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Why We Can (Partially) Thank the Military for American Gay Identity

In his new book, reporter Ross Benes argues that anti-homosexual policies throughout military history have helped shape gay culture today.

By Carson Leigh Brown


Navy personnel pose for a picture with drag queen Bianca Sullivan before marching in the San Diego gay pride parade July 16th, 2011, in San Diego, California. (Photo: Huffaker/Getty Images)

Six years after President Barack Obama rolled back the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and welcomed openly gay and transgender soldiers into its ranks, some of its leaders are still remarkably ill-informed about their diverse soldiers’ lives. Last year, for instance, Secretary of the Army nominee Senator Mark Green said the American Psychological Association classified transgender identity as a disease in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (It doesn’t — DSM-5 lists “gender dysphoria,” and some activists are calling for that to be removed entirely.) In a 2016 book, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that progressive “social change” could undermine the effectiveness of America’s troops, a statement that severalmedia outlets interpreted as referring to Obama’s lift on bans on openly gay and transgender troops, which Mattis has neither denied nor confirmed. (A 2010 report by the Pentagon found that 92 percent of military members who had served with someone who is gay thought unit effectiveness was unaffected or improved by them.)

These comments might strike those who read Ross Benes’ new book, The Sex Effect: Laying Bare the Complicated Relationship Between Sex and our Society, not just as wrongheaded, but as ironic.Benes argues that the military’s exclusion of gay men throughout its history has caused those men to become more aware of how discrimination shaped their identities, leading to the development of gay communities in coastal towns. In other words: Unintentionally, discrimination by the armed forces helped shape gay male culture, and convinced these men to flock to enclaves where they accepted one another, organized, and mobilized.

The Sex Effect’s 10 chapters each centers on a different topic showing how sexuality has interacted (sometimes peaceably, other times with friction) with societal norms and expectations. Discussing unknown histories of monogamy, the relationship between porn and technology, politicians’ sexual affairs, religious pluralism, and unintended consequences of family planning policies, Benes is interested in the myriad ways sex affects our daily lives.

Last month, Pacific Standard talked to Benes about his fourth chapter, “Soldier Sex: How the U.S. Military Inadvertently Helped Form Our Concept of Gay Identity” and how discriminatory policy helped create some of the LGBT communities we know today in America’s old port cities.

In this chapter, you talk about how the military once punished people differently for gay identity versus engaging in “same-sex conduct,” or having sex with other men. How did that happen, and why does it matter?

Psychiatry in the early 1900s was ramping up its campaign to brand homosexuality as a mental illness and this manifested in the military. Before that, if military officialscaught someone having gay sex, they would punish them with court-martial, meaning they weren’t automatically dropped out of service — they weren’t always proactively seeking to exclude someone for their identity. Then, around World War I, and especially with World War II, the military became proactive in trying to identify someone as gay regardless of any behavior. Their way of identifying was rather silly: They would use tongue depressors under the assumption that a gay man wouldn’t have a gag reflex. They would [conduct] urinary tests with this theory that if you had less testosterone, you were more likely to be gay. They used this pseudoscience to try to identify these guys before they even got to serve.

Going from the retroactive punishing of acts to proactive punishment brought gay identity to the forefront, though that was obviously not the military’s intention and it was not conscious of doing so. When you start identifying people, you start making people identify themselves in ways they hadn’t before. If they begin to strategize how they’re going to get around the rules of the draft, they start to realize how much this orientation is a part of their actual identity and it rises out of the subconscious and into people’s minds.

That discrimination was in place for a while. After World War II and up until 2011, you could be excluded just for being gay, regardless of sexual activity. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was considered an improvement from its predecessor, there were still 14,000 service members who were excluded for being gay. We’re in a different era now, Obama rolled that back, but attitudes linger. It’s interesting that the psychiatry of the early 1900s stayed on the books until 2011.

You talked about how the military played a role in making San Francisco the gay mecca some consider it to be. How did that happen?

San Francisco is the most popular cultural hub [where this occurred], but this also happened in other port cities like New York and Los Angeles: It all comes down to people being discharged and publicly outed.

