Randy Shilts
Randy Shilts; drawing by David Levine


In 1956 I was eighteen years old and a Seaman First Class in the United States Navy. I had joined during the summer of 1955 at seventeen and been sent to the Navy’s Radio School at Norfolk. Later that year I was assigned to the class of ship known as an AKA or attack transport. In those grainy old wire photos of the Normandy invasion or Okinawa, AKAs are always visible offshore. They have the classic single stack and superstructure outline of cargo ships but with large A-frames fore and aft. Amphibious landing craft are stacked and secured over their cargo hatches. The ship that features in Thomas Heggen’s novel Mr. Roberts was an AK, a noncombatant cousin of the AKA.

Heggen’s novel catches something of the spirit of the “Gator Navy,” as the amphibious force is called, in the period during and after the Second World War. Then as now, its ships were specialized, their form grimly followed function and they were as plain as dumpsters. The Navy did not generally dress them up in pennants for display. During the 1950s, in the Sixth Fleet’s own Mediterranean, while the cruisers and supercarriers basked in the sunshine of Rapallo and Villefranche, the amphib gator ships were elsewhere: Bari, Patras, Izmir. Much time was spent practicing amphibious assaults on beaches in Turkey, Crete, or Sardinia.

Like hotels, colleges, and prisons, ships have their particular informing atmosphere. And despite the Navy’s mode of slate-gray uniformity, each vessel had qualities that could be isolated and analyzed. To lifers, career petty officers, the first question about a ship was often: “Is she a good feeder?” Eating was the principal pleasure available at sea. Good cooks were prized.

The personnel clerk who typed the orders transferring me from radio school to my new ship was a fellow New Yorker. We fell into conversation and he told me I was going to a problem ship.

“They’re always falling off ladders,” he said.

During the 1950s, discipline in the US Navy was tight and fairly effective. Nevertheless, a ship was essentially its crew. Certain ships were dominated, prison-style, by cliques of sailors—sometimes men from the same tough town—who enforced a code of their own below decks. It has to be said that this was not universal, but everyone heard the stories. Such a ship’s officers might be only vaguely aware of the systems that prevailed in the enlisted quarter. Masters-at-arms and senior petty officers either looked the other way or, like crooked cops, made some political accommodations with the de facto leadership. Certain captains naively approved, seeing a form of rough democracy, crude peer pressure that furthered cohesion.

Taking up my new billet, I was assigned to bunking space of the deck division because there were no bunks then available in the radio gang’s sleeping quarters. At that time, men assigned to each of the ship’s divisions bunked in the same compartment. The sleeping arrangements than consisted of “racks” four or five high from the deck, sheets of canvas stretched within metal rectangles and secured to the bulkhead by lengths of chain.

One day during our first week at sea I went below to arrange my gear in the deck division’s compartment and encountered Flem (not, as they say, his real name), a third-class boatswain’s mate, who was goldbricking below decks while better men worked topside. He ran a little tailoring and pressing shop in a tiny locker off one of the passageways. Seeing me settle in, Flem assumed I was a new seaman in his notoriously tyrannized deck division, thus his inferior in rank and with my fortunes at his disposal. He was a small, freckled man, round, neckless, and thick-featured. With his slack smile and shifty eyes he looked like a lying witness at a country murder trial.

When Flem introduced himself he made no offer of shaking hands, itself a considerable insult. He told me a few things I already knew about how tough life was aboard that particular AKA and how much tougher he could make it. He told me I looked like “tender gear” to him. “Tender gear” was a common Navy expression, dating back to the good old days. It was applied to sailors of youthful appearance, when imagined as passive partners in prisonstyle, “facultative” homosexuality or as the victims of rape.

(This phrase was one of many homoerotic terms current in the Navy. Like them, it could be used insultingly, ambiguously, or good-naturedly as in: “Carruthers, I’m so horny you look like tender gear to me.” A man’s reputation for wit, something useful and valued, could ride on the quality of the rejoinder.)

