15 history-making LGBTQ+ veterans who fought for equality

LGBTQ servicemembers kick off San Diego Pride 2017.
LGBTQ servicemembers kick off San Diego Pride 2017. Photo: Shutterstock

This Memorial Day weekend, we’re taking time to commemorate the lives and contributions of LGBTQ+ service members, those who fought for our country while fighting the stigma that came with “serving while gay.”

Serving openly wasn’t an option for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. for many years until the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011.

“Serving while gay” wasn’t technically forbidden until 1982, when the Reagan administration enacted a policy explicitly banning gay men and lesbians from the armed forces. Same-sex relations in the military, however, had long been criminalized, as they were in society at large. In the 1940s, the Department of Defense classified same-sex attraction as a mental illness and a reason for dishonorable discharge.

Yet for more than 200 years before that landmark reversal in 2011, countless LGBTQ+ people did serve in the military. Sometimes their sexuality or gender identity was an open secret and overlooked. More often, if discovered, it was used as a bludgeon to drum them out of service.

The following is a list of 15 notable LGBTQ+ Americans, just a fraction of those who’ve served with distinction, from the Revolutionary War in 1775 to the debut of Space Force in 2019.

The American Revolution: Friedrich von Steuben

A portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben by Charles Willson Peale
A portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben by Charles Willson Peale

At 33, Prussian soldier Friedrich von Steuben had served as aide de camp to Frederick the Great, who was rumored to be gay. Von Steuben found himself discharged from the Prussian Army after his own rumored relations with young men.

Ben Franklin didn’t care. He was in Paris in 1777, and signed up the experienced soldier for his budding War of Independence. Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February, 1778 with his Italian greyhound, Azor, and his 17 year-old male secretary, and set about remaking the ragtag colonial troops into a proper Continental Army.

One of Washington’s last acts as general was a letter written to the Prussian signifying “in the strongest terms my entire [praise and approval] of your conduct.”

The Civil War: Albert D. J. Cashier

Albert D. J. Cashier
Albert D. J. Cashier

Albert Cashier was born Jennie Irene Hodgers in 1843, but after enlisting in the Union Army as a man in 1862, he maintained his new identity for the rest of his life. The 18-year-old signed up for a three-year stretch with the 95th Illinois Infantry, and served as part of the Army of Tennessee under General Ulysses S. Grant.

Despite capture while performing reconnaissance at the Siege of Vicksburg, and a later hospital stay, Cashier avoided detection for the duration of his military service.

After the war, Cashier settled in Illinois and worked as a farm hand and did odd jobs. Two bouts of illness revealed the veteran’s sex to friends and a local doctor, but it remained a secret, and he was buried in uniform with full military honors in 1915.

World War II: Allen Irvin Bernstein 

Allen Bernstein
Staff Sergeant Allen Bernstein 

Bernstein, a gay, Jewish writer, enlisted in the Army in 1940. A few years later, he followed a night at the Ballets Russes in Richmond, Virginia with an attempted pick-up of another soldier. As a result, he was jailed, held in a psychiatric facility, and drummed out of the service, before fighting for, and receiving, a retroactive honorable release in 1981.

What the world didn’t know, until 2010 and after his death, was that Bernstein was the author of a 149-page unpublished manuscript titled Millions of Queers (Our Homo America), written the same year he enlisted. Discovered by a researcher at the National Library of Medicine, the essay anticipated seminal arguments years later defending homosexuality. It was finally published online in 2014 at OutHistory.

World War II: José Sarria

José Sarria
National Park Service José Sarria

In World War II, José Julio Sarria was a Signal Corps intelligence officer, a cook, a baker, a scout, and worked in the motor pool. At just under 5-feet tall, the diminutive son of Colombian and Spanish parents shouldn’t have been in the service at all, as he didn’t meet the height requirement. Determined to sign up following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Sarria seduced a major who was attached to his San Francisco recruiting station and found himself inducted.

And that’s just the beginning of Sarria’s glittering resume. He regaled patrons at the legendary Black Cat club in San Francisco with his modern-day version of Carmen, earning the sobriquet “The Nightingale of Montgomery Street.” He was radicalized with his arrest for solicitation in a sting operation at the St. Francis Hotel. He was founder of famous “homophile” orgs the League for Civil Education and the Society for Individual Rights.

He was also the first openly gay candidate for political office in the U.S. with his run for San Francisco city supervisor. He also founded — with his assumption of the titles José I, Empress and Widow Norton — the Imperial Court System, the nationwide gay charitable organization that continues to thrive today.

World War II: Chester Alan “Gavin” Arthur III

Chester Alan "Gavin" Arthur III
Chester Alan “Gavin” Arthur III

Chester Alan “Gavin” Arthur III — the grandson and last living descendent of Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the United States — served in World War II in the Army and Merchant Navy.

