When Navy SEAL Brett Jones discovered he was being investigated, he was set to graduate from the Army’s high-altitude military parachuting school in Yuma, Arizona. His commander called him and told him he had to report back immediately. Initially, Jones thought something had gone wrong during his recent deployment in Afghanistan, that perhaps his team had unknowingly killed civilians while hunting for terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11.
But he couldn’t think of how he and his comrades could have slipped up; they’d been thorough and professional. “So my mind is immediately racing over every mission I did,” Jones says. “Not 10 minutes later, it dawned on me: ‘Fuck. They found out I’m gay.’”
This marked the beginning of the end of Jones’s Navy career, but not the end of his story. Now the first openly gay member of the tight-knit SEAL community, Jones came out publicly in 2014 with a column published by SOFREP, a news site for veterans, and followed it with his memoir, Pride: The Story of the First Openly Gay Navy SEAL.
Jones is one of thousands of LGBT service members and veterans who have been on the frontlines in the fight for recognition by the United States military, a struggle that hasn’t ended even after President Barack Obama’s 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Earlier this year, the U.S. military began officially admitting transgender recruits for the first time in history. It’s a major milestone almost curtailed by President Donald Trump, who tweeted last July his desire to purge transgender troops from the ranks.
Historically speaking, Trump’s “trans ban” is just the latest battle in LGBT people’s long march toward equal rights; indeed, our nation’s history at war and the struggle for LGBT visibility have long been intertwined.
Since antiquity, gay people have fought and died as warriors—and many times openly so. The ancient Greek military tradition was largely tolerant and occasionally enthusiastic of homosexual relationships, perhaps best illustrated by the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite unit of the Theban army during the 4th century B.C. that is said to have comprised 150 pairs of male lovers. Two millennia later, when a ragtag army of American colonists took up arms against the British Army—arguably the most advanced military force of its time—they would ultimately turn to one gay soldier from Europe to save their revolution from becoming a military disaster.
In the winter of 1777, George Washington’s Continental Army was in dire straights. Morale was low as Patriots licked their wounds at Valley Forge. Washington wrote to Benjamin Franklin, then acting as the Revolutionaries’ representative in Paris, and asked him to look for military men who could help train his ill-disciplined Rebel army.
Franklin learned of an experienced Prussian military officer named Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben who had been dismissed from several military posts because of his “affections for members of his own sex,” according to biographer Paul Lockhart’s The Drillmaster of Valley Forge. Nonetheless, Franklin was impressed by Steuben and, desperate for a qualified commander, he quickly recommended him to Washington.
“When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Steuben was smuggled to the colonies, where he proved to be exactly the man Washington needed. The future president made Von Steuben the fledgling Army’s inspector general, where he meticulously documented instances of graft, poor bookkeeping and other endemic problems. He then devised an aggressive training program to familiarize Rebels with how professional soldiers organize and fight. When the Patriots emerged from Valley Forge, the Redcoats were caught off guard by the professionalism of the Continental Army. By the end of the war, Washington had made Von Steuben the Army’s chief of staff.
Von Steuben may have been one of the more conspicuous players in American gay history, but LGBT soldiers went on to serve in every major American conflict. Civil War veteran Albert Cashier, born Jennie Hodgers, was buried with full military honors as a man and today, he is increasingly regarded as the U.S. military’s first transgender soldier. Author James Jones, the World War II veteran who wrote From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, sparred with publishers when they objected to the inclusion of LGBT characters and gay sex scenes in his semi-autobiographical novels about combat and military life.
Both in and out of uniform, LGBT veterans have played a key role in the gay rights movement. Before Harvey Milk became a politician, he joined the Navy during the Korean War as a diving officer and later, a diving instructor. Milk’s career as a Navy officer ended with an “other than honorable” discharge—less serious than a dishonorable discharge—due to allegations of fraternization with enlisted personnel. In 1974, Milk met gay artist and activist Gilbert Baker, himself an Army veteran. Milk challenged Baker to come up with a symbol for the gay rights movement, resulting in the creation of the now iconic rainbow flag. When Baker passed away in 2017, the world celebrated him for having created the international symbol of gay pride. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the creator of the pink, white and blue flag that today represents transgender pride was also created by a veteran: Monica Helms, a former submariner who served in the Navy for eight years in the 1970s.
