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Background Essay on the LGBTQ+ Community and the Military

This essay outlines broad trends in LGBTQ+ American history and traces the evolution of LGBTQ+ people’s involvement in and relationship with the United States military.

LGBTQ+ people have been part of the nation’s military history since the beginning of the United States. As a result, this history is much more complex and nuanced than can be captured in a short essay. However, understanding the broad trends of LGBTQ+ history in the United States can help to illustrate how military service shaped the lives of members of the LGBTQ+ community and how the military as an institution both reflected and informed broader understandings of gender and the role of LGBTQ+ people in American society.

Originally considered a private matter, sexual orientation and gender identity were not initially codified in military policy. In the 1700s and 1800s, LGBTQ+ people could serve relatively freely so long as their actions did not attract undue attention. For example, crossdressing was forbidden in many places in the early United States. Despite this, there is evidence that people assigned female at birth disguised themselves as men in order to serve in the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars. In private, military men and women often had the freedom to form close, deeply intimate relationships with people of the same gender, and could be affectionate and effusive with them as well. 

As time went on, LGBTQ+ people became more visible in the public sphere. Religious, political, and medical authorities debated whether it was appropriate for them to participate in the military -- and in society in general. By the start of the 1900s, medical professionals had begun to develop a theory of human sexuality and gender identity that could account for LGBTQ+ people. Some of these scientists viewed being LGBTQ+ as a natural phenomenon, part of the broad spectrum of behaviors that humans exhibit. Others scientists disagreed, and pathologized same-sex attraction or transgenderism as diseases or disorders that needed to be contained, if not eliminated. In 1916, the military adopted Article 93, which for the first time banned homosexual behavior by servicemembers, comparing it to crimes like manslaughter and robbery. By the mid 1900s, military psychologists posited that LGBTQ+ service members were psychologically unfit for military service. Others argued that LGBTQ+ people posed a danger to their comrades by disrupting cohesion in single-sex military units or being likely to spill military secrets if captured or blackmailed.  

LGBTQ+ people were not passive in these debates. LGBTQ+ individuals fought in both World War I and World War II, finding community and economic mobility through their service despite the military’s official stance banning their involvement. After World War II, the LGBTQ+ movement intersected with other movements for equal rights.  In the 1950s, the homophile movement  fought to ensure LGBTQ+ people, including veterans, could enjoy the same rights as straight and cisgender Americans. In the 1960s, the vibrant counterculture nurtured the development of the gay liberation movement. For gay liberationists, it was not enough for LGBTQ+ people to be accepted as full members of society; instead, they sought to challenge societal norms that stigmatized the LGBTQ+ community -- and other minority groups -- in the first place. While the homophile movement advocated for LGBTQ+ people to be openly included in military service, many gay liberationists opposed war and the notions of masculinity promoted by the military, especially the Vietnam War, entirely. 

Examining the diverse opinions and experiences of LGBTQ+ people can be challenging. Modern conceptions of sexuality and gender do not align with historical understandings, and the language used to describe LGBTQ+ experiences has changed significantly as well. It is nevertheless important to acknowledge  that LGBTQ+ people make up part of the country’s history, and to recognize the love that these historical subjects often shared. This collection uses contemporary terms to discuss historical subjects, and provides explanations of period-typical language where applicable. 


Creator | Jubilee Marshall for American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | Jubilee Marshall for American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on the LGBTQ+ Community and the Military,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 29, 2023,



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