Throughout its history, the U.S. Military has had an inconsistent policy when it comes to gay people in the military. Prior to World War II, there was no written policy barring LGBTQ+ people from serving, although any type of sodomy, regardless of sexual orientation, was considered a crime by military law, and this was frequently used to bar members of the LGBTQ+ community from serving.
LGBTQ+ Policies in the Korean War and Vietnam War
During World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the military considered anyone that identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community to have a mental defect and officially barred them from serving based on medical criteria. However, when personnel needs increased due to combat, the military developed a habit of relaxing its screening criteria. Many gay people were admitted and served honorably during these conflicts.
This did not eliminate discrimination, however, and these periods were relatively short-lived. As soon as the need for combat personnel decreased, the military would involuntarily discharge them.
1982—A Military Ban on Homosexuality
It wasn't until 1982 that the Department of Defense (DOD) officially put in writing that “homosexuality was incompatible with military service,” when it published a DOD directive stating such. It defined a homosexual person as someone "regardless of sex, who, engages in, desires to engage in, or intends to engage in homosexual acts.” And it defined a homosexual act as any “bodily contact, actively undertaken or passively permitted, between members of the same sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires.”
According to a 1992 report by the Government Accounting Office, nearly 17,000 men and women were discharged under this new directive during the 1980s.
1993—The Birth of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
By the end of the 1980s, reversing the military's policy was emerging as a priority for advocates of LGBTQ+ civil rights. Several lesbian and gay members of the military came out publicly and vigorously challenged their discharges through the legal system. By the beginning of 1993, it appeared that the military's ban on gay personnel would soon be overturned.
President Clinton announced that he intended to keep his campaign promise by eliminating military discrimination based on sexual orientation. But, this didn't sit well with the Republican-controlled Congress. Congressional leaders threatened to pass legislation that would bar gay people from serving if Clinton issued an executive order changing the policy.
After lengthy public debate and congressional hearings, the President and Senator Sam Nunn, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reached a compromise, which they labeled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT).
Under its terms, military personnel would not be asked about their sexual orientation and would not be discharged simply for being gay. However, having sexual relations with or displaying romantic overtures to members of the same sex, or telling anyone about their sexual orientation was considered "homosexual conduct" under the policy and a basis for involuntary discharge. This is was known as the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law and became the DOD policy.
Changing Times for Society and the Military
At the time, most military leaders and young enlisted (who were forced to live in the barracks with a roommate) took a conservative view about allowing gay people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community to serve openly in the military.
But the attitudes of society gradually changed through the next two decades. By 2010, more junior enlisted members' attitudes had changed, and they would not be bothered by serving with those they know to be gay. Furthermore, more service members, like those in general society, felt that discrimination against LGBTQ+ groups was unfair.
2010—Repeal of DADT
In December of 2010, the House and Senate voted to repeal and overturn DADT. President Obama then signed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act into law December 22, 2010. The nation decided that by September 20, 2011, gay service members would no longer fear discharge from the military by admitting to their sexual preference—they could serve openly.
More than 13,000 service members were discharged for being gay while the DADT policy was in effect. The repeal prompted many to try and reenlist. Many gay and bisexual service members who had been serving came out of the closet on various media. Many organizations and groups supporting gay military members surfaced and even organized official public gatherings with the military.
2013—Recognition of Same-Sex Marriages
Although the repeal of DADT in 2010 made it possible for gay people to serve openly without fear of discharge, the new law still did not extend many of the benefits that straight members received to gay service members. These included things such as dependent health care benefits and housing allowances.
Following the Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, the DOD announced it would extend spousal and family benefits for same-sex marriages that would be the same as those given for traditional marriages.
In recent years, the battle over equal rights in the military has shifted toward transgender issues. Until 2016, there was an outright ban on any transgendered service members across all branches of the military.
This changed on July 1, 2016, when the Obama administration announced that this ban would be lifted. The new policy would allow transgender individuals with no history of gender dysphoria, a condition in which someone experiences intense psychological discomfort with their biological sex, to serve while adhering to standards for their biological sex. Those with a history of gender dysphoria could transition and serve according to their preferred gender after 18 months in stable condition post-transition.
In 2018, the DOD reversed these changes under the Trump administration, effectively barring transgender members who were not willing and able to serve according to their biological sex. Members who were admitted during the period of the previous policy were allowed to remain and serve under those standards. President Biden reversed these changes by executive order during his first days in office in January 2021.