But Flem wasn’t my buddy and he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t starry-eyed with affection either. That night I thought it prudent to take a spare bunk chain to bed with me. Some time during the dead of night he woke me up with a lot of prods and heavy breathing. So we ended up fighting up and down the faintly lit compartment. A few men were awake and silent or laughing; I was new, nobody much cared. In those days I was always blundering into fights only to be reminded that it wasn’t like the movies, to be amazed by the strength and determination of my opponent. Although drunk, Flem had the energy of an insect and, apparently, great single-mindedness.


But I was younger, stronger,and sober, my reputation on a new ship was at stake, and I had the chain. I was also considerably embittered. The youthful appearance that aroused lust in Flem seemed to make any woman I had the temerity to approach dismiss me as a Sea Scout. Flem went into the head to wash the blood off himself, cursed me out from a distance, and crept back to the tailor shop where he lived. The next day his face was swollen and covered with welts as though he had landed on his chin in poison ivy. The worse Flem looked the better for me, since every enlisted man aboard soon knew the story.

A few days later, we were off Gibraltar and I went past his shop and he said something to me I couldn’t hear. I doubled back, lest it be thought he could mock me with impunity.

“How’s that?”

He stood beside the presser, looking down at a blue jumper on the pad.

“You cried just like a cooze,” he said, still not looking at me. I had an immediate anxiety that he was speaking for effect, trying to make anyone within earshot believe things had turned out differently. But there was no one around so I went on my way. Appearances were everything.

I didn’t want to think I had cried during engagement but it occurred to me that I might well have. I didn’t care for the picture the reflection summoned forth, me whacking Flem repeatedly with a bunk chain, weeping away “like a cooze.”

I was surprised by the memory of my difficulties with Flem some time last year when I was about to engage in a public discussion on the subject of sexual harassment. I had originally approached the issue as an examination of conscience, looking back on my relations with women over the years.

Flem and I were not romancing the wilder shores of love, we were acting out an old dirty sea story that must go back to the Phoenicians and has more to do with power, cruelty, strength, and weakness than with any kind of attraction. I’m sure Flem felt about the same fondness for me that he felt for his favorite farm animal back home. Flem today, if he’s alive, retired in his trailer among the palmettos, is unlikely to regard himself as “gay.” I think it very likely he thoroughly opposes the notion of gays being able to serve in the military.

A second bit of reminiscence about my time in service. About two-and-a-half years after the business with Flem, I was serving aboard a different ship, also an AKA. By this time I was a petty officer myself, feeling very experienced and salty. The ship had just returned to the States from a long voyage that had kept it at sea for many weeks at a time and away from the United States for the better part of a year. Evenings at sea or on duty nights in port when we could not go ashore, a group of us, junior petty officers, took to gathering on the ship’s fantail or in the shipfitter’s shop. We were wouldbe intellectuals, of about college age, on average twenty-one or twenty-two. We met to smoke and talk and hang out. We liked progressive jazz and thought the Playboy philosophy was pretty hot stuff.

It was 1958, the year after On the Road was published. We were all shorttimers, a few months shy of our discharges; the Road seemed to be waiting for us. Moreover we found in the Navy an inexhaustible fund of humor and buffoonery. Everything about it—from the hats we shared with Donald Duck to the grotesque locutions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice—struck us as risible. Without question, we got on some people’s nerves. We were presently to learn the nature of the nerves we got on.

One evening while I was in New York on leave and on my way to the Central Plaza for an evening of jazz with my date I was arrested by a couple of plain-clothes New York cops on a charge of being absent without leave. I was not in fact AWOL. Nevertheless I was turned over to the New York military police headquarters in Hell’s Kitchen where I spent several hours leaning against a wall on my finger tips trying to persuade an MP sergeant to call my ship in Norfolk. Eventually the sergeant did, the ship’s duty officer confirmed my leave status, and I was released.