In 1975, Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, an airman who served three tours in Vietnam, appeared in uniform on the cover of Time with a cover line proclaiming “I am a homosexual.” At the time, he was battling the Air Force in court for his right to serve as an openly gay man after he came out to his commander. Matlovich had received a Bronze Star for braving enemy fire and a Purple Heart for injuries sustained from a landmine.
The Air Force wouldn’t allow Matlovich to stay; instead, it granted him an honorable discharge based on his long career and decorations. As reporters swarmed him during his discharge hearing, he told them, “Maybe not in my lifetime, but we are going to win in the end.” He spent the rest of his life an activist. After dying of complications related to AIDS in 1988, Matlovich was buried under a headstone that read “A Gay Vietnam Veteran,” with the inscription, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
By the 1990s, the undeniable existence of gay troops in the military had manifested as a highly charged battle in the culture wars, with social conservatives publicly demanding gays be banned from service. In 1993, the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, then led by Vice President Mike Pence, published an article that asserted, “Homosexuality is a grave threat to not only our nation’s health but also our national security.”
In February 1994, the Clinton Administration offered a compromise: the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue policy, which allowed gay people to serve as long as they remained firmly in the closet.
It was around that same time that Brett Jones’s parents found out he was gay and kicked him out of their home. With nowhere to go, Jones joined the Navy, having grown up fascinated by the mystique of the SEALs. He knew that being a gay military man wouldn’t be easy, but he couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. Jones excelled in the Navy, passing SEAL selection and becoming part of one of the most legendary fighting forces in the world. The SEALs became his new family. But he never told them about his orientation.
During off-hours, Jones would sneak out to gay bars around Norfolk, Virginia, where he discovered another community for himself. “Those bars would just be populated with service members and ex-service members who’d been kicked out for being gay, and I heard horror story after horror story from these guys and girls, and it was really tragic,” Jones explains. “A lot of them had really promising careers in the military and because of their discharge status. I mean, fuck, after a dishonorable discharge, some of them couldn’t work at McDonald’s.”
I didn’t fuck half my squad. Maybe, like, a quarter at most.
When Jones returned from deployment after 9/11, his then-boyfriend—another Navy sailor—threw him a welcome home party. “He had a bunch of our friends over, gay friends and gay-friendly friends,” Jones says. During the party, Jones spent a lot of time with his friends, leaving his boyfriend feeling neglected. The next morning, Jones called his boyfriend’s office phone to apologize. He wasn’t there, so Jones left a message and ended the call with “I love you.” Unbeknown to Jones, another sailor overheard the message and reported it, leading to an investigation of both Jones and his boyfriend.
By that point, Jones had spent nine years in the Navy, most of that time as a SEAL. But when he reported to investigators in 2002, none of that mattered. They interrogated him about his sexual history and personal life. While he was under investigation, his security clearance was suspended and he was barred from SEAL facilities unless accompanied by an escort. He was assigned “alternative” duties. “I went from being kinda this badass Navy SEAL to the guy that washes cars for Navy SEALs,” he says.
Navy leadership didn’t show much sympathy for Jones, but many of his fellow SEALs did. "To my surprise, they were all very cool,” Jones recalls. “The guys would come over and talk to me when I was out cleaning cars. They’d come by my house, bring beer and pizza and just keep my spirits up as I went through this investigation.” In a review of Pride, one of Jones’s fellow SEALs, wrote, “In our team days, Brett was a great SEAL, and was a great dude. He was a dude in the same way that the rest of us were. We cussed. We chewed tobacco. We drank a lot. We slept on the sides of mountains in the snow during winter warfare training. We scaled caving ladders up the sides of ships in the Mediterranean Sea. We were teammates and we were brothers.”
With the support of fellow SEALs and the aide of a pro bono lawyer he’d met through his network of LGBT service members, he was able to exit the military with an honorable discharge in 2003. DADT remained firmly in place, but attitudes began quietly changing, and the country at large felt it.
In 2005, artist-activist Jayel Aheram, the son of a high-ranking Navy officer, was living in Japan with his family while they were stationed there, but he felt trapped. Looking for a change and driven by a fit of idealism, he decided to join the Marine Corps. “I had supported the Iraq War and I felt like I should take part in my generation’s war,” Aheram says.
He loved boot camp, relishing the opportunity to push himself and craving the opportunity to see combat. A handful of his Marine buddies knew he was gay but for the most part, he kept his sexual orientation to himself. After his deployment to Iraq in 2006, a joke was circulating that he had had sex with half of his squad. “I didn’t fuck half my squad. Maybe, like, a quarter at most,” he says with a chuckle.
