In the United States, Queer culture has been shaped by its response to consistent and concerted efforts against suppression. Just as Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick at the Stonewall Inn, Harvey Milk won his election for county supervisor in San Francisco, and Jim Obergefell served as the lead plaintiff in the fight for marriage equality, Queer voices have battled for not only representation, but equal treatment and acceptance. As that acceptance has grown, Queer voices are amplified in pop culture , sports, and politics.
Queer history within the military, however, follows a different trajectory. Because the military has been coined a “greedy institution,” individual identities become secondary to the military’s identity and demands. In this article, we will discuss ways the military community supports LBGTQ+ Service members and how the institution can continue to create safe spaces for those in this community.
Current research shows that there is a greater interest in understanding the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ Service members and how their identity affects overall mission readiness. One aspect of readiness is unit cohesion, typically characterized by acceptance and emotional closeness among members (Evans et al., 2019). When asked, LGBTQ+ Service members reported finding acceptance from their unit (Evans et al., 2019). A separate study also found acceptance within the greater military community (Sullivan et al, 2021). While these studies on interpersonal acceptance are encouraging, there’s still work to be done in the context of policy and practice.
The history of the U.S. military provides evidence of the barriers LGBTQ+ Service members have faced in their desire and opportunity to serve. Starting during World War II, LGBTQ+ Service members were excluded from entering the service (Whitt, 2021b). In 1994, the military created the federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, which permitted the discharge of any Service member who indicated they were a part of LGBTQ+ community. This policy was repealed in 2011, and the United States military now allows LGBTQ+ individuals to serve openly.
However, the implementation of inclusive policies has been specifically volatile toward transgender Service members. As recently as 2017, after a declaration by President Trump, transgender Service members were barred from service. While President Biden reversed this policy, the volatility of policy implementation regarding transgender Service members leaves room for improvement. As previously stated, the U.S. Military has worked to better understand the experiences and prevalence of LGBTQ+ Service members – but the institution can still benefit from creating explicitly inclusive policies.
On the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies’ “LGBT Military Index,” the U.S. military currently ranks 40th out of 103 countries (Whitt, 2021a). The index ranks military services on indicators within the principles of inclusion (e.g., integrating individual differences into how the organization functions), admission (e.g., individuals are allowed to serve but differences may not be acknowledged), tolerance (e.g., individuals are not formally acknowledged), exclusion (e.g., LGBTQ+ individuals are barred from serving in the military), and persecution (e.g., individuals are actively victimized). Its ranking of 40th means the U.S. Military is considered “tolerant” toward LGBTQ+ Service members. It’s important that the U.S. Military revises policies to demonstrate LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion; the institution may risk its legitimacy if it continues to be at odds with public acceptance of LGBTQ+ participation.
In order to move from tolerance to inclusion and acceptance, it’s important to understand the differences between sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (SOGIE). Acknowledging someone’s preferred identity has been shown to affirm their existence and can make them feel safer and more accepted. A simple way people can affirm someone’s SOGIE is through pronouns. Gender pronouns are used to refer to someone without using their name. The most common are he/him, she/her, and they/them. If you are unsure about someone’s preferred pronoun, offer your pronouns first, then ask the other person for theirs. If doing so is not possible, it’s best to use the gender-neutral pronoun “ they,” as it can be harmful to mis-gender someone based on their gender expression (e.g., The National SOGIE Center, n.d.; American Psychological Association, 2019). In the case of someone using multiple pronouns (e.g., he/they), feel free to use either pronoun – or even both – to acknowledge the preference.
Next, we will discuss common terms related to SOGIE that are important to the LGBTQ+ experience and how these terms can be used to support efforts of inclusion and acceptance.
Sexual orientation refers to someone’s physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to the same and/or other genders. Identities include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight.
Biological sex is assigned at birth based on genitalia and may or may not correlate with someone’s gender identity or gender expression. People often misunderstand identifiers such as “he” and “her” as references to sex when they are actually references to gender. Gender identities include transgender, two-spirit, cisgender, non-binary, and more.
Gender expression refers to a person’s outward presentation of gender (e.g., their hair, clothing, makeup). It’s usually associated with masculinity or femininity, though the expression may not conform to these constructs or to a person’s gender identity.
Both gender identity and gender expression are fluid concepts that may change based on situational factors (e.g., safety, perceived acceptance, personal preferences).
From Tolerance to Inclusion
It’s important to be aware of terms that may have been socially appropriate in the past but are now inaccurate and/or harmful. Take the initiative to learn and avoid the use of harmful terminology through resources such as GLAAD.org.
Follow LGBTQ+ creators on social media to surround yourself with different perspectives and opportunities to learn.
When questions arise, research LGBTQ+ topics yourself. Do not assume your LGBTQ+ coworkers or friends are prepared to educate you. The burden of informing others how to be more inclusive should not be on LGBTQ+ people.
Understand what it means to be an ally. Remember that you won’t have all the answers right away. The best place to start is by having an open mind, being respectful, and incorporating inclusive language into your conversations.
It’s important to understand that the ability to express these identities may be stifled due to one’s position – for example, by being in uniform. The use of inclusive language, specifically pronouns, gives LGBTQ+ people an opportunity to invite you in. This simple act is a good first step in acknowledging the lived experiences of your Service members, co-workers, friends, or family members.
Thank you to all LGBTQ+ Service members supporting the efforts of the Military!