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LGBTQ in the Military: A Brief History, Current Policies and Safety

Since 2011, openly gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women have been permitted to serve in the military. Acceptance for LGBTQ in the military expanded with the lifting of the transgender ban in 2021.

Still, some LGBTQ service members may worry about living openly. They may fear being harassed or passed over for assignments or promotions. While acceptance of LGBTQ service members is a relatively new development in the military’s long history, the Department of Defense is committed to maintaining a strong force that reflects the nation’s diversity.

The history of LGBTQ in the military

It wasn’t until 1982 that the military enacted a policy explicitly banning gay men and lesbians from their ranks. Before that, however, same-sex relations were criminalized and cause for discharge. And in the early 1940s, it was classified as a mental illness, disqualifying gay men and lesbians from service.

In 1993, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy went into effect allowing closeted LGBTQ people to serve in the military. Under the policy, service members would not be asked about their sexual orientation, but would be discharged for disclosing it. Eighteen years later, Congress repealed the policy, allowing openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve in the military.

Another barrier was lifted in 2013 when spousal and family benefits were extended to same-sex married partners in the military. After ending temporarily in 2016, the ban on transgender individuals was again rescinded in 2021, allowing those who don’t identify with their biological gender to enlist and serve in the armed forces.

Being LGBTQ in the military

The Department of Defense recognizes the value of a diverse force that represents society, and has taken steps to promote acceptance and inclusion in its ranks.

But, given the military’s 245-year history, its policy to accept LGBTQ service members into its ranks is still relatively new. Cultural changes take time; stigma against LGBTQ service members may linger. This can be a barrier to living openly as an LGBTQ person in the military.

If this is true of your service member, talk with them about their concerns. The fear of backlash to living openly is understandable, but keeping a key part of their identity secret can affect their physical and mental health. You can play an important role by being a sounding board for your service member. You can help your service member feel understood and supported just by listening.

If your LGBTQ service member feels unsafe

If your service member is harassed or threatened, they should document the incident in writing and through photographs, if appropriate. They should also retain any evidence, such as a threatening note, then bring a formal complaint to their chain of command or the military police.

If your service member feels they were passed up for a promotion or denied an assignment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they may file a complaint with their service branch’s military equal opportunity office.

If your service member feels isolated, they may find it helpful to build a support network of fellow LGBTQ service members. Their installation may have an LGBTQ support group. If not, your service member may find one in the community outside the installation.

Your service member may also benefit from talking with a professional who is familiar with the military culture. Free, confidential non-medical counseling is available through their installation’s Military and Family Life Counseling program and Military OneSource. Your service member can connect with a counselor by calling 800-342-9647. If they are outside the continental United States, they may use one of these calling options.

If your service member is in crisis, the Military Crisis Line is staffed 24/7 with trained counselors. You or your service member can reach the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255. Press 1 to speak with a responder, text 838255 or access online chat at the Military Crisis Line website.

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