Times Do Change
By Patrick F. Cannon
Seeing a recent ad for the upcoming Master’s golf tournament brought back some memories of my time at Fort Gordon, Georgia. The fort is located – as is the August National Golf Club, home of the Master’s – in Augusta. It was then, as it still is, the location of the US Army’s Signal School.
After basic training at Fort Benning – also in Georgia – I was sent to Fort Gordon in May of 1961 to train to be a cryptographer. (As an aside, both forts were named after Confederate generals.) Cryptography involves the coding and decoding of sensitive military (and other) information; to do it, you need a security clearance (Top Secret in my case). In addition to the FBI interrogating your friends and neighbors, taking a lie detector test was then part of the drill. I passed it, but not everyone did.
One of the members of my class was a young woman. She was intelligent, or she wouldn’t have been chosen for this training. She was also a lesbian, an orientation that was uncovered by the lie-detector test. She was not only removed from the school, but discharged from the Army altogether. Why, you might ask? As it happens, this was after the spy scandals in Great Britain, in which mostly gay men were discovered to have been Russian spies. The thought was that being gay would make you vulnerable to blackmail. Considering how appalingly gays were treated then, it seemed a plausible assumption.
Augusta was still largely segregated in 1961. I probably knew this, but cluelessly asked one of my African-American fellow students if he would like to join us when we were going to town for a restaurant dinner and some bar hopping. He was a nice guy, and it seemed a reasonable thing to do. He looked at me with amazement, then said: “Thanks, but there’s no place to eat in Augusta that will serve whites and blacks together. This is the South, man.”
Augusta is still the South, but a South where whites and blacks can dine together. Not all of its white citizens are happy with this, but blatant segregation is clearly illegal. African-Americans can even vote, which was largely impossible until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even the Augusta National Golf Club – whose membership was all white and all male in 1961 – now has both female and black members. Interestingly, the first female member was golf nut Condoleezza Rice.
The young woman who was thrown out of the Army for being gay was a member of the WACs (Women’s Army Corps), which was disbanded in 1978. Women now serve with men in regular units. Gays can now serve openly in all the services, as can transgender men and women. This has created its own set of problems, but clearly there’s no going back.
The lesson here is a simple one: despite what people with no historical perspective might claim, progress in expanding rights to all citizens has been continuous and even inspiring. This does not mean that racism, gender discrimination, or sexual orientation bias have disappeared; in my view, they never entirely will. But who can reasonably deny that great progress has been made?
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon