Born On The 4th Of July: 12 American LGBT War Heroes

With Americans ready to grill, beach and firework it this July 4, it’s important to remember what we’re celebrating: the birth of our nation with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an act of rebellion that lead to a bloody and costly war.

No doubt there were members of the queer community among Washington’s troops, as there have been in every conflict this country has faced. So we’re taking time to salute some LGBT service members through history who have helped America remain the Land of the Free, even as they themselves were shackled with silence.

Click through for Queerty’s Independence Day roundup of LGBT veterans. 

Baron Frederick von Steuben

Though Prussian by birth, Von Steuben trained George Washington’s Colonial Army and was invaluable in helping them defeat the better equipped and trained British troops. The Baron arrived in the Colonies in September 1777, with his young aide de camp, Louis de Pontière, and his prized Italian greyhound, Azor. Soon after, he began teaching the essentials of military drills, tactics, disciplines, sanitation (previously soldiers just relieved themselves wherever they felt like) and use of the bayonet.

Steuben also developed a model company of 120 men, who in turn trained others. As part of his technique, the Baron would don full military dress and upbraid the troops in French and German. (He eventually recruited a captain to curse at them in English.) The Baron, one of the great heroes of the Revolutionary War, had long been considered “eccentric” and perhaps even “flamboyant,” but it was Randy Shilts who outed him in Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military, a seminal history published the year Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was instituted.


Father John McNeill

McNeill (seated), a WWII veteran who served under General Patton, received a Purple Heart after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge and spending six months as a German prisoner of war. But the real fight came some years later, in the late 1950s, when NcNeill became a Roman Catholic priest. Aware he was gay, McNeill tried to stifle his same-sex attractions—an effort that nearly caused him to take his own life.

“I was in graduate school in Europe when I began to act out sexually and compulsively. I found myself at the point of suicide because of this. I was miserable and desperate. One night, I was about to throw myself into the Loire River, when a message came over me— maybe it was Jesus or the Holy Spirit—saying ‘Hang on. This doesn’t make sense to you now, but it will. This is preparation for your ministry.'”

When I returned to the States, I became a teacher and began to study homosexuality. I read an article by a fellow Jesuit who condemned homosexuality as a serious illness and said that homosexuals are guilty of spreading that illness to their partners. I began to write the opposite. I also decided that I was going to find myself a lover.”

McNeill began ministering to gay Catholics and eventually founded Dignity New York, a chapter of the national LGBT  group for members of the faith. After Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, demanded that Father O’Neill be silenced and that his gay ministry be driven from the Church, McNeill was expelled from the Jesuits in 1988. Now 87, he lives in Hollywood, Florida, with Charlie Chiarelli, his devoted partner of over 45 years.

He stands as a living reminder that fighting battles doesn’t end when you leave the military.

(Female members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a.k.a WASPs)

Cpls. Fannie Mae Clackum and Grace Garner

Though hardly the first people booted from the military for being gay, Clackum and Garner, U.S. Air Force reservists in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were the first to successfully challenge their discharge.

When the two women were suspected of being lesbians, the Office of Special Investigations essentially entrapped the pair, giving the Air Force cause to issue dishonorable discharges to both in 1952. But they refused to accept the discharges and demanded their case be brought to a courtmartial. Eight years later, the pair won their suit: the courts vacated the discharge and awarded them back pay.

Recounting the Air Force’s account of its investigation, the court opinion’s read in part:

“One’s reaction to the foregoing narrative is ‘What’s going on here?'”

“…The so-called ‘hearing’ before the Air Force Discharge Board was not a hearing at all, in the usual sense of that word. It was a meaningless formality, to comply with the regulations. The ‘evidence’ upon which the case was going to be decided, and obviously was decided, was not present at the hearing, unless the undisclosed dossier which contained it was in the drawer of the table at which the Board sat. The appellant and her counsel were futilely tilting at shadows. However vulnerable the secret evidence may have been, there was no possible way to attack it.”