My false arrest had been part of the shockwave from a purge touched off by some incident in the Naval District. Foolish inquisitions and malicious informing were being promiscuously encouraged. Someone had told the executive officer about our gang of malingerers in the shipfitter’s shop. It seemed that we were planning to found a motorcycle gang to be named the Weird Beards. It would have its headquarters near the Bethlehem Steel Yards in Staten Island. It would engage in unlawful activities and actions prejudicial to good order. Its members would carry arms and be dangerous. They would worship Satan, harass Christians, use marijuana, and, conveniently, be homosexual.

This was all amusing in every regard save one—that the Navy in those days was obsessed with in-service gangs and homosexuality and tended, on not much evidence and without much formality, to lock alleged violators in the bowels of Portsmouth Naval Prison for years and years. The report of my being AWOL (based, needless to say, on some fantasy spun in the shipfitter’s shop) seemed to speak most urgently to those obsessions.

The executive officer panicked and ordered the immediate arrest of everyone mentioned in the report. He must have imagined us already on the highway, darkening the horizon, mincing into Harley shops, torching roadside chapels. Some people came back in chains.

We discovered that lockers had been broken into, letters removed, possessions rifled through and, of course, occasionally stolen unofficially, I happened to own a paperback called Immortal Poems of the English Language, which I subsequently spotted on a master-at-arms desk in the ship’s brig. Evidence, for sure. The MAA handed it back to me as though he were afraid there was semen on it.

In the aftermath, when the whole thing fell apart, the exec apparently felt silly. He would even show up in the shipfitter’s shop to be pals, making us all stand to attention and upset our coffee. When I applied to college, being under twenty-one, I needed a signature on my application from a “parent or guardian.” I was directed to the exec who signed it and gave me a nice letter to go with it, not a word about homosexual motorcycle gangs or anything like that.

“Of course,” he said, chuckling “I’m not really your guardian.”

“No, sir,” I said.

Had I the naivete to report Flem during the first incident, I would have seen many a sour face and disgusted expression of which I, not Flem, would have been the object. I would have branded myself a pussy, a snitch, and quite possibly a homosexual. A man was expected to cope. Not quite conversely, if Flem had been able to coerce me into accommodation, shipboard opinion would have despised me, not him. A lingering tradition would have excused him, not legally but morally. The Navy preferred not to know about the potential for forcible sodomy but could work itself into a moralizing dudgeon over rumors of subversion, with poetry as evidence. And as surely as today’s charges of kindergarten child abuse tend to incorporate accusations of witchcraft, subversive notions in the Navy were profoundly associated with homosexuality.


Whether or not the preceding sad story has a moral, it reflects the shabby and sordid way the armed forces have approached homosexuality in the ranks over the years. This is the subject of Randy Shilts’s long book, Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Shilts’s business here is advocacy, and he writes in favor of the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the US armed forces. His arguments seem to grow more reasoned and less strident as the book proceeds, and he has a good reporter’s instinct for the core of a story. He begins, somewhat irrelevantly, by invoking the Sacred Band of Thebes and George Washington’s silk tights, but the cumulative effect of Conduct Unbecoming is a clear indictment of the morally confused and weak-minded policy that has prevailed so far.

If there is a single reference point against which the whole of Conduct Unbecoming may be viewed it is the report he cites, one officially entitled the “Report of the Board Appointed to Prepare and Submit Recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy for the Revision of Policies, Procedures and Directives Dealing with Homosexuals.” This classified document, known less ponderously as “The Crittenden Report,” might well surprise today’s Congressional zealots for a 100 percent he-man heterosexual military. Shilts quotes from and summarizes it at length. The board writes:

There is no correlation between homosexuality and either ability or attainments. Whether or not public opinion holds homosexuality to be synonymous with degeneracy, the fact remains that a policy which long remained contrary to public opinion could not but have an adverse effect on the Navy.

Elsewhere the panel concluded:

A nice balance must be maintained in changes of policy to ensure that public sensibilities are not offended in any attempt to promote a forward looking program in recognition of the advances in the knowledge of homosexual behavior and treatment, nor can there be any intimation that homosexual conduct is condoned. It is not considered to be in the best interests of the Military Departments to liberalize standards ahead of the civilian climate; thus in so far as practicable it is recommended that the Navy keep abreast of developments but not attempt to take a position of leadership.