Arthur earned his own fame as a renowned sexologist and astrologer, friend to the famous (including Jaqueline Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Allen Ginsberg), and as a “pre-hippie hippie.” In his 1962 book, The Circle of Sex, Arthur envisioned sexuality as a wheel with twelve orientations.

He was active in the early gay liberation movement and a leader of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. Arthur used astrology to decide the date for the first Human Be-In in January, 1967, a gathering that emphasized personal empowerment, communal living, ecological awareness, higher consciousness through drugs, and radical New Left political consciousness. The event set the scene for San Francisco’s halcyon Summer of Love later that year.

World War II: Nell “Johnnie” Phelps 

Nell “Johnnie” Phelps
Nell “Johnnie” Phelps

The story of Nell “Johnnie” Phelps is legend among lesbians who’ve served.

Phelps was a member of General Dwight Eisenhower’s staff in post-war, occupied Germany. The Supreme Commander had learned that a large number of lesbians were purported to serve in the Women’s Army Corps (or WACs, as they were more commonly known).

After Ike indicated he wanted to “to get rid of them,” and that Phelps should compile a list, the sergeant said she’d comply, but warned Eisenhower that her own name would be at the top of it. On hearing Phelp’s declaration, Eisenhower’s own secretary came out as well, saying Phelps would have to make room for her too. Eisenhower dropped the request.

World War II: Christine Jorgensen 

A picture of Christine Jorgensen
Screenshot/Pathe Christine Jorgensen

“Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.” That was the tabloid headline in 1952 that outed Christine Jorgensen, the world’s first trans celebrity.

Jorgensen was drafted into the Army during World War II, serving as a military clerical worker with the rank of private. After the war, she learned about sex reassignment surgery and traveled to Copenhagen, where she obtained special permission to undergo a series of procedures beginning in 1952.

A letter to her family was intercepted by the New York Daily News later that year, explaining, “Nature made a mistake which I have had corrected, and now I am your daughter.” Jorgenson’s story made front page news for decades after, as she entertained millions on television and in nightclubs while also working tirelessly for transgender rights. 

“Remember the shy, miserable person who left America?” Jorgenson asked her family in another letter, accompanied by photos. “Well, that person is no more and, as you can see, I’m in marvelous spirits.”

The Cold War: Frank Kameny 

LGBTQ pioneer Frank Kameny
Kay Tobin / New York Public Library LGBTQ pioneer Frank Kameny, with his “Gay is Good” sign, marching during the 1970 Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day, in New York City.

Dr. Frank E. Kameny served both in World War II and later with the U.S. Army’s Map Service as a civil service astronomer.

In 1957, at the height of the Cold War and the corresponding Lavender Scare, Kameny was fired and banned from federal employment because he was gay, along with over 10,000 other LGBTQ+ people in the government who were forced from their jobs in the 1950s and 60s.

Kameny sued to contest his firing, but he lost, the first in a series of defeats that reached all the way to the Supreme Court. There, he argued the government’s actions were “an affront to human dignity.” Afterward, the U.S. Civil Service Commission reversed course on LGBTQ+ employment. Eventually, 50 years after he was fired for being gay, Kameny received a formal apology from the federal government.

The Vietnam War: Leonard Matlovich 

Leonard Matlovich was seated on a Lambda American flag in the June 1979 San Francisco Pride parade.
Joe Altman collection; California Historical Society Leonard Matlovich was seated on a Lambda American flag in the June 1979 San Francisco Pride parade.

Technical sergeant Leonard P. Matlovich served three tours of duty in Vietnam with the Air Force, earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in the process, and later served as an instructor on race relations in the service. But his greatest contribution to the military was his work to overturn the government’s ban on LGBTQ+ service members.

Matlovich saw parallels between the 1960s racial Civil Rights Movement and the oppression of gay people, and he set about the change it. He’d read an interview in the Air Force Times with Frank Kamany, who’d been working with the ACLU to find a way to challenge the military’s gay ban.

Soon enough, Matlovich delivered a letter to his base commander, coming out. His declaration and picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1975 alongside the words: “I Am a Homosexual.”

Post-Cold War: Sandra Lawson

Rabbi Sandra Lawson
Rabbi Sandra Lawson

Like lots of Army brats, Sandra Lawson followed in her parent’s footsteps and enlisted, around the same time President George H. W. Bush ordered American troops into the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm in 1990.

After graduating magna cum laude with a degree in sociology from St. Leo University in Florida, Lawson served in military law enforcement, working on child abuse and domestic violence cases. She was out to family and friends.

Unlike a lot Army brats, particularly with a Christian upbringing, Lawson converted to Judaism, and in 2018 became the world’s first Black, out gay female veteran rabbi. She’s also a vegan, holds a master’s in sociology, is a personal trainer, food activist, weightlifter, author, and musician. In 2021, she became the first Director of Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism, a progressive pro-Democracy Jewish organization.