While the ruling turned on the fact that there wasn’t enough evidence to show the women were lesbians—rather than that there was nothing wrong with it if they were—it was the first time the military was brought to task for its arbitrary and clandestine attacks on gay service members.

Dr. Thomas A. Dooley

While serving as a physician in the U.S. Navy in the 1950s, Dooley began to be recognized for his humanitarian work in Vietnam, Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia—efforts chronicled in his books Deliver Us From Evil, The Edge of Tomorrow, and The Night They Burned the Mountain 

In 1956, the same year Deliver Us from Evil was released to great acclaim, Dooley was investigated by the Navy for being a homosexual and was forced to resign his commission. But he remained in the region, tending to the forgotten victims of war and building hospitals through the Medical International Cooperation Organization (MEDICO).

Though Dooley died tragically of cancer at age 34, his legacy was enshrined by President John F. Kennedy, who cited Dooley’s example when he launched the Peace Corps. (Dooley was also awarded a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal.) Today, the Dooley Foundation-Intermed International provides medical care to refugees, children and villagers in the Third World.


Sgt. Leonard Matlovich

In the 1970s, when the gay-rights movement was picking up steam, the cause of gays in the military was fairly low on the totem pole—thanks in part to the Left’s disagreement with the war in Vietnam. Leonard Matlovich, who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his efforts in Southeast Asia, put the issue on the front page—literally—when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “I am a Homosexual.”

Matlovich worked with gay activist Frank Kameny to be a test case for challenging the ban on gays in the military. After Matlovich notified his superiors of his sexuality in 1975, his cause was reported nationwide—in many cases the first time an openly gay person had appeared on the front page of a newspaper. Matlovich was given the option of signing a document pledging to “never practice homosexuality again” in exchange for being allowed to remain in the Air Force, but he refused.

Despite his exemplary military record, tours of duty in Vietnam, and high performance evaluations, he was recommended for a less-than-honorable discharge (which was eventually upgraded to honorable).

Matlovich sued for reinstatement but the case languished in the courts for five years before the U.S. District Court finally demanded he be reinstated. The Air Force instead offered Matlovich a financial settlement. Realizing the military would just concoct another reason to discharge him if he returned to service, Matlovich accepted.

In 1987, he announced on Good Morning America that he had contracted HIV and became an AIDS activist, before succumbing to the disease in 1988 at age 44. His tombstone in the Congressional cemetery (in the same row as J. Edgar Hoover) bears the following inscription:

“A Gay Vietnam Veteran: When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Col. Grethe Cammermeyer

Like others on this list, Col. Cammermeyer’s story stood out because of her exemplary record of service. But when her autobiography, Serving in Silence, was turned into a cable movie starring Glenn Close and produced by Barbra Streisand, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the issue of gays in the military reached into mainstream American homes like never before.

“Suddenly I was a movie star,” she writes about the experience on her website. “With this came responsibilities I had never anticipated… to continue to speak out on behalf of the gay and lesbian service members  [and] to continue to challenge the anti-gay rhetoric in society, the ignorance, and the notion that, somehow, as gay and lesbian people we should be judged by another’s God.”

Cammermeyer’s grace and perseverance are evident in her explanation for why she continues to challenge such assumptions: “I have learned that ‘If I am uncomfortable, it is where I need to be.'”

Tracy Thorne-Begland

Though others had made similar realizations before, Navy pilot Tracy Thorne-Begland’s decision to come out came at the very height of the Clinton-era gays-in-the-military debate.

After conferring with a gay veterans group, Thorne-Begland agreed to go on Nightline on May 19, 1992, when he revealed he was a homosexual on national television. The following year, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—rather than Clinton’s promised repeal—became the law of the land and Thorne-Begland was discharged; twice, actually—first after his TV appearance and again in 1995, when an appeal he filed in Federal Court was denied.

Today Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been demolished, but the forces of intolerance haven’t: When Thorne-Begland, who became an attorney, was nominated for a judgeship in Virginia, homophobic conservatives in the GOP-dominated House of Delegates rejected his bid in a fairly clear instance of bigotry. However, the House has since confirmed Thorne-Begland as the state’s first openly gay judge.

