For 200 years, Americans have sent their sons to war with these macho parting words: "It'll make a man out of you." Perry Watkins was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1968, during the Vietnam mess. It made a woman out of him.
As Randy Shilts tells it in his timely and instructive book, "Conduct Unbecoming," Mr. Watkins proclaimed from Day One that he was homosexual -- not so he could avoid the draft, but because it was true. The Army broke its own rules and took him anyway. There was a war on, and the brass didn't much care what a soldier did off-duty.
Three years later, Mr. Watkins borrowed a wig and a dress from his mother and began singing at Army bases as "Simone."
"When Simone competed with eleven actual women in an Army beauty pageant, she won," Mr. Shilts reports.
The glorious debut of Simone is one of the few light moments in "Conduct Unbecoming," a troubling anecdotal history of gays in the service. Mr. Shilts, author of the AIDS expose "And the Band Played On," reveals how the U.S. military, mindlessly adhering to regulations, has harassed and expelled thousands of decent, courageous men and women.
But this is more than a polemical. Mr. Shilts spends no time arguing for tolerance toward gays because he understands there is nothing to argue about: The military's ban on gays is foolish and self-destructive, and that's all there is to it. Instead, he tells stories. He begins by mentioning great homosexual (or possibly homosexual) military figures of yore: Frederich von Steuben, who wrote the first training manual for George Washington's Continental Army; Alexander Hamilton, who some historians ,X believe had a male paramour; and Tom Dooley, the 1950s Navy doctor who received the Legion of Honor for his work with Vietnamese refugees.
The military first banned gays in 1943 on the advice of psychiatrists, who viewed homosexuality as a mental illness. The ban was intended "as an enlightened and even compassionate treatment," Mr. Shilts writes. So much for good intentions.
Air Force investigators started hounding Sgt. Rich McGuire after they found beefcake magazines in his room one day in 1970. They called him vulgar things and demanded to know the names of other gays. If you don't cooperate, they said, you'll be sentenced to life at hard labor (a lie). Mr. McGuire, who was booted out, didn't name names, but many others did: By Mr. Shilts' estimate, 80 percent of the gays drummed out of the service are turned in by their terrified brothers and sisters.
Speaking of sisters . . . the military has rousted lesbians with even more self-righteous zeal, if that's possible. Mr. Shilts reports that the Navy expels twice as many women as men for homosexuality, the Marines seven times as many.
But as the case of Perry "Simone"Watkins shows, the military kicks out gays only when it suits its purposes. In 1966 the Navy drummed out 1,708 sailors for homosexuality. In 1970, with the Vietnam War raging, that number fell to 461. At war's end, the purge resumed. (The Army eventually tried to expel Mr. Watkins but lost a long court battle.) Reading this book, it's hard to know which is more dangerous: the American military at war or with time on its hands.
Though Mr. Shilts has gathered many revealing statistics, "Conduct Unbecoming" derives its power from personal histories. There is the corporal, for instance, who lost his lover in the 1983 bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks: "He constructed the lies that would protect him, telling friends that his girlfriend had just been killed in a car accident."
The military handled the AIDS crisis with customary grace: It discharged all the men who got the disease on the theory they must be gay. When the Navy tried to discharge Daniel Abeita, the dying sailor fought back in hopes of keeping his medical benefits. "The Navy put him on medical hold and refused even to give him leave to go home . . . to see his parents," Mr. Shilts writes.
All the meanness, all the intolerance serves no purpose. As Mr. Shilts points out, the military is full of gays and always has been. What is remarkable is not that so many gays have fought with honor and distinction. Like their straight counterparts, they have performed many heroic deeds. What is amazing -- and this is the ultimate point of "Conduct Unbecoming" -- is that they have selflessly served a nation that shows them no respect, grants them no humanity. America's gay service people fight for a fair, tolerant, sensible America -- a nation that doesn't exist.
Title: "Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military."
Author: Randy Shilts.
Publisher: St. Martin's.
Length, price: 737 pages, $26.95.