I was raised on military bases for much of my younger life, with a career-military father who, when this topic became a big topic in the early 1990s, said to me: 'I don't see what the big issue is with this. They were always there, and we knew that.' That was a surprise to me.
Randy Shilts, better known perhaps for his book (later constructed into a telefilm) 'And the Band Played On...', about the AIDS crisis, turned his journalistic eye and talents to one of the last great approved discriminations in America -- that of the institutionalised disapproval of the military (one of the largest economic forces in America, and one of the largest employers and providers of training and benefits) of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people within the ranks.
Shilts begins his discussion historically, looking back over the history of the United States as to how this issue has been dealt with. Actually, there isn't that much information for the longest period (1778-1954), understandably as (as the Victorians would have phrased it), the love that dared not speak its name in fact rarely did. This 750+ page tome devotes a mere 19 pages to this historical period, in which Shilts argues that there was back-and-forth acceptance and rejection of gays in the military. This perhaps is wishful thinking on his part -- one could even argue that 'gay' didn't exist in quite the same way then as now (sociologically speaking), so to address the issue then as now would be difficult to compare.
Throughout the rest of the text, Shilts examines, largely through personal stories and accounts, of how the armed forces viewed, disapproved, and rooted out military personnel suspected of same-sex activity. With an effective ruthlessness (far more effective and sometimes more ruthless than against the foreign enemies of America) the military in all branches served notice to gays and lesbians that they were not welcome in the service. At times, this turned into a witch hunt, and, as that description implies, was often more widespread and sweeping against women than men.
One character whose story serves as a framework and who turns up as an anchor point at several points in the text is Tom Dooley. Tom Dooley was a man who served with skill and dedication, becoming the youngest doctor in Navy history to receive the Legion of Merit; never one to flaunt or even to speak of his sexual preference, knowing that in general such things were not approved of in society. Yet despite his service record, he was forced out of the military for this 'fatal flaw' (he unfortunately tended to be on the effeminate side), having been given a dishonourable discharge despite his exemplary service.
Dooley, in fact, was terminally ill in the late 1950s, at the time this drama was being played out. He worried that his dishonourable discharge would follow him. Dooley in the end did get a reversal of the decision, an honourable discharge, delivered to his bedside as he lay dying, a gesture of good faith, perhaps, in 1961, but hardly worthwhile to Dooley, who most likely never recovered sufficiently to understand, or to the thousands of persecuted gays and lesbians in the military the 40 years hence who are still suffering under various policies designed to placate the majority prejudice.
Shilt's book is full of stories that sound more at home in a KGB-interrogation room than in the 'land of the free': threats and manipulation, internal surveillance and spying, coercion for confession and incrimination. In many cases the military hierarchy turns a blind eye to violence perpetrated against gays and lesbians.
Shilts does not devote much time to arguing the other side -- why should gays and a lesbians be excluded. This is perhaps the one lacking element in this large text. While reasons arise in his commentary and in the personal stories, it is never developed as a coherent theme -- he takes it for granted that the reader will readily understand the objections. There might be more integrity to the text overall if a more complete analysis would be included.
However, this is a record of dishonour, one that many institutions in many countries surely share. Regardless of one's views on homosexuality generally, and homosexual admission into the military, an element of basic human rights has to be upheld, or those violating them lose the right to claim the role of the morally justified.
This book will settle no arguments, but then, it isn't constructed to do that. It is designed to show through direct experience of men and women in the military how the policies affect human lives, both within and outside the military. This provides grist for the mill of debate. In his epilogue, Shilts discusses the ROTC debate about gay admission into the military. It seemed clear to him then, and continues to be clear, that this is an issue far from over.