"It was definitely a factor in how I dealt with my social life. I had to be careful when I was out and about,” Aheram recalls. While stationed at Twentynine Palms, a Marine Corps base near California’s Joshua Tree National Park, he avoided nearby Palm Springs’s famous gay clubs, worried he could be spotted by other Marines out and about, particularly his superiors. Instead, he drove to San Diego, some three hours south, reasoning it would be safer for him.
Even there, he kept a low profile. “I’d be wearing hats and sunglasses until I got into the club,” he says. But he wasn’t alone. Technology was reshaping life for gay troops, with Facebook and Myspace allowing them to communicate and create communities. Dating websites like OkCupid became more like networking tools. "You would be on there talking to someone and ask them, ‘Where are you?’ and they’d say things like, ‘I’m in Haditha’,” Aheram says. "You started to really realize how many of us there were.”
In 2016, the Navy announced it would name a ship in honor of none other than Harvey Milk.
During a 2008 deployment at sea aboard the USS Juneau, a fellow Marine relayed a message to Aheram from his commanders. “They used a lot of euphemisms, but basically it was to tell me they knew I was gay,” he says. His commanders were supportive due to his competency as a Marine. In the meantime, Aheram had built up a following during his first deployment as a somewhat well known photo-blogger who exhibited at art galleries and corresponded with celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell and Yoko Ono. That notoriety caused his commanders to worry about Aheram accidentally outing himself in a way they could no longer cover. Ultimately, Aheram chose to leave the Marines shortly after that deployment, and he says that DADT played a huge role in that decision. Despite the unofficial support of his superiors, he was tired of hiding who he was.
“I’m a very proud person,” he says. It was especially grating to hear heterosexual Marines openly brag about their sham marriages, formed to receive off-base housing and other perks reserved for married military members. “I’d watch guys joke, acting gay, doing things that I’d have gotten in written up and kicked out for because I actually am gay,” Aheram says.
But gay service members, aided by social media and changing public opinion, were becoming much better organized. After the 2008 general election, the political scales had tilted in the Democrats’ favor, making a repeal of DADT feel more likely. Republicans seemed increasingly ambivalent about keeping gays out of the military. By the end of the aughts, as many Republicans opposed DADT as the number who supported it. Those who remained in support dug in their heels.
In a 2009 Weekly Standard article, scholar James Bowman argued adamantly against allowing gay people to serve openly, drawing on what he argued were historic traditions of military service:
“…[H]onor, which is by the testimony of soldiers throughout the ages of the essence of military service, includes the honor of being known for heterosexuality, and that, for most heterosexual males, shame attends a reputation as much for homosexuality as for weakness or cowardice.”
But many military leaders began publicly complaining that DADT was costing them qualified troops as the number of recruits dwindled in the face of an increasingly unpopular war in the Middle East. In particular, banning openly gay people from service wreaked havoc on the military’s linguist program. Language specialists were being discharged under DADT at a rate that made them nearly impossible to replace. As the debate over gay troops intensified, several senior officers, including then-General David Petraeus, testified to lawmakers that they didn’t have any strong opposition to gay troops. All this helped set the stage for the eventual repeal of DADT in 2011.
Of course, not everyone was happy. "Today is a very sad day,” war hero turned senator John McCain told fellow lawmakers when Congress voted to end the policy. “There will be high-fives over all the liberal bastions of America,” he predicted, “most of whom have never have served in the military.” Six years later, McCain became one of the most prominent Republicans to express outrage over Trump’s trans ban, ultimately cosponsoring a bipartisan bill to protect trans soliders last September. “When less than one percent of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country,” he said at the time.
Similar to Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage certificates to gay couples in 2015, resistance to DADT’s repeal filtered through the military branches in various forms. Nine states, including Texas and Oklahoma, refused to issue military identification cards to gay spouses of National Guardsmen, forcing the Pentagon to step in. As recently as 2013, the Air Force Academy employed an outspoken gay conversion therapy advocate, who worked on “character and leadership development.“
But life went on for troops. By and large, most military leaders seemed unfazed. In fact, most military installations begun hosting Pride events. In 2014, Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn honored Kristin Beck, the first openly transgender retired Navy SEAL, at a Defense Intelligence Agency Pride event, saying, "Be proud of who you are.” In 2016, the Navy announced it would name a ship in honor of Harvey Milk; the USNS Harvey Milk is set to begin construction this year.