Drawing on testimony from a variety of experts, the report generally refutes every truism behind the ban on homosexuals: There are “many known instances of individuals who have served honorably and well, despite being exclusively homosexual.” The notion that gays were security risks was “without sound basis in fact…No intelligence agency, as far as can be learned, adduced any factual data” (to support this conclusion). In fact, “there is some information to indicate that homosexuals are quite good security risks.”

The report goes on to recommend that discovered homosexuals no longer be less than honorably discharged. It refers to the concentration of homosexuals in certain specialties—the medical services, the women’s branch—as known facts of life, and it ends by suggesting, Shilts writes, that the Navy ” ‘keep abreast’ of social attitudes toward homosexuality.”

This extraordinary document was prepared not, as might be thought, in preparation for a Clinton presidency but during the second Eisenhower administration, in 1957. Like all those bottles of ketchup we heard about but never saw, a crucial part of this wisdom was apparently tucked away somewhere in one of the Navy’s sub-tropical depots and forgotten. The absurd homosexual purges, which continue to the present day, very often have more to do with perception than with discipline. They concern the way the services see themselves as being seen, rather than the way in which they really see themselves or the way they actually are. Years later the military would indignantly deny the very existence of the Crittenden Report and only persistent application of the Freedom of Information Act retrieved it from the caves of the Pentagon.

There are many personal stories in Conduct Unbecoming, maybe a few more than the reader can keep track of. One of the saddest occurs over and over again, the pattern repeating itself as names and precise circumstances change: A young person, often a teenager, joins the service. In the course of enlistment that person discovers himself or herself to be gay. Service conditions provide the opportunity for an affair, not infrequently the first. Discovery follows and arrest and then terrorizing interrogations by the squalid keyhole cops of the military investigative services. There are the usual threats of disgrace; the prisoner’s parents will be told, her home-town neighbors, his high-school coach, the boyfriend or girlfriend back home, and so on. And as often as not it seems, even after the victim destroys the remains of his or her own self-respect by naming names, the threats are made good. Then, the Crittenden recommendation notwithstanding, the subject is usually released into civilian life with a bad discharge, humiliated, sometimes traumatized for life.

This comes about, Shilts demonstrates, as a result of a routine procedure, the turning over of suspects to the military investigative services, whose livelihood has always been charges of homosexual behavior. Like the medieval church remanding heretics to the secular arm, commanding officers have dispatched accused personnel to the mercies of these agencies, of which the civilian-manned Naval Investigative Service is the most notorious. Shilts records an observation current in the fleet.

Call the NIS [Naval Investigative Service] and tell them you’ve got a dead body and the agents may show up in the next week or so. Call and say you’ve got a dead body and you think the murderer was homosexual and the agents will be there in thirty seconds.

The stories Shilts marshals about the NIS are harrowing. Most harrowing of all is its attempt to blame the explosion in the USS Iowa gun turret on a fabricated gay relationship, in support of which it ruthlessly doctored circumstantial evidence and posthumously blackened the name of a sailor killed in the explosion.

The Navy could have done with a better, wiser, and more humane investigative service because its ships were not without problems. In recounting the case of a 1980 anti-lesbian purge aboard the USS Norton Sound that was instigated by the complaint of a female sailor, Shilts describes post-Vietnam War conditions at their nadir: a ship utterly out of control, undisciplined, rife with dope dealing, loan sharking, violence, and tension between every identifiable group, racial, sexual, or otherwise. Anyone who has ever served aboard a US Navy ship will know the sort of floating hell such a vessel can be. The USS Belleau Wood, an amphibious ship whose admittedly gay crew member Allen Schindler was murdered last year, seems to have supported similar conditions.

Until the middle of the 1970s, the military succeeded in living with the kind of contradictions that only a prestigious bureaucracy, with good public relations, can resolve. It was well aware that its ranks contained homosexuals, whose presence it often tolerated out of expedience. From time to time it would arrest and sacrifice one, pour encourager les autres, a process of culling meant to demonstrate that the armed services were still part of Middle America.

