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Perspective: A historical perspective on Don't Ask, Don't Tell
by Jeff Fulton
2010-07-21

This article shared 3012 times since Wed Jul 21, 2010
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While gays around the country rally against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies, military chieftains stumble over each other with some supporting and some opposing any changes. Congressmen do the same, some expressing open opposition to any gays in the military. Under current law, if a soldier "tells," he or she is simply booted out. But just a few decades ago the policy was almost inverted, at least in practice. Unlike today, the Army would explicitly ask, but really did not want an inductee to tell the truth. They wanted masses in the military, and promised to make life miserable if a recruit told them anything that might exempt them from service.

For most gays wanting to serve, the choice was easy. Simply check the "homosexual" box on the medical form as "no," and it was fast-forward to military life. Yes it was a lie, but no one really seemed to care and, after all, they were signing up to defend the country ... and thousands of gay men served with distinction and honor. But what happened if someone told the truth, and marked "yes?"

I never met a guy who said "yes" until recently, and it was during the late '60s, when Vietnam raged. It is true that he did not want to go to Vietnam, but that was not unusual. Yes, there were those that volunteered, but about a third were involuntarily drafted during that war—650,000 in all. And, warrior or not, many of those were sent to the war zone—and some into actual combat.

"John" had just completed a five-year architecture program at a Pennsylvania university during the height of the Vietnam War. He had been engaged to be married, but soon realized it did not feel right, and that, in fact, he was gay. Intense counseling designed to rid him of any same-sex feelings followed but did not work and, as a result, the engagement and relationship ended. It was just after that event that the induction's physical-exam notice arrived from the local draft board. Scarcely out of unsuccessful counseling, would he lie or tell the truth? He decided to tell the doctors the truth—he was gay.

So the day came. He recollected, "I filled out the medical questionnaire and checked the 'homosexual' box as affirmative. Just before you actually took the physical, the form was reviewed and they wrote on the front in big red letters, 'sexual deviant'. It was horrible.

"So here I was, now stripped down to my underpants in a long line with other inductees, going from station to station for various medical tests. We were told we must hold the packet of forms out in front of us for all to see. There was no way I could hide the big red letters posted on the front. It was obvious that it was meant to not only embarrass, but humiliate me. It was and still is the most humiliating day in my life. I can remember a couple of guys discussing my situation in line behind me, and one said, 'Well I can only say it takes guts,' so that made me feel a bit better."

But the ordeal was not over. At the end of the line, when other guys were told to proceed to dress, he was siphoned off to another room; still with the red "sexual deviant" notice in hand, he was asked embarrassing details about his gay life for about 30 minutes. Fortunately, he had a statement from his doctor referencing the counseling he had received. In the end the Army representative signed the exemption but warned him this black mark—being labeled a "homosexual" in government selective service records—would remain with him the rest of this life, and could have dire consequences. It was obvious he wanted him to deny his sexual orientation.

Indeed, the military doctor did have reason for the warning. Men rejected at the exam for physical, mental or "sexual" reasons were sent back to their local draft board, where they were given a "4F" designation—unfit for military service. Stigma associated with 4F often resulted in severe job and social discrimination, particularly during World War II, when almost all young men who remained stateside were assumed to be unfit, or "4F." Negative 4F stigma still existed during Vietnam, especially in small towns where draft boards leaked word about individuals. But during the Vietnam era—with more than 60 percent of young men exempted from military duty for reasons ranging from study to occupation, and countless others openly avoiding the draft—selective service status became less obvious.

In fact, we now know John was in great company. Destined to become presidents, vice presidents, congressmen, talk-show hosts and other prominent individuals, these then "not-too-famous" young men quietly escaped Vietnam service, along with thousands of average citizens. Tactics included alternative National Guard service, student deferments and, yes, even the 4F "unfit for service" category. According to University of Washington research, toward the end of the Vietnam draft there were more conscientious objectors than draftees. An estimated 100,000 men fled the country—70,000 to Canada alone, a number representing about 15 percent of those actually drafted. In the end less than 10 percent of the Vietnam generation served in the war.

As for John, he said he never heard from the draft board again, and never experienced any of the threatened repercussions. But he had been true to himself and the system—"telling," even though the truth was scorned and discouraged. It's an interesting historical perspective, given the debate today.

Jeff Fulton is a freelance writer specializing in travel and baby boomer culture.


This article shared 3012 times since Wed Jul 21, 2010
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