Sunday, September 18, 2011

Countdown To DADT Repeal: Day 2

Tomorrow is the last day of DADT's existence, and Michael Bedwell, historian extraordinaire, reminds us of some of the more dire times in our nation's legacy of gay military service: the queer stockades.  When soldiers were outed as gay or lesbian during the WWII era, prior to the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, they were subject to horrific abuses at the hands of military personnel.  Quartered in separate living conditions, they were treated as pariahs and basically were denied their humanity.

Michael adds:
Many abuses continued after the WWII ban became DADT, but they were rarely as bad as the earlier open air "Queer Stockades" like the enclosure in the top picture or the mental wards as in the second actual photo. Gays were often marched through gauntlets of ridicule, sometimes raped by MPs, and sometimes attempted or succeeded at suicide. In the 80s, locking them in closets for hours until they named names became the "funny" method of choice. 
While some in the medical profession urged even acceptance of gay soldiers as far back as WWII, the "they're not just sick but evil" mindset prevailed, and the depth of today's homophobia can be largely traced to the homophobic lectures troops received either during the war or in the years following, after a brief period of more benign attitudes. It reached its worst post war phase during the Reagan Administration when homophobia combined with AIDSphobia resulting in multiple horror stories about the treatment of those living either with HIV or with actual AIDS.
In a separate post on his Facebook, however, Michael links some of that culture of despair and suicide with one of our happier triumphs as a community: the adoption of a common symbol that links us all as one people in all our diversity.

Gilbert Baker, as a result of being rejected by his first love while in the military between 1970 and 1972, compounded with the homophobia he experienced while in the Army, attempted suicide... but survived.  He received an honorable discharge from the military, but afterwards became active in the gay and anti-war activism movements.  What did he bring to the table?  Creativity... and the ability to sew.

Eight years after his suicide attempt, he created the Rainbow Flag, the symbol for LGBTs the world over.  Since its creation, it has been reproduced thousands of times in a hundred different permutations, and is the most widely-known representation of our community.

Once, while I was serving in the United States Army at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, myself and three other soldiers took a trip to San Francisco.  We went to the Castro, of course, being the young gay kids that we were, and our first sight of this mecca of gayhood was the massive Castro Rainbow Flag, on the corner of Castro, Market, and 17th.

We weren't in uniform, but we decided to honor our community in the best way that a soldier knows: I stood at attention, called my battle buddies into formation, and ordered "Present ARMS!"  We saluted that flag, and I like to think we brought that flag's history full circle; born out of a tragic experience of shame and homophobia in the military, the flag has come to stand for hope and renewal, an honoring of the ties that bind our diverse community together.  An ex-soldier with emotional scars set aside his pain and created a symbol, and we, as modern soldiers, honored that symbol and the warriors that have carried it in intervening years.

Perhaps these simple (and sometimes horrific) stories are the ones that really express what the struggle for acceptance for gays in the military has meant all these years:  tragedy, renewal, and rising in the face of the adversities brought to us through institutionalized discrimination in order to plant our flag and say:

We're gay.  Get over it.


  1. Beautifully woven together, Ian! The image of you and your friends from DFL saluting our OTHER flag moved me very much. Thank you!

  2. Ian Finkenbinder & Michael Bedwell: Two great men I'm honored to call friends.