During World War II on the coasts, thousands of men poured into these draft ports, and if someone got identified as homosexual, the military would give them what is called a “blue discharge,” named for the blue piece of paper that publicly outed you. If you come from rural areas in the Midwest in the 1940s, and you’ve been publicly outed as homosexual, you might not want to go back. So many of these men from all over the country stayed where they were because, relative to where they were from, these cities were more welcoming. It’s not like 1920s San Francisco is 2017 San Francisco, but it was still more welcoming than 1940s Nebraska. So, because of a military policy, these guys all congregated in these areas and they formed gay districts like the Castro District, which are still around to this day, and are recognized as visible and vibrant symbols of the gay community. It’s a really ironic consequence of these homophobic military policies.

You tell the story of the the 1919 Newport sex scandal to describe “an institutional obsession with homosexuality.” Can you tell the story and elaborate on its implications?

It’s kind of a strange story because Franklin Delano Roosevelt is involved, and he’s viewed as this crusader for liberals. While FDR was a naval officer, his subordinates essentially designed a scheme meant to out gay sailors. It’s very strange to think of a high-ranking naval officer recruiting other naval officers so they can pretend to be gay, but it happened. They went all out with it too: The guys investigating the suspected homosexual actually had sex with them to prove it. It seems so over the top by today’s standards, because why does it matter that they were gay?

The reason I call it an “institutional obsession” is because there was so much focus and energy on going out of your way to prove the orientation of certain men when your job is supposed to be fighting other countries and protecting your nation. It seems very ancillary to divert resources to conjure up some of your men to have sex with other men to kick them out.

The reminds me of an interesting footnote in your book on the admiral Selden Hooper, who lost his military retirement benefits because he had sex with another man years after retirement.

I found that in a footnote of an academic law review article. It seemed like a case of bureaucratic malfeasance where there were these rules that barred gay men from receiving benefits, and clerics went the extra mile and went after people who weren’t even active in the military anymore. I guess it shows that, if language vague enough in our laws, people can always find a way to over-extend them.

Going back to this idea of masculinity, I’m curious about the origins of our stereotypes of weakness, and how that ties into cultural links between military service and hyper-masculinity. How did these become part of modern consciousness?

The military reflects existing societal norms. Stereotypes go well beyond the military, and the military tends to be more reflective [of those] than the origin of them. By the same token, by keeping these policies in place for so long, it definitely ramped up people’s homophobic attitudes. As one of the largest organizations in the country, the military sets a precedent people look to, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

The “gay bomb” was part of another footnote. It was developed in the early 2000s, and the concept behind it is the same: that dropping female pheromones onto a group of soldiers would somehow turn them gay and easier to defeat. It’s a really illogical way to think about warfare, like a weird sci-fi novel, but it was a real request a person made. It didn’t come to fruition, but someone took the time to write a proposal and send it through. And it didn’t seem like a joke.

Right, the researchers who uncovered the “gay bomb” won the 2007 Ig Nobel Award for it.

That’s how a lot of people found out about it. The researchers got the story through a Freedom of Information Act request, but it got another round of publicity because of the Ig Nobel Award, which shows me that the award is doing its job of bringing awareness to absurd science, so kudos to them.

What motivated you to write the book, and what effect do you hope it has on readers?

There is tremendous scholarly research out there written in a way that is unreadable and inaccessible for most people. And literature on sex is usually written in such a moral way that appeals to the left or the right — it’s usually either selling some sort of glamorous, sex-positive lifestyle, or it’s denouncing everything. I wanted to write something that really focuses on the research and doesn’t make moral judgements.

You mention this “self-fulfilling prophecy” of lesbians joining the military to meet other lesbians during World War II, simply because they expected that other gay women would join. Why do you think we still aren’t seeing films about queer women in the military?

When I think about gay people contributing to military causes, I think of that movie about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. I would watch a movie about lesbians in the military, but I’m not the general audience. By the same token, I don’t think The Imitation Game would have been made 10 years ago. Maybe things will keep improving in that way as people become less skittish on this topic.

I think a great biopic would be on Miriam Ben-Shalom. She’s in the chapter, and she was a pioneer in challenging the military when she was discharged after outing herself during an interview. She won her initial case against the military back in the ’80s, but it eventually got overturned on the appeal. It definitely set a precedent for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be overturned. If Hollywood is looking for an unheralded heroine to be the star of a courthouse drama, I think that would be fucking great.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.