Iraq War: Eric Alva

Major General Christopher Cortez
Major General Christopher Cortez (left), commends Staff Sergeant Eric Alva on July 13, 2003, calling him “a credit to the Corps.”

Eric Fidelis Alva joined the United States Marine Corps in 1990 as a 19-year-old. He knew he was gay, at a time when the military strictly barred LGBTQ+ service. Yet he served for 13 years, in Okinawa, Somalia, and finally Iraq, much of the time being out to his fellow Marines.

That trust and comradery would be tested on March 21, 2003 — two days into the U.S invasion of Iraq — when Alva became the first U.S. Marine to be seriously injured in the war. The Texas native was in charge of 11 Marines in a supply unit when he stepped on a land mine and lost his right leg.

In 2006, Alva joined the Human Rights Campaign and began working in 2007 to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He testified before the House Armed Services Committee, “My being gay and even many of my colleagues knowing about it didn’t damage unit cohesion. They put their lives in my hands, and when I was injured, they risked their lives to save mine.”

Iraq War: Alan G. Rogers

Major Alan G. Rogers
Major Alan G. Rogers

Alan Greg Rogers, a U.S. Army major and intelligence officer, worked in his lifetime to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” with a group of fellow gay service members. However, he may be most remembered for the way his death contributed to LGBTQ+ civil rights.

Rogers died in January 2008 while on foot patrol in Baghdad. His death coincided with the U.S. military death toll in Iraq reaching 4000. Yet, while Rogers was out to many in the military and among friends, and many news organizations were aware of his orientation, coverage of his death uniformly failed to recognize he was gay. Instead, mainstream media widely reported that Rogers “was not married and left no children.” According to the Washington Post’s ombudsman at the time, the news organization made an overt decision to not disclose Rogers’ sexuality.

Subsequent reporting in the Washington Blade and The New Yorker outed other outlets for the omission, while the Blade revealed that the office of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence had gone so far as to remove references to Rogers’ sexuality from his Wikipedia page. His posthumous closeting became an emblem of how “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” affected LGBTQ+ soldiers even after their lives ended.

Iraq War: Dan Choi

Dan Choi
Dan Choi at his West Point graduation

Dan Choi was a model soldier. A graduate of West Point in 2003, Choi earned degrees in Arabic and environmental engineering, and served as an infantry officer in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division in 2006 and 2007. But in 2009, Choi appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show and uttered three powerful, and career-ending words: “I am gay.”

That public admission broke Army regulations and earned a Choi a prompt, dishonorable discharge.

“This is to inform you that sufficient basis exists to initiate action for withdrawal of federal recognition in the Army National Guard for moral or professional dereliction,” Choi’s letter of dismissal read. “Specifically, you admitted publicly that you are a homosexual, which constitutes homosexual conduct.”

Choi’s actions, and subsequent activism, helped supercharge efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Several arrests later — Choi handcuffed himself to the White House’s gates on multiple occasions — DADT was signed out of law by President Obama in 2010.

War in Afghanistan: Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg. Source: U.S. Military, Mass Communication Specialist Joseph A.D. Phillips
U.S. Military, Mass Communication Specialist Joseph A.D. Phillips Pete Buttigieg (credit: U.S. Military, Mass Communication Specialist Joseph A.D. Phillips)

Pete Buttigieg, currently the Secretary of Transportation and the first out gay cabinet secretary in history, was serving the people of South Bend as their 32nd mayor when he was called up by the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2014 for a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan.

The one-time presidential candidate was based at Bagram Air Base as part of a unit assigned to identify and disrupt terrorist financial networks. He also served as a driver for his unit commander on more than 100 trips to Kabul. The future transportation secretary has referred to the role as “military Uber,” through a gauntlet of improvised expolosive devices and potential ambushes into the capital.

Buttigieg was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal before leaving the Reserve in 2017. He came out in 2015, following his deployment.

Space Force: Bree Fram

Bree Fram
U.S. Space Force Lieutenant Colonel Bree Fram

In 2016, Bree Fram, an astronautical engineer, dedicated Star Trek fan and space fanatic, was an active duty Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force when President Obama dropped the military’s ban on transgender service members. Fram came out as trans the very same day, and instantly became one of the highest ranking out transgender officers in the U.S. military.

Then came President Donald Trump (R).

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” Trump wrote in a series of early morning tweets in July 2017. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”

Suddenly, thousands of trans military personnel, who’d served openly for 18 months would be forced back into the closet or kicked out of the U.S. Armed Forces altogether. Fram hadn’t fully transitioned — she still used her chosen and birth names interchangeably. Would she deny her true identity or give up her military career?

Ultimately, Trump’s blanket ban was rejected by his generals and so-called military experts, and watered down. Five days after taking office, President Joe Biden (D) lifted it altogether.

Now, Fram has fully transitioned, with the support of her wife and two kids. In August, 2021, she joined Space Force, as a woman.

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