450. Serving in Silence

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LGBTQ+ sailors served on Intrepid, Growler and throughout the Navy at great personal cost. Their experiences in service spurred organizing and activism.

Video: Serving in Silence

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For an audio-described version, use the video below

Collection Connection

Black and white photograph of 11 men and women with light skin in business attire holding hand-written signs protesting anti-gay policies in the military and federal government. Signs say, “Homosexuals are American citizens, too,” “Foreign armies don’t exclude homosexuals. WHY SHOULD WE?” and “Government policy creates security risks,” among others. They are in a park with an American flag flying high in the background.
Group photo of picketers, 1965

In the 1950s and 1960s, activists in the early LGBTQ+ rights movement challenged anti-gay policies in the military and federal government. In this photograph, protesters call for an end to regulations that endangered LGBTQ+ military service members like those serving on Intrepid and Growler. One protest sign reads, “65,000 Homosexual Sailors DEMAND NEW NAVY POLICY.”

The Intrepid Museum is actively seeking artifacts and oral histories from Intrepid and Growler crew members who were affected by the Navy’s ban on LGBTQ+ sailors. If that describes you or a loved one, please contact collections@intrepidmuseum.org.

Photo by Kay Tobin ©Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

Learn More: World War II and the beginning of the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement

During World War II, the U.S. government brought millions of young Americans together in military bases. For LGBTQ+ service members, this was often their first contact with other gay or gender non-conforming people. Many made friendships and romantic connections or enjoyed the flourishing gay nightlife scene in port cities like San Francisco and New York City.

Meanwhile, the military was actively investigating and discharging men and women they suspected of being gay. Military leaders believed that gay and lesbian personnel were a threat to morale and security. The military gave thousands of capable service members a “blue” discharge. A blue discharge indicated that a veteran was not fit for service because of perceived character defects, including addiction, dishonesty, and, beginning in the 1940s, sexual orientation. Veterans with blue discharges struggled to find jobs or access veterans’ benefits. 

After the war, the military and the federal government increased efforts to investigate and discharge LGBTQ+ service members and federal employees. Veterans of World War II were among the first to challenge this wave of harassment. They wrote and marched in protest, demanding protection of their civil rights. These early activists laid the foundation of the movement that would eventually end the ban on gay and lesbian service members.

The U.S. military ended its ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual service members in 2011 with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” However, the ban on transgender service members remained intact. Trans men and women have faced a shifting legal landscape: a 2016 repeal of the ban on transgender personnel, a lengthy legal battle from 2017 to 2019 ending in a reinstitution of the ban, followed by a second repeal of the ban in 2021. 

As of 2022, transgender service members can serve in their self-identified gender and access gender-affirming healthcare. However, in light of the rapid policy changes, some trans personnel have chosen to keep their identities private.

Veterans discharged because of their sexuality, gender identity or HIV status are now entitled to restoration of veterans’ benefits. Many have an “other than honorable” discharge, which has prevented them from accessing VA healthcare, college tuition programs, home loans and other valuable military service benefits. 

Impacted veterans may also apply for a discharge upgrade. For some LGBTQ+ veterans, finally receiving an honorable discharge can relieve some of the pain associated with their time in service.


Inclusive Histories on Historic Naval Ships has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.
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