During the Vietnam War, the numbers of homosexuals the military was shocked to detect in its ranks mysteriously diminished. Shilts asserts that during that war, draft boards were instructed to demand “proof” from inductees who claimed to be homosexual proof which would not only be embarrassing but would make anyone who supplied it criminally liable in almost all of the United States. In other words, like society in general, the services dealt with homosexuality in an inconsistent, arbitrary way, entirely on the military’s own terms.

But the world was changing, and after the Vietnam War the military was no longer so prestigious nor were its public relations so effective. A wave of activism was washing away old arrangements. In March 1975, a career Air Force sergeant with twelve years’ service named Leonard Matlovich, Jr. wrote a letter to the secretary of the Air Force via his commanding officer. Matlovich had an outstanding record; he was the kind of senior noncom who makes the services work, a wounded veteran of Vietnam, a wearer of the Bronze Star. One can only imagine the foreboding that ascended the chain of command with this document.

“After some years of uncertainty,” Matlovich wrote, “I have arrived at the conclusion that my sexual preferences are homosexual as opposed to heterosexual. I have also concluded that my sexual preferences will in no way interfere with my Air Force duties, as my preferences are now open. It is therefore requested that those provisions in AFM39-12 relating to the discharge of homosexuals be waived in my case.”

The US military had been overtaken by what might be called the American Factor. The most moralizing and legalistic country on earth, the land where everybody is responsible for everything although nobody is responsible for anything, was about to quarrel with itself. With its customary moral valor, the military looked wildly about for a moment, then sided with what appeared to be the respectable element. Its instincts were conservative and it wanted nothing more than to appear respectable. The Air Force initiated discharge proceedings against Matlovich, invoking AFM39-12, the very ordinance he had challenged. But as of March 6, 1975, the days of arbitrary punishment and arbitrary tolerance were numbered.

Any story whose subject is social change in America will consist in large part of legal detail, and Conduct Unbecoming is no exception. The book sets forth scores of cases and describes scores of proceedings and procedures, from discharge hearings to sessions of the Supreme Court. The case of Leonard Matlovich is one of many. Yet it is an informing thread running through the period under discussion, and there are few accounts in the book more poignant. Shilts sentimentalizes Matlovich to some degree but the sergeant’s naive idealism and his unhappy fortunes are actually the stuff of drama. In 1980, discouraged by Reagan’s election, he accepted a substantial cash settlement from the Air Force, failed to prosper in civilian life, and died of AIDS in 1988.

Shilts also describes a case with a happier outcome, that of Perry Watkins, an African American who told his Tacoma draft board in May 1968 that he was gay. It being 1968, his draft board told him otherwise: there were no gay blacks of military age in Tacoma in the year of the Tet offensive. Watkins went into the army and liked the life. His female impersonations became the hit routine of every Army entertainment, and each time he was presented with a form demanding that he state his sexual preference he declared himself gay. So it went for sixteen years of Army service until finally, during the Reagan years, his status was challenged and he was discharged. Watkins sued. In 1990, the US Court of Appeals ordered his reinstatement and the administration appealed. Finally, in November of the same year, twenty-three years after his surreal visit to the Tacoma draft board, the US Supreme Court found for Watkins and ordered him all pay and allowances.

Press accounts of gays in the military have tended to concentrate on homosexual men. In reality, the impact, both in numbers and on the military ambiance, has always been greater on the female side. On the whole a greater proportion of lesbians than male homosexuals have sought military careers. As Shilts makes plain, many have served with particular success. His narrative follows the paradoxical fortunes of a number of lesbians who, while turning in above-average professional performances, have run afoul of the military’s social instincts. In some cases, trouble developed as a result of tension between lesbians and male personnel; sometimes there were complaints from nongay women who felt intimidated by lesbians. But the most famous case recounted here is that of Miriam BenShalom, a lesbian who openly revealed her sexual preference upon graduation from drill-sergeant’s school and was discharged from the Army reserve in 1971 as a result. After literally decades of litigation, Ben-Shalom’s administrative discharge was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990.

