Oral histories are a key part of the Ohio History Connection’s mission to preserve and share the history of Ohio and Ohioans. While LGBTQ+ people have served in the American military since its inception, it is only more recently that many have begun speaking openly about their experiences. This blog highlights stories we have recorded with LGBTQ+ veterans, some born and raised in Ohio, and others who have made their homes here following their terms of service. They describe experiences in different branches of the U.S. military before, during and after the period of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (1994-2011). Learn more by viewing our Oral History Collection, the Gay Ohio History Initiative, and the resources below!
"It was in the military, towards the end of my three-year term, that I actually found other gay people to talk to, to have sex with, to be out to. Obviously at that time, the military was, you know, they asked, and you lied."
Robert "Bob" Bucklew grew up in Alliance, Ohio, and enlisted in the U.S. Army ten days after his high school graduation. In his interview, he describes finding a community while stationed in Hawaii as a Korean language specialist.
"It was scary. It was confusing too, because there was that part of me that was really proud and really excited to be in the military and to do this. I loved my job and I knew my job."
Christina Goddard-Graves joined the Air Force in 1999. After completing basic training in California, she was deployed to Saudi Arabia. Christina identified as a straight woman when she enlisted, and in this interview she describes coming to terms with her sexuality while in the military. After being investigated for homosexuality, she left the Air Force with an honorable discharge.
"I wanted a career. I wanted a family. And this family is now throwing me away. That was really hard."
Joshua Jacob Hoffman was born in Columbus in 1963. He joined the U.S. Airforce in 1984 from Los Angeles, after two years as a Mormon missionary. He describes his enlistment and basic training, as well as the harassment and interrogation that led to his "less than honorable" discharge. In 2015, with support from his husband and friends, he was able to have his discharged reclassified as honorable.
"I know what it’s like to have bipolar disorder. I know what it’s like to be in the military. I know what it’s like to feel different, to feel like I’m not like other people. I know what it’s like to be LGBT in general, so people connect with me over that."
Jennifer Serene Isenstadt grew up in a Navy family and enlisted in 2005. She describes both daily routines and the more remarkable moments in her service as a transgender woman in the U.S. Navy. She discusses mental health, gender transition surgery, and her work as a peer advisor with the Center of Vocational Alternatives.
"One of the things that I always tell people is that the Army has values that they teach us and ingrain in us. Three of them are honor, integrity, and courage. So 'Don't Ask, Don’t Tell' basically told you not to have any of that."
Stephen Snyder-Hill enlisted in the Army in 1988 and deployed with the 1st Armored Division to the Persian Gulf War in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. After his honorable discharge in 1996, he enlisted in the Army Reserves and was deployed to Iraq in 2010. Serving again meant going back in the closet. Stephen came under scrutiny during his deployment, and ultimately came out when he submitted a question during the 2011 Republican presidential debates asking candidates whether they would "circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military." He is the author of Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement.
"World War II was a major factor of my life and I still can't get over it and don't want to."
Rupert "Twink" Starr was born in 1923 in Mt. Sterling, Ohio, and enlisted in the Army while he was still a student at Ohio University. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and served four months as a German prisoner of war. He has been an active voice for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and other LGBTQ+ causes, and celebrated his 100th birthday in 2021.
As early as the Revolutionary War, American historians have found evidence of gay soldiers, as well as evidence of military discharges on grounds of homosexuality.
In its 1916 Articles of War, Congress cited “assault with the intent to commit sodomy” as a punishable offense. In the years to follow, the U.S. Army adopted a ranking system to disqualify men from serving on biological and psychological grounds, using language of psychopathy, degeneracy, and perversion. By the 1940s, the Navy introduced policies that rejected and discharged men not only for homosexual acts, but for their "tendencies." Many gay men were released from service in World War II with less-than-honorable "blue" discharges that stigmatized them to future employers and disqualified them from receiving GI benefits. The Department of Defense issued and amended its policies over the following decades, and in 1981, Directive 1332.14 firmly called for the mandatory discharge of any service member who engaged, or desired to engage, in a homosexual act.
It was this directive that President Clinton proposed to overturn in the early 1990s, but facing opposition, he forged a compromised policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." For 17 years, from 1994 until its repeal in 2011, the careers and livelihoods of LGBTQ+ service members remained at risk. The United States also explicitly banned transgender people from serving in the military from 1960 until 2016, and again between 2019 and 2021. In March 2021, the Department of Defense revised its policies to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
Learn more about these LGBTQ+ veterans:
Christina Goddard Graves Papers, MSS 8543
Stephen Snyder-Hill interview, GLAAD.org
Stephen Snyder-Hill, Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement
Rupert "Twink" Starr, 2014 Featured Veteran, Stonewall Columbus
Rupert Starr interview, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress
"WWII Vet, LGBTQ+ Activist Rupert 'Twink' Star Turns 100 in Style," Advocate.com
Ohio History Connection Resources:
Gay Ohio History Initiative (GOHI)
Military Records Research Guide
Some Further Reading:
Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II
Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America
Steve Estes, Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out
Randy Shilts, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military