*originally posted October 10, 2009
Miriam Ben-Shalom was the first LGBT service member to be reinstated to her position in the U. S. military after being discharged for her sexual orientation. And even though the army eventually forced her out, she was able to serve successfully, and as an out lesbian, undermining the military's argument that openly gay men and lesbians pose a threat to military effectiveness and security.
After a short marriage, which produced a daughter, Miriam Ben-Shalom moved to Israel for five years, where she became an Israeli citizen and served in the Israeli army; she renamed herself after both Moses' sister, Miriam, and the house of Solomon, Ben-Shalom.
Ben-Shalom returned to her home state of Wisconsin and completed both her B.A. and M.A. at the University of Wisconsin. In 1974, she began serving with the 84th Training Division of the Army Reserves, where she completed drill instructor's school, and became one of the first two female drill sergeants in the division.
And she also became involved with lesbian organizations, making no attempt to hide her orientation. In 1975, when Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time as an openly gay Air Force service member, Ben-Shalom asked her commander, "Why don't they kick me out?"
"Because you're a good NCO," was his reply. It was okay to be gay, apparently, if you were a good leader, and quiet about it. The military often used their own discretion when it came to discharging gay men and women.
Ben-Shalom soon learned that her commander was right: to be gay in the military, one had to be good at your job, and silent about your life. But she decided not to be quiet. Her response to a reporter's question about her sexuality led her commander to push for her discharge. In spite of, privately, tolerating her sexual orientation, the commander was not comfortable about her being so open, and in 1976 Miriam Ben-Shalom was officially discharged from the Army Reserves.
Yet she wouldn't take it without a fight. She decided to challenge the policy and sue for re-instatement. Ben-Shalom alleged that she wasn't discharged for homosexual conduct, but for admitting she was a lesbian. In May 1980, Judge Terence Evans of the U.S. District Court ruled that Ben-Shalom's discharge violated the First, Fifth, and Ninth amendments, and added that sexual orientation should be protected from governmental regulation, including that of the military. The main reason for her reinstatement was the right to freedom of speech.
The Army appealed the decision, but withdrew its appeal shortly thereafter, and refused to comply with Judge Evans' order of reinstatement.
Ben-Shalom continued to fight, and in 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals supported the lower court's previous ruling. The Army balked, but when the court threatened the Army with serious contempt of court fines, it relented and in September 1988, Ben-Shalom successfully re-enlisted and became the first openly gay or lesbian service member to be reinstated.
The Army, however, decided to appeal that verdict, and in August 1989, a federal appeals court ruled against Ben-Shalom. Judge Harlington Wood, Jr. did not see the case as solely about freedom of speech and concluded that since the military banned homosexuals, her admission--regardless of her sexual conduct--justified her discharge.
Ben-Shalom appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, but they refused to hear the case and let the ruling for discharge stand, effectively ending, and ruining, Ben-Shalom's military career.
It was a fight she ultimately lost, but for a brief, shining moment, the army was forced to accept a lesbian service member; they were forced to realize that sexual orientation makes no difference; they were forced to show the world their own double-standards regarding gay and lesbian service members.
Be good and be quiet and you can be gay.
Miriam Ben-Shalom chose not to be quiet.
On This Day In LGBT History
October 10, 1949 – The periodical Newsweek published a story titled “Queer People” calling gays perverts and comparing them to exhibitionists and sexual sadists. It challenged the idea that homosexuals hurt no one but themselves.
October 10, 1953 – British newspaper “The Times” reported that Rupert Croft-Cooke was sentenced to nine months in prison and Joseph Alexander was sentenced to three months after they were accused of homosexual acts by two Royal Navy cooks. Croft-Cooke wrote about the case in “The Verdict of You All.”
October 10 1973 – Toronto City council passes resolution banning discrimination in municipal hiring on basis of sexual orientation. First such legislation in Canada.
October 10, 1987 – In Washington DC 2,000 gay and lesbian couples were united in a mass commitment ceremony in front of the IRS building. That morning, Rev Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Church, led a worship service at the First Congregational Church in Washington DC, and the crowd overflowed the church. The same day in Washington DC, a memorial service was held for Harvey Milk at the Congressional Cemetery at the burial plot purchased by the Never Forget Foundation to memorialize gay heroes.
October 10, 1990 – OutRage, a London direct action group, held a Kiss-In at Brief Encounter, a gay pub which had recently banned same-sex kissing.
October 10, 1995 – The US Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in the case of Romer v Evans, Colorado’s Amendment 2 which would have banned all gay rights laws in Colorado.
October 10, 1997 – Lesbians organized a Daiku no Hi (Dyke Day) in Tokyo. It drew about 200 participants and received much media attention.
October 10, 1998 – Jackie Foster, a British broadcaster, actor, and lesbian activist, died at age 70.
October 10, 1998 – The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held a conference in Minneapolis Minnesota on gay and lesbian clergy.
October 10, 1999 – The Washington Post reported that a Harvard University research team conducted a study which demonstrated that gay men and lesbians are better than heterosexuals at identifying other gay men and lesbians.
October 10, 1999 – Catholic Bishop Pat Buckley of Belfast came out.