Good Old Days?
By Patrick F. Cannon
It would be naive to suggest that anti-gay discrimination is behind us. Often – although certainly not exclusively – it seems related to religious belief. A recent example would be the baker who refused to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple, claiming that doing so would violate his religious principles. Opposition to abortion is almost always couched in religious terms. And so on.
There was a time when homosexuality was actually illegal in most states. In England, Oscar Wilde was jailed for it. And you may have seen the movie “The Imitation Game,” which told the story of Alan Turing, who was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma codes in World War II, and in many ways laid the groundwork for the computer age. In 1952, he was convicted on homosexuality in Great Britain, where it was still illegal. The great actor, John Gielgud, was also arrested for “homosexual practices.”
These laws were still very much in effect when I was drafted into the US Army in early 1961. You could not be gay and serve legally (although I came to know several during my time in the service). And they took particular care in making certain that no gay person would ever get a security clearance.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this sensitivity was directly related to the spy scandals in Great Britain 10 or so years before. One of the former British spies who had defected to the Soviet Union, Guy Burgess, was gay, as was Anthony Blunt, who was suspected then but only later admitted to being a Soviet agent when he was still Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures. The conventional wisdom was that gays were particularly susceptible to blackmail (although no evidence of blackmail was found in either case).
I learned this when, after basic training at Ft. Benning, GA, I was sent to Signal School at Ft. Gordon, in that same lovely state, to be trained as a cryptographer. Now, a cryptographer encodes and decodes classified messages, thus needs a security clearance, in most cases Top Secret. I learned later that the FBI had interviewed my family, friends and co-workers, but I also underwent a lie-detector test.
I was warned in advance that it was best to tell the truth, even if it was embarrassing. For example, like most kids I had indulged in a bit of petty thievery, so when questions like that came up, I told the truth. I couldn’t help noticing, however, that the examiner seemed quite interested in my love life, such as it was. A few days later, I found out why.
As it happened, in my class of about 30 soldiers, there were three WACS (Women’s Army Corps). One day there were only two. It seems one had failed the lie-detector test, and under questioning, had admitted to being a lesbian. In addition to being removed from training, she was discharged from the service for “medical” reasons. I remember her well. She was quite shy, with red hair and freckles. She seemed a good student, although we had not yet begun to train on actual coding equipment.
Gays had a much better chance of surviving in the military if they didn’t need a security clearance and kept their private lives firmly in the closet. Later, as we know, President Clinton had the military adopt the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which seemed to codify what already existed, and satisfied almost nobody.
Now, gays can serve without restrictions. This doesn’t mean that they may still suffer more subtle forms of discrimination, as do other minority groups. But compared to the “good old days” of 1961, that’s real progress. Let’s hope the current occupant doesn’t stick his fat nose in this too.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon