Gays in the Military

The history of LGBTQ folk in the U.S. military is intricate and spans various eras. Here, we will explore key historical events and share the stories of two significant service members. For genealogists, understanding where to find military records is crucial.

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (B: September 17, 1730, Magdeburg, Prussia [Germany], D: November 28, 1794, near Remsen, New York, U.S.):

Baron von Steuben, a Prussian military officer, played a pivotal role in shaping the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Since the age of 14 Von Steuben learned the art of war in the service of Fredrick the Great of Germany. In 1777 von Steuben was a Captain in the Prussian Army when his homosexual activity with other soldiers was reported by General Anhalt.

He fled prosecution to Paris where he met Benjamin Franklin who gave him letters of introduction to George Washington. Von Steuben joins Washington at Valley Forge where his impact was profound, transforming the undisciplined rebels into an effective fighting force.

On arrival at Valley Forge, his entourage included his 17-year-old lover, Peter Stephen du Ponceau. He also had relationships with Benjamin Walker, who became a Federalist congressman, and William North, who became a U.S. Senator from NY. He adopted both Walker and North, making them his heirs, which was the only means to safely create a legal relationship between two men. John Mulligan, another friend of Von Steuben inherited his vast library, maps, and $2,500. Von Steuben never married and had no children. Despite having a queer general, George Washington was still signing discharge papers for soldiers accused of sodomy.

Military Policies and Discrimination:

Discharges continued through the 18th and 19th centuries despite the military not having an explicit prohibition on sodomy. The Articles of War of 1916 first defined those guilty of “assault with intent to commit sodomy,” recommending court-martials and other punishments.

In the 1940s, psychiatric evaluations warned that “psychopathic personality disorders” make homosexuals unfit to fight. The military issued the first regulations to list homosexuality as an excludable characteristic. Those in the military identified as homosexuals could now be discharged and denied veterans benefits.  The military started targeting people, not just sexual acts.

During WWII, Blue Discharges were used, disproportionately affecting African Americans and homosexuals. This type of discharge carried civilian prejudice and denied the ex-servicemember Veteran Administration benefits and the GI Bill.

In 1944, Reg 615-630, also known as Section 8, established a policy to admit homosexuals to hospital for psychiatric examination, then discharged.

On January 20, 1950, Army Regulation 600-443 “Separation of Homosexuals” was published identifying three categories of homosexuals.

  • Class I was for those deemed “aggressive” and are subjected to general court-martial
  • Class II was for “active but non-aggressive” personnel who can avoid a court-martial by accepting a dishonorable discharge – or resigning if they are officers.
  • Class III was for personnel professing or exhibiting homosexual tendencies without violating the sodomy statute. They were removed from service under general or honorable discharge.

Army Regulation 600-443 categorized homosexuals into three classes, leading to discharges.

Blue Discharges were discontinued in 1947 and replaced by General Discharge. A General discharge equated to satisfactory but considerable departure from duty performance and like Blue Discharges carried a substantial prejudice in civilian life. Separation from the military could also be under “Other than Honorable” or Undesirable standings which barred the person from re-enlisting. There were also Bad contact or Dishonorable discharges.

The late 20th century saw some positive changes, with the removal of homosexuality as a DSM psychiatric condition in 1987. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed compromise legislation known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). This prevented the military from investigating personnel without cause, but it didn’t work very well. In 2010, DADT was repealed by Barack Obama. DADT officially ended in September of 2011, allowing 114,000 service members separated since WWII with General, Other than Honorable, or Dishonorable discharges to get their personnel records amended.

Albert Cashier (B: Jennie Irene Hodgers, 25 Dec 1843 Clogher Head, County Louth, Ireland, D: 10 Oct 1915, Saunemin, Illinois):

Long before joining the Union army, Jennie dressed as a man and used the name Albert Cashier. He joined the 95th Illinois Infantry, Company G, on 6 Aug 1862. At Vicksburg, he was captured but escaped after attacking his guard and running back to Union lines. Albert would need to carefully bathe in private and always dress alone. Diminutive and beardless compared to his comrades, he did as much work as anyone else in the company. He served for three years and was honorably discharged on 17 Aug 1865.

Hundreds of women, passing as men, fought on both sides of the Civil War. While other women went back to female dress and gender roles, Albert continued living as a man for the rest of his life. Albert could not read or write but gained employment to supplement a veteran’s pension as a farmer laborer, janitor, a lamplighter. Professions that would have been closed to women.

In March 1914, Albert arrived at the Watertown Illinois State Hospital for the Insane with advanced dementia. His secret was discovered, and he was forced to wear women’s clothing. He slipped on his long skirts, breaking a hip, and never recovered. He was buried with full military honors in his Union Blues.

Finding Military Records:

For genealogists, obtaining military records is crucial. The DD-214 form, standardized since 1950, serves as the discharge document. Before that, discharge papers had different names. Contact the National Archives for Military Service Records, primarily held in St. Louis but potentially in Washington DC based on the year or branch of service. Records related to court-martialed service members are found in Record Group 153.2.3.

Understanding the circumstances of a military separation is essential for comprehending our LGBTQ ancestors’ struggles.