By then there were many cases in the courts and the legal situation continued to see-saw. At one point in the Matlovich proceedings Judge Gerhard Gesell of the Federal district court in Washington called on the military to take “a more discriminating and informed approach” to the issue but found against Matlovich on technicalities. The judge added: “It seems to the court a tragedy that we must confront—as I fear we will have to unless some change takes place—an effort at reform through persistent, insistent, and often ill-advised litigation.”

But persistent litigation is the American way. By the Nineties the services had tried to tighten the court-worthiness of their regulations. The armed forces had seen their first inservice AIDS case at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco in July 1982, a factor that would alter both the arguments and the underlying reality. But it was plain by the election of 1992 that the services’ traditional and irrational methods of dealing with homosexuality had worn away. President Clinton’s compromises may be less than the total vindication some activists have called for, but no amount of resistance will bring back the old system.

Various foreign military establishments have their methods of dealing with gay personnel and Shilts approvingly cites some of the more reasonable. But foreign examples are not necessarily useful. The United States has the largest and most active gay rights movement in the world, one completely committed to the right of gays to serve. Gay rights organizations in most other countries—even countries with civil rights laws that protect gays—are not as prominent. In Europe most gay rights organizations are ipso facto antimilitary and inhabit a different world than their armed services. Military service is not one of their priorities.

Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University who testified before the Senate Armed Services committee, has pointed out the flaws in basing assumptions on foreign examples.

“More gays in the military have come out of the closet in the American military,” Moskos writes, “where homosexuality is proscribed than in those countries (e.g. Israel, Germany, Scandinavia) where it is technically allowed.” In those forces where gays are unrestricted, most gay members nevertheless remain in the closet. A distinction must be made, Moskos says, “between de jure and de facto treatment of gays.”

Regarding Israel, often cited for its tolerance, Moskos says flatly: “No declared gay holds a command position in a combat arm anywhere in the IDF.”1 The situation in France, which nominally admits gays to its service, is suggested by the diffident language employed by two French military sociologists: “In the military [homosexuality] is shrouded in a kind of silence that does not express embarrassment, but a complete lack of interest. The clue may be that most homosexuals are screened or self-selected out.”2

The situation in Britain, whose forces are governed by restrictions more or less equivalent to those of the United States, seems to be a reverse of the French position; legal prohibition but discreet selective tolerance at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

“The practice,” according to an article in Society, “is not to act unless they call attention to themselves. Indeed, if their orientation becomes known but they are not openly engaged in homosexual behavior, they might be counselled and warned against misconduct, rather than discharged.” Last spring, the RAF discharged Sergeant Simon Ingram after he openly declared himself gay. “Everyone in the RAF has been helpful and supportive,” he said. “I’m even going to have a proper leaving party. But the system doesn’t change. My career is in ruins….”3

It would be a mistake to assume that there are no problems for gays in services that technically do not discriminate. Plainly, many foreign military establishments function by way of arrangement, in which the de jure regulations cover some form of de facto accommodation. This may well prove the case in Australia and Canada, which recently responded to gay rights pressure by ending discrimination in their services.

What all this suggests is simply that every country’s military is a reflection of its society. Our continuously divided society has always sought to accommodate different social elements according to the strict letter of the law. We are not good at creating “understandings” because so many of us understand entirely different things. No other country has anything like the polarization between progressive and conservative forces that exists in the United States. No other country has, at the same time, equivalents of either our strong gay rights movement or our militant religious right. The religious right is not without influence in that section of society from which the military is recruited. As Pat Buchanan is fond of saying, “The wars are fought by Catholics and Baptists.” Certainly no other country has witnessed anything like the endless hours of testimony, defiance, rhetoric, moralizing, and accusation that have piled American court records on this one subject to the height of the Tower of Babel.

