We Salute You: 8 Gay And Lesbian Servicemembers Who Paved The Way For The DADT Repeal

Today we celebrate the complete repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the end of the ban on gays and lesbians in the U.S. military. But the journey to this day is more than 18 years old—it’s older than the United States itself. We’re taking a look at some of the men and women who served this nation honorably but were discharged for being homosexuals; whose courage under fire helped to pave the way for open service.

There are thousands of others, of course—from Prussian military genius Lieutenant General Frederick Von Steuben (who trained George Washington’s Colonial army) and WWII veteran John McNeill (who received a Purple Heart and spent six months as a German POW) to Second Lieutenant Sandy Tsao (who wrote to President Obama to lift the ban and received a personal response) and Staff Sergeant Eric Alva (the first Marine seriously injured in the Iraq War). We salute all of them.

Happy (early) Veterans Day

Image via  USACE Public Affairs

UP FIRST: The first to go

(Enslin’s court-martial report; image of the Continental Army)

Lt. Frederick Gotthold Enslin
Believed to be the first person discharged from the Armed Forces for being gay, Enslin was literally drummed out of the Continental Army under the leadership of General George Washington. Initially an ensign was court-martialed at Valley Forge in 1778 for “propogating a scandalous report prejudicial to the character of Lieut. Enslin” but was ultimately acquitted. His accusations, however, led to Enslin being court-martialed for “attempting to commit sodomy” with another soldier. (Shades of Oscar Wilde!) Things did not go so well for Enslin: As Washington’s secretary recorded, “His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence & Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieut. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning…” On Mach 15, 1778, Lt. Enslin was booted out with a surprising amount of pomp and circumstance:

“He was first drum’d from right to left of the parade, thence to the left wing of the army; from that to the centre, and lastly transported over the Schuylkill [River] with orders never to be seen in Camp in the future. This shocking scene was performed by all the drums and fifes in the army, the coat of the delinquent was turned wrong side out.”

NEXT: These ladies weren’t having it

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

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 U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations esentially entrapped the pair, giving them cause to administratively issue dishonorable discharges to both in 1952. But they refused to accept the discharges and demanded their case be brought to a court martial. Eight years later, in 1960, the pair won their suit and 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 servicemembers.

NEXT: An officer and a gentleman

Leonard Matlovich
Even in the 1970s, when the gay-rights movement 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. Matlovich, who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his brave 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 (it was finally 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 which, realizing they would concoct another reason to discharge him if he returned to service, he accepted.

In 1987, Matlovich announced on Good Morning America that he had contracted HIV and became an AIDS activist before succumbing to illness 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.”

NEXT: Serving in silence no more

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.”

Her 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.'”

NEXT: Unfriendly fire

Allen R. Schindler, Jr. and Barry Winchell

We’ll never know what heights these two men could’ve reached in their military careers because both Schindler and Winchell were killed by fellow soldiers for being gay.

Schindler was an Navy radioman who was brutally murdered by shipmate Terry Helvey and an accomplice, Charles Vins.  Prior to his death, Schindler was the subject of harrassment on the Belleau Wood—ranging from his locker being glued shut to comments from shipmates that, “there’s a faggot on this ship and he should die.” He had begun paperwork to resign from the Navy, but Schindler’s superiors insisted he remain on his ship until the process was completed. Though he knew his safety was in jeopardy, Schindler obeyed orders and remained in the hostile environment. During a routine leave, Helvey stomped Schindler to death in a public bathroom in Nagasaki, Japan. According to the coroner’s report Schindler’s head was crushed, his ribs broken, his penis slashed and he had “sneaker-tread marks stamped on his forehead and chest,” leaving an nearly unrecognizable corpse that his family could only identify by a tattoo on his arm. The medical examiner said Schindler’s injuries were  worse “than the damage to a person who’d been stomped by a horse.” 

After the murder, the Navy denied it received any complaints of harassment and refused to speak publicly about the case or to release the Japanese police report on the murder. It was only through the efforts of Schindler’s mother,  Dorothy Hajdys, that the full truth came to light.

PFC Barry Winchell, who had begun dating trans performer Calpernia Addams, was the target of harassment fellow private Calvin Glover and Winchell’s roommate, Private Justin Fisher, at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. In July 1999, Glover took a baseball bat and beat Winchell to death while he slept.  Glover is currently serving a life sentence while Fisher, who had impeded the investigation and egged on Glover’s harassment, was sentenced 12 years in a plea bargain. Winchell’s story—and his relationship with Addams—was recounted in the Emmy-nominated TV movie, Soldier’s Girl.

Though senseless, the deaths of these two young men made military leaders—and the American public—reconsider whether Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was really protecting the safety LGBT servicemembers. A “Don’t Harass” clause was added to the policy, though it did little to end attacks on gay military personnel.

NEXT: A modern-day media blitz


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

After conferring with a gay-veterans group, Thorne-Begland agreed to go on ABC’s Nightline on May 19, 1992, where he revealed he was a homosexual. 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.

But Thorne-Begland turned his legal nightmare into a calling and enrolled in law school. Today works in the Richmond, VA, District Attorney’s office. He and his partner, Michael Thorne-Begland, live in Richmond with their young twins, Chance and Logan.

NEXT: A harrowing Catch-22


Victor Fehrenbach

Lt. Col. Victor 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 today, 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.”

Dan Choi

Like Matlovich and Thorne-Begland before him, Choi, a former Army infantry officer, put himself on the line by outing himself in the media.  He came out on the Rachel Maddow Show in 2009 and immediately became the face of the anti-DADT movement. The new public face of the gay-military cause, Choi also helped found West Point’s LGBT almuni group, Knights Out.

Considered controversial in some corners, Choi hasn’t shied away from bold public statements: He protested against California’s Prop 8,  demonstrated outside the Beverly Hilton where President Obama was addressing the DNC in 2009, went on an anti-DADT hunger strike and, along with other servicemembers, handcuffing himself to the White House fence in April 2010.

Whether he continues to pursue a career in activism is unclear, but it looks like the military is still his first priority: When U.S. federal judge Virginia Phillips ordered the Department of Defense to stop enforcing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in October 2010, Choi went to the Times Square recruiting station to re-enlist in the Army. He’d wavered in recent months but has ultimately decided to return to active service. “Going back to the military will be a vindication,” Choi recently told Politico. [I’m] going back because I fought to go back. The seriousness of our claims was not just political theatre— it was really drawn from our lives. I sacrificed so much so I could go back.”

Image via seanmd80