklin D. Roosevelt—then-assistant secretary of the Navy—oversaw a large sting operation to entrap and expel gay soldiers.
The sergeant and I stared at each other for a moment as the office door shut. Only seconds earlier, we both stood silent, hands clasped behind our backs respectfully, as a noncommissioned officer stood inches from my face and threatened to end my career. As we left the office, the sergeant searched for something consolatory to say. His words, and any comfort I might have taken from them, fell flat.