Plainly Bill Clinton was naive to think that he could lift the restrictions against gays in the military with the stroke of a pen. A sample of the arguments being drawn up by military experts opposed to ending the gay ban can be seen in the Spring issue of Parameters, the US Army War College quarterly. An article there, by Major R.D. Adair and Captain Joseph C. Myers is called “Admission of Gays to the Military: A Singularly Intolerant Act.”

Adair and Myers attack even the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” proposal calling it “remarkable hopeful” and also legally unenforceable.

The (policy) begs an obvious question: Is the lifestyle of sexual orientation or whatever term might be used in an Executive Order or Act of Congress legitimate or not? If it is, then why delimit anyone’s rights that flow from that lifestyle?

The article goes on to ask about homosexual marriages in the service. Would gay spouses be able to use PX facilities? Would they be assigned government quarters? “Would officers and non-commissioned officer’s spouse’s clubs open themselves to the significant other of homosexual members?”

They pursue the issue into the sphere of affirmative action: “Within a very short period after the new policy’s implementation we could well see tacit floors, quotas and other affirmative action devices to assure that homosexual personnel get their ‘fair share’ of benefits.”

Adair and Myers offer these prospects as a reduction to absurdity. In fact, they are questions that the military may well have to answer in the real world. The signs are clear. Political pressure from the White House and the Congress, legal mandates from the courts, will before very long compel the military to cope with the question of how to incorporate openly gay people into its ranks.

If the proponents of gay rights cannot get everything they require for their constituency, neither can Major Adair and Captain Myers have the world back as it was. Some kind of mutual accommodation will be required, unlikely as the prospect may seem. One of the defiant letters from gays cited in Conduct Unbecoming is from an enraged hospital corpsman, protesting anti-gay discrimination aboard his ship. “I will no longer live a second, secret life,” the corpsman writes, “because the Navy has seen fit to adhere to an ante-diluvian, Judeo-Christian posture that no longer and never was congruent with social realism (sic).”

But to what extent can the Catholics and Baptists (not to mention Jews) be called upon to abandon their “Judeo-Christian posture”? And to what extent can gays be asked to abandon their gay identity? The US military lacks a grand heraldic or aristocratic tradition. Our army is and always was a “people’s army” to a greater degree than that of any other major power. Our informing military totem is the Minute Man, the plough-jockey turned soldier. The military establishment is common ground; it does in fact belong to all Americans just as Shilts claims it does.

In this country, we are not good at subtle arrangements. We tend to get everything in writing, which would seem to make difficult any accommodation between two deeply selfrighteous points of view. It may be that we will need to exercise considerably more flexibility in applying the letter of the law and the regulations that will eventually succeed the ones announced by Secretary Aspin. Problems, if they arise, will have to be worked out locally, company by company, vessel by vessel. Conditions like the ones that prevailed aboard the Norton Sound cannot be permitted because no accommodation can survive in such an atmosphere. It will be necessary to enlist the consent of all parties to abide by certain guidelines, just as in the past sailors signed the ship’s articles as an earnest of their intention to be governed by the necessities of a vessel at sea.

This, of course, is what Major Adair and Captain Myers would call “remarkably hopeful”; it’s easier said than done. In smaller units, where people know each other, provision can be made for everyone’s attitude. In the impersonal atmosphere of large installations and supercarriers, it’s very difficult to maintain such things as consent and mutual understanding. But the simple fact is our forces are not like other countries’ forces; they serve a litigious, volatile country that worships Possibility and they will have to work it out somehow.

It will call for strict discipline, high morale, and some assistance from that Power whom Bismarck once claimed has a special providence for fools and the United States.


In the late summer of 1991, while the Navy was preparing to grapple with the latest strategies of gay liberation in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, some of its wholesomely heterosexual young aviators—and a few older ones—were preparing for Tailhook ’91. If the name sounds faintly risqué, nothing in the Tailhook Association’s published summary of its September “symposium” suggests anything other than huffy-puffy rightmindedness.

By the time the event ended with a farewell brunch on a Sunday morning, the Tailhook Association knew to a certainty that the Naval Aviation Symposium had realized its full potential. With a varied, objective assessment of the first victory in a full scale war in half a century, America’s fleet aviators departed with enhanced pride in their profession and in themselves.