“It was a great step,” Aheram says of the repeal of DADT, a groundbreaking measure of equality that’s only six years old. But he admits some ambivalence, underscored by his disillusionment following the Iraq War. “I’m just not excited at the prospect of out-of-the-closet gay people shooting at brown people in the Middle East,” he says. “Though I guess with DADT gone, two men who don’t really love each other can now have a sham marriage for an increased spending allowance, too. That’s nice.”
After leaving the Navy, Jones became a contractor with the CIA’s Global Response Staff, better known as GRS, which largely recruits veterans of special operations units. “It’s an elite group of people doing some cool shit and doing it well, so obviously I was attracted to that,” Jones says. This time, there were no rules regarding his orientation. Jones found himself doing the sort of work he’d always dreamed of doing, and he loved the people he worked with at “the agency.”
During a 2015 deployment in Afghanistan, however, Jones overheard teammates calling him a “faggot.” When he confronted them, they played dumb. He also heard them casually throw around racial slurs. Jones was familiar irreverent military humor that pushed the boundaries from his SEAL days, but it seemed as if his teammates were not just joking around.
During a test drive of some of the team’s vehicles, his teammates ditched him in 120-degree weather without water, forcing him to walk part of the way back to their compound through the rugged desert. Later, during a PowerPoint briefing before a particularly risky operation, a GRS teammate put up a slide showing that Jones’s radio call-sign had been changed from “Bad Monkey” to “Gay Gay.”
Becoming increasingly apprehensive about going on dangerous missions with a team he wasn’t convinced would have his back in a life-or-death situation, Jones requested an early return home, cooking up a fake family emergency. Back in the States, he filed a complaint with the CIA and ultimately decided to go public, talking to The San Diego Union-Tribune and ABC News in July 2015. “The moment I said anything, I knew my career with the agency was over, Jones says. “Once you tell the world you work for the CIA, that’s it, you’re done… [and] as a contractor, you’re very disposable.”
You’re not going to get rid of discrimination, right? It’s something you’re going to constantly be fighting.
The CIA eventually settled with Jones, agreeing to put in place a series of policy overhauls. “It is not about money. I didn’t give a shit about money,” Jones says. “It was about making a comfortable environment for guys like me.”
After Donald Trump announced his bid for the White House, he didn’t take a hard line on LGBT issues and even tried to position himself the most gay-friendly presidential candidate in history. He also famously said Caitlyn Jenner was free to use any bathroom she wanted at Trump Tower.
But the military’s recent admission of women into previously restricted combat jobs reignited the debate about the military’s relationship with gender and sex ahead of the 2016 election. Throughout the presidential campaign, several GOP candidates argued that repealing DADT was a mistake. The debate intensified when Obama’s Defense Secretary Ash Carter, in June 2016, officially announced transgender troops could serve openly as long as their transition didn’t interfere with their ability to perform. That mandate, enforced by a federal judge last November, finally went into effect on January 1, 2018. According to figures from a 2016 Rand Corporation study, as many as 6,000 transgender people may now be serving openly after having spent years doing so either in secrecy or with the private support of their commanders.
When Trump emerged victorious, it wasn’t immediately clear how he would treat LGBT servicemembers. Despite his overtures, he aligned himself with Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to help win evangelical voters—two men who are both longtime opponents of LGBT equality. On the other hand, in spring 2017, the Air Force Academy appointed Kristin Goodwin a commandant of cadets; she is the first openly LGBT officer to hold that position. For now, at least, the White House appears to have turned its attention elsewhere.
Fourteen years after his discharge, Jones now lives in Alabama with his husband Jason, a former police detective. Together they run a private security company and are raising a teenage son, Ethan, from Jason’s previous marriage. Outside of work, Jones has remained an activist. Both from his volunteer work and as a result of his writing, he regularly gets messages from young LGBT people, including service members, reaching out to talk about their own experiences. Jones sees his own journey as one small part of a much larger story—one still being written.
In Afghanistan, he observed a country divided deeply by regional differences and fights over values. In a way, he views America as similarly divided. Living in Alabama as a gay man raising a son has made that clear to him. When he was in the Navy, however, he saw how deeply divided people came to live and work with one another—and learned from each other. His military experience taught him that people can and do change. But it’s still a long, maybe even endless, struggle.
“You’re not going to get rid of discrimination, right? It’s something you’re going to constantly be fighting,” Jones says. “Policies have changed, and that gives people protection on paper, but it’s also not something that’s going to completely go away, just like racism won’t. [But] we try. And I think that’s the whole point.”