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach
Fehrenbach—a highly decorated Air Force pilot whose service record includes dozens of combat missions in danger zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo— is believed to be the highest-ranking officer caught in the idiocy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Falsely accused of rape by another man in 2008, Fehrenbach’s only hope of defending himself was to explain how the encounter was consensual. He was cleared by police, but the Air Force discharged him under DADT.
Fehrenbach’s appeal was still pending when the ban lifted, meaning he is now free to retire with his pension. “This definitely took a toll on me, and it made me question some leadership,” he told ABC News. “…I’m just ready to move on. After being in the closet that long, it’s more of a personal decision to move on with other things in life.”
Staff Sgt. Eric Alva

When Eric Alva (far right) stepped out of his jeep and onto a landmine at the onset of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he became the first American service member seriously wounded in that conflict.

But as a gay Marine under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, he faced a veritable minefield every day he was in the Corps.

Alva’s injuries cost him his right leg, but gave him a platform to discuss the unfairness of DADT before a national audience.  He had kept his sexuality secret, even after meeting President Bush, appearing in People magazine and going on Oprah. But the love of a good man encouraged Alva to stand up and be counted: After beginning a relationship with boyfriend Darrell Parsons, who encouraged him to tell his unique story, Alva came out publicly and began speaking on behalf of lesbian and gay soldiers in the runup to the repeal of DADT.

“I am an American who fought for his country and for the rights and freedoms of all American citizens, not just some of them, but all of them,” Alva says.  “When I was injured, everybody didn’t stop, the people who knew me—that I was gay—to say, ‘Well he’s gay.  Don’t help him.  Let’s not save his life.’  They were saving the life of an American.”

MORGAN_CMDChief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan

Morgan, a member of the New Hampshire National Guard, fought tirelessly for equality for LGBT servicemembers and the repeal of DOMA, after coming out as a lesbian on September 20, 2011 — the day Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was officially repealed.

Morgan was  diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and underwent a double mastectomy and several rounds of chemotherapy. In 2010, with the cancer in remission, she was deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation New Dawn. Unfortunately, the cancer returned in 2011 and doctors told her it was incurable, meaning her wife Karen and their 5-year-old daughter Casey wouldn’t be eligible for survivors’ benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act—even though Charlie and Karen were legally wed in New Hampshire.

Morgan, despite failing health, worked to educate Congress of DOMA’s harm. She sadly passed away in February this year, missing the Supreme Court’s historic ruling finally striking down DOMA. However, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NH) introduced a bill in her memory shortly after her death that would benefit same-sex military spouses. 

dan choiLt. Dan Choi

Choi served in the Iraq War from 2006-7 as an Army infantry officer before transferring to active duty in the National Guard in 2008. After coming out on the Rachel Maddow Show in 2009, however, Choi was discharged and immediately became the face of the anti-DADT movement. He participated in a protest of the White House in 2010, leading to a protracted legal battle. Choi unsuccessfully attempted to re-enlist in the Army after the fall of DADT, but was refused due to the trial against him.

In addition to helping to found West Point’s LGBT almuni group, Knights Out, Choi has become a vocal, if controversial, activist, speaking out against Prop 8, Moscow’s ban on Pride parades and the trial of Bradley Manning. He has often been arrested for his involvement and as a result of the White House protest, Choi was fined $100, which he subsequently refused to pay on “moral principle and free-speech grounds.

kbeckKristin Beck

As Chris, Beck was a decorated Navy SEAL, involved in seven deployments overseas, awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, and even serving a tour in the elite SEAL Team Six, which found Osama bin Laden. The entire time, however, she felt like a stranger in her own body and came out recently as transgender with the memoir, Warrior Princess.

Though Autumn Sandeen became the first transgender servicemember to have her records accurately reflect her gender identity, it was the result of years of struggle. Once a civilian, Beck was free to be herself, but she says she gave her life to a military that vehemently opposed her inclusion. “I gave true brotherhood. I did my best, 150% all the time, and I gave strength and honor and my full brotherhood to every military person I ever worked with.”

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