Members of the LGBTQ+ community have specifically been excluded from service in the United States Armed Forces since World War Two because of their sexuality. A crime of discovery meant that LGBTQ+ servicemembers would be discharged from the service if the military discovered their sexual orientation. This policy continued for the majority of the 20th century, lasting past the end of the Vietnam War and into the 1990s. Enforcement came in the form of investigations into a suspected soldier’s private life to uncover the individual’s sexual orientation. In 1994, the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy allowed LGBTQ+ soldiers to serve in the military as long as they were not open about their sexuality. Despite stipulations meant to decrease harassment and inquiries, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" received public criticism as a failed policy. Service members were still being investigated, harassed, and questioned about their sexual orientation even if they remained closeted under this new policy.
This digital exhibit explores the military experiences of several central Pennsylvanian LGBTQ+ servicemembers during periods when the LGBTQ+ community was prevented from openly serving in the military. It was created for the LGBTQ+ Center of Central PA’s History Project using collection materials and oral histories housed at the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.
Exhibit curated by Kelsey Bell, LGBT History Project Summer 2019 Intern
I would still be in to this day, had it not been for my sexuality. -Lindsay Snowden
Born in Greensburg, PA in 1952, Melita McCully enlisted in the U.S. Army as an officer in the Women’s Army Corp when she was 21 years old. The Women’s Army Corp was discontinued by 1978 and its female officers formally integrated in the Army. At a time when women couldn’t go into the combat arms branches, McCully selected a position in Signal CORS, while the majority of her 160 female classmates chose different positions. This path led her to several accomplishments throughout her 29 years of service, including becoming the “first woman in the army to command a tactical combat signal brigade”.
During this time, LGBTQ+ people serving in the military had to hide their sexuality. If suspected of being gay, they would be investigated and discharged. The crime was being discovered. As a result, LGBTQ+ servicemembers were forced to hide their sexual orientation if they wished to remain in the military. LGBTQ+ soldiers like McCully were able to avoid an investigations into their sexual orientation by living a life of caution.
McCully, Melita. Interview by Marjorie Forrester, 28 November 2017, Harrisburg, PA. LGBT Center of Central PA History Project. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.
In the April of 1963, Sam Edmiston enrolled in the US Navy, and three weeks after his graduation, went to the Keel United States Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois for recruitment training. While in the US Navy, Edmiston was a dispersing clerk and enjoyed his time there, until he was investigated by the Navy for being gay. During the process, Edmiston was interrogated in front of his crew members and independently, officers interrogated his best friend’s parents, they opened his mail for evidence, and ultimately would not stop the investigation until Edmiston signed the discharge papers. He was “dishonorably discharged” in 1966. After he left the navy, Edmiston fought to change the reason for discharge, and after six years, his papers were changed to a “general discharge under general conditions.”
LGBT-041: Photograph of Sam Edmiston in uniform (dated from 1963 to 1966).
LGBT-041: Photograph of Sam Edmiston in uniform (dated from 1963 to 1966).
When investigations or background checks uncovered an LGBTQ+ soldier’s sexual orientation, soldiers like Bob Kegris were subsequently discharged from the military solely based on their sexual orientation. Kegris, a native of Harrisburg, PA, served for about 1 ½ years in the U.S. Army as a teletypist and cryptographer. However, when he was assigned to the Army Security Agency, Kegris was required to undergo a security background check for his new position. Unfortunately, someone outed him during this process, and he was discharged in 1961.
Kegris, Bob. Interview by Ann Van Dyke, 21 June 2013, Harrisburg, PA. LGBT Center of Central PA History Project. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.
LGBTQ+ soldiers serving during the Vietnam War faced investigations into their private lives if the military suspected them of being gay or lesbian. Mary Merriman, who joined the Air Force in 1967, noted “homosexuality was listed as a mental illness” during this time. “They had not declassified it ‘til 1973. So, you were always kind of under a lot of suspicion” if your sexual orientation was questioned. She managed to survive the investigations but remained very cautious throughout her military service. These investigations inspected soldiers’ private lives, exploring the relationships they had inside and outside the military.
Despite never admitting her sexuality to her commander, Merriman’s sexuality was continuously questioned by her female commander who inferred that Merriman’s short haircut meant she was a lesbian. Merriman only left the military once she found out she was pregnant. In fact, her pregnancy protected her from the last set of investigations she went through. It was as if her pregnancy convinced the investigators that she couldn’t be both a lesbian and a pregnant woman.
Photograph of Mary Merriman in 1968 while serving in the U.S. Air Force.
Merriman, Mary. Interview by Mark Stoner, 28 August 2013, Lancaster, PA. LGBT Center of Central PA History Project. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.
To avoid these investigations and discrimination, several LGBTQ+ soldiers hid their sexuality from the military. Jerre Freiberg, a native of Lancaster, PA, served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years after enlisting in 1964. Despite enjoying his naval career, it was difficult for him to pursue a same-sex relationship while continuing his military service. He was able to avoid investigations into his sexuality, as far as he knows, by taking serious caution in how he lived his life.
Freiberg, Jerre. Interview by Mary Merriman, 3 December 2014, Lancaster, PA. LGBT Center of Central PA History Project. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA
The context of the area where they were stationed certainly played a role in the level of discrimination LGBTQ+ servicemembers faced. Some managed to avoid most of the discrimination by being stationed abroad during this era. Serving in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972 as a dental technician, Charles Maser felt he didn’t experience much prejudice as a gay man in the military as he was stationed in Germany and Spain for the majority of his military service.
(Left) Charles at St. Peter’s Square, Rome, 1971; (Right) Charles beside the Colosseum, Rome, 1971.
Maser, Charles. Interview by Mary Merriman and Mark Stoner, 8 May 2014. LGBT Center of Central PA History Project. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.
Even after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, LGBTQ+ soldiers were still being discriminated against and discharged from the military based on their sexual orientation. Julie Lobur was born in New Kensington, PA in 1955 and moved to Harrisburg with her mother when she was 15 years old. She joined the military in 1983 at 28 years old, trying to escape a bad relationship. However, her military service was cut short after her ex-girlfriend had Lobur’s liaison officer informed that Lobur was a lesbian.
Lobur, Julie. Interview by Bob Kegris, 12 November 2013. LGBT Center of Central PA History Project. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.