At the end of the summary, the author’s boundless self-satisfaction leads him to echo the immortal Voltaire. “In summary, if the United States Navy did not already have access to a Tailhook Association, there would be every good reason to create one.”

Not a word about “butt-biting.” Nothing about “ball-walking.” No reference to the unfortunate mooning episode in which the mooners managed to moon right through the window, sending broken glass and very nearly some of their number down on the Las Vegas Hilton’s swimming pool. And not a whisper about the ninety separate “indecent assaults” that the revelers chalked up, giving the sleuths of the Naval Investigative Service an unaccustomed exercise on the straight side of the street.

The assaults were mainly endured by women who ran a “gauntlet” of scores of drunken young men, who happened to be naval and marine corps aviators. A couple of visiting British pilots seem to have participated as well. In the “gauntlet” the women were lured into a narrowing corridor, surrounded, and then generally felt up, pinched on the breasts and buttocks, and otherwise groped and insulted. In the light of day, a few women claimed they enjoyed it. Others “blew it off” and dismissed the drunken aviators as “jerks.” But a great many were thoroughly terrified and seriously feared for their safety. The “gauntlet” was repeated over the several nights of the symposium, growing in relative violence. Its victims included navy wives and strippers, hired bartenders and local college students lured to the event by handbills. It also included many young female navy officers.

Besides the gauntlet and “ball-walking” (a naval jollity in which a drunken man parades with his trouser so adjusted that his testicles are exposed), symposium activity included, according to the Department of Defense investigators, “streaking,” “mooning,” “leg shaving,” and “chicken-fighting.” Chicken fighting is an aquatic contest more consensual than the gauntlet, in which two young women in a swimming pool, mounted on the shoulders of naval aviators, attempt to remove each other’s bathing suits.

No fewer than thirty-five admirals attended the hi-jinks in Las Vegas, though no one seems to have been in charge. The presence of the secretary of the Navy appears not to have sobered the mood. Not until Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, an Admiral’s aide, complained to her boss, did the incidents begin to become an issue.

Coughlin’s boss, Admiral John W. Snyder, Jr., was the commanding officer of Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center, an extremely desirable and influential posting. Unfortunately for his career, he took no action on Coughlin’s complaint. When she saw that she was getting no satisfaction from the admiral, Coughlin made her beef official. This involved NIS, whose investigators, so zealous in the pursuit of gays, found themselves stymied by a conspiracy of silence. Their investigation produced few names. They also seemed to have overlooked the presence at Tailhook ’91 of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III.

Finally, to preempt what she believed was a covert campaign to destroy her reputation, Coughlin went to the press, that ruthless but imperfect agent of redress. The ensuing carnage was terrible. Secretary Garrett was revealed as being in Las Vegas in ’91 and ordered by the White House to resign. Admiral Snyder was transferred to a far less prestigious billet—“The kind of thing,” an officer said, “where they leave a pistol on the table and everybody leaves the room.” An assistant chief of naval operations being groomed for a position among the Joint Chiefs of Staff was made to retire at a reduced rank. The Defense Department was compelled to commence a more thorough investigation, one which still continues.

The Tailhook Association, a curious organization to facilitate contacts between naval officers and civilian contractors, saw its semi-official sponsorship by the Navy withdrawn. Its conventions were a true feminist’s nightmare, a macho revel of the actual military industrial complex itself, slack jawed, booze-swilling, and sexually predatory. The pilots who took part in Tailhook ’91 were mainly young males aged twenty-one to twenty-six. What happened was partly the result of alcohol and partly a function of that atavistic anti-femaleness that seems to lurk in the hearts of surprisingly many men.

There was a note of possible cheer for social progress here however. At the press conference announcing the result of the Tailhook report, Admiral Frank B. Kelso, chief of naval operations declared: “Tailhook brought to light the fact that we had an institutional problem with women…it was a watershed that brought about social change.”

And two of the officers who had their buttocks pinched and fondled were men.

This Issue

September 23, 1993