The Military Ignores Its History With Drag and Queer Vets
Author: John Casey
We reported this week about a transgender Army veteran in Florida asked to leave the women’s restroom while on federal property at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in West Palm Beach.told The Advocate that she was leaving an appointment at the women’s clinic in the VA Medical Center in late April when the incident happened. She suffered painful indignity, Jeloudov said.
As we reported earlier this month, the Pentagon intervened in a local matter at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, canceling a pre-approved drag show that was to celebrate Pride Month. The order came from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and was backed by Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley.
A statement from the military said that the event wasn’t “suitable.” The irony here is that the military has an important role in the history of drag. Now suddenly, they are being made to feel indignant.
During World War II, according to the National World War II Museum, The Army distributed a handbook for soldier shows known as Blueprint Specials that included dress making patterns and suggestions for material procurement. “’Girly’ show choreography was outlined in the publications to ensure that the GIs looked good in their highly choreographed ‘pony ballet’ numbers. A pony ballet is one where groups of masculine looking GIs dress in tutus and perform ballet routines often wearing their army issued boots. “
The military is forgetting its own history while ditching drag, and similarly, in a much more serious way, forgetting about its sordid history with queer service members, particularly those who were harmed because of the disastrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And like Jeloudov, these vets are also being made to suffer indignity.
CBS News recently did an investigative series about the ramifications of DADT, and how LGBTQ+ veterans are having a very difficult time getting their dishonorable discharges changed, and worse, getting their prison time expunged from their records.
Jim Axelrod, the network’s chief investigative and senior national correspondent spoke with former Air Force officer Steve Marose, who was discharged in the 1980s after pleading guilty to sodomy charges. He served five years at Fort Leavenworth, and now, years after the repeal of DADT, he is still struggling to clear his record of the convictions.
On the 10th anniversary of the repeal of DADT, I spoke to Leon Panetta, former congressman, President Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff, CIA Chief under President Obama, and later, Obama’s Defense Secretary who oversaw the repeal. He said, “I really do believe that everyone ought to have the chance to serve their country in some capacity. Our ability to get rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ opened more opportunities for women and trans individuals to serve. It just validates the point that our country is best served by giving everyone who wants to serve the chance to serve. That’s what makes our democracy what it is.”
In the same conversation, Panetta, who said he was on the periphery of the adoption of DADT when it was implemented, thought it was a bad idea. “And when I saw the compromise of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ my sense was that it was doomed to fail. If you tell people they can’t say who they are, you are asking for trouble.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Axelrod and his colleague, Jessica Kegu, who is an investigative producer for CBS, about their work on uncovering this malfeasance of justice. Kegu said that on the 10 year anniversary of the repeal, the VA put out a statement saying they wanted to try and make the discharge upgrade process for gay, bi, and lesbian service members less complicated and painful.
“So, then we kind of started talking to some people and dug much deeper into the discharge upgrade process,” Kegu said. “And it turned out it was, indeed, a very onerous process that wasn’t working, it really kind of struck me that even the VA was willing to call it out publicly. And that kind of seemed like something we should dig into.”
Axelrod said that he and Kegu went to see Secretary Panetta. “I think Jess and I both sort of had this moment of what we were really onto when we went out and spent some time with Panetta. I think Jess and I both felt like he was uncommonly candid about saying, ‘Hey, this has been mangled. We were focusing on the present, and the future, we didn’t think about the past. We didn’t think about addressing the pain and the suffering.’”
“And as far as I’m concerned, I’ve interviewed a lot of public figures and government officials. And really hadn’t seen that kind of candor at admitting something hadn’t worked the way that he had hoped. Of course, he’s not the secretary of defense anymore. So the question then becomes, okay, if there’s a recognition from the people who were there at the implementation and the repeal, what about now? You gotta be able to fix this,” Axelrod said.
I asked Axelrod that if the situation still needs to be fixed, how does the Defense Department go back and try to make amends for everything that happened during the time of DADT?
“The short answer to that is there needs to be the will to do that. And the Department of Defense has indicated there is very little will, in terms of addressing this because we’re talking about people that are paying the price years, decades after.”
Axelrod said that there is a whole slew of benefits that these veterans are ineligible to access such as loans and certain jobs. “Steve Morose, who we featured, had been imprisoned, and he can’t work as a police dispatcher because he’s a felon,” Axelrod pointed out. “There are any number of healthcare benefits that these vets are unable to access.”
Is the problem that there is too much to be fixed, which makes it a mammoth undertaking? “Personally, I think this could easily be rectified, if there’s the will to do so,” answered Axelrod. “It feels like it’s a couple of strokes on a keyboard. You upgrade a discharge to honorable and suddenly all those benefits are accessible.”
Axelrod said that what is left might be bureaucratic inertia or, quite possibly lingering homophobia. “Until we get an answer from the Defense Department, who won’t really engage with us to this point, we’re just left with confusion like most people watching this story or looking where to go to get help.”
I wondered if there was an organization that existed, or was started, where former military people go for help, or one that was lobbying the government on their behalf?
“To my knowledge, not really, and I think part of that is because a lot of the veterans we’ve spoken with, they feel like they’re straddling two different communities where they are, they are both LGBTQ and they are veterans, except they kind of don’t mix. Right?” pointed out Kegu. “It’s kind of like you’re either part of this community or part of that community. And, the large VSOs, (Veteran Services Offices) which do the majority of the lobbying or policy work, they’re not working together.”
“And it seems like a bunch of people in the Pentagon haven’t gotten that memo,” Axelrod added. “It also strikes us that it’s kind of a simple, no brainer for the White House, right? Why not get behind this, since this isn’t a political partisan issue.”
Kegu added that, on the other side, a lot of affected veterans have made peace with that part of their lives and moved on. “Some have said, ‘I’m going to put my life together. I’m going to put this behind me. I’m going to compartmentalize it and move on.”
“That said, so many people are struggling just to get their discharges changed, and the grueling process of getting a conviction overturned, and many are resigned to the fact of just throwing up their arms and saying, ‘What are the chances?’”
To Axelrod, who was embedded in troops during the Iraq war, fixing this should be simple. “The troops in Iraq had the capability of fighting in sandstorms where I couldn’t even see my hand in front of me,” he recalled. “So you’re telling me they can’t sort through a bunch of records and figure out who had the wrong decision made? I just would love someone to sit down with the Pentagon or the Biden administration and explain why we are still dealing with this 12 years after the repeal?”
John Casey is The Advocate‘s senior editor.
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Author: John Casey