Posted by: Catherine Lugg | December 19, 2010

The Death of DADT and the End of the Cold War

Yesterday’s historic Senate vote repealing the military queer ban “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” marks one of the wheezing last gasps of the 60-year Cold War. While other historians mark the Cold War’s end either in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or in 1991, with the collapse of the former Soviet Union, for US queers the Cold War will not end until DADT is stripped out of US military culture, ca. 2011-2012.

Like other expansions of “social space,” the pattern in the US is tied to the military. Theda Skocpol documents the first social insurance program, “the veteran’s/widow’s pension” in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. At the conclusion of the Civil War, there were hundreds of thousands of US veterans and their widows. As the US economy recovered, activists easily convinced American political leaders that the Union veterans, and later their families, deserved a small pension from a grateful country. This federal program was the very first national system of social service provision and it was increasingly generous and covered more people as the nation’s wealth grew. That said, Confederate veterans and their families were barred from the program (The Confederate soldiers had committed treason after all.). Skocpol convincingly argues that it was this military pension, not Social Security, which became the first mass national social insurance program for the US.

With this pattern established, and extending Skocpol’s argument, the US has expanded national social policy initially through the military policy….and then in other venues. From the expansive GI Bill providing housing, health and education benefits for WWII vets, to Truman’s racial desegregation of the military, to the gender desegregation of the military (which ebbed and flowed from the 1940s forward), to now queers, at the national level, it is the military first, then national domestic policy, which follows social change.*

So, where does the Cold War figure into this essay? In 1948, Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which demonstrated that homosexual behavior was far more common then assumed–a finding that was literally stunning. Extrapolating from Kinsey’s findings, “queers” were literally everywhere. Then, in August of 1949, the Soviet Union launched its first atomic bomb, kicking off a very Cold War between the USSR and USA. American queers, because of our despised social status, quickly became seen as an existential threat to the US nation-state (see David Johnson’s work on this point). Like supposed suspected Communists, queers could supposedly burrow into the very fabric of American life, and given time and the right opportunity, subvert the social and moral order.** The slur of the era became, “Commie, Pinko, Queer.” With our legal status long-criminalized, the purges of suspected queers rolled across the military, the State Department, and eventually public schools. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, anti-queer witch hunts reshaped educational policy in both formal and informal ways. Like the US military, states and public school districts barred “Statutory Felons” from their employ and worked assiduously to root them/us out. Public school teachers were placed in gender straight jackets, and educational administrators increasingly had to be demonstrably homophobic.

The on-going Cold War locked queers into a despised political category–as a mortal threat to national identity/security. Given the long-standing and cultivated hatred of queers during the Cold War, this continued under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” even after the Soviet Union disappeared. And until queers could openly serve in the military, it was unlikely that any meaningful positive national social policy could be enacted vis-à-vis queer Americans.

With this last major federal legal bar on queer identity set to disappear–the ban on serving as an “out queer” in the US military–we can expect a fairly rapid expansion of national social benefits to queers, if this historic pattern holds. Consequently, the next major national fight over queer rights will be the repeal of “Defense of non-queer Marriage Act.” I fully expect the widows and widowers of deceased queer military personnel will testify before Congress about their lack of access to the same benefits that non-queer spouses receive. And unlike many analysts, I will freely acknowledge that the United States has long been an imperial power. We have bases scattered across the globe (why on earth are we still in Germany, Japan, etc.?), and our military spending is more than every other country–combined. So, there are a fair number of queer spouses given the sheer size of our imperial military. Therefore, DOMA can and should be reframed as “not supporting our troops and their families” since the empire does not tolerate the political denigration of military personnel and their families. Anti-queer politicians, like Senator John McCain and Lindsey Graham, will be increasingly cornered on policy–They claim to support military families, but do they? We are going to see a lot of uncomfortable political squirming and hysterical spouting of bigotry on this point.

For public schools, the momentum to root out anti-queer bias will pick up steam. I will have another post on this subject, but if it is now legitimate to be an OUT queer solider, sailor, airperson and marine, it should be perfectly acceptable to be an OUT teacher, administrator, school nurse, janitor, secretary, social worker and student. AND, there should be equal access and benefits to all within the system.

Stay tuned…..

*Of course, in each case individual states could, did and do lead the nation, but this essay is focused at the national level.

**This thinking blithely ignored that both the Communist Party and the US military BOTH expelled suspected queers–given their pariah status. Complicating this picture further, some of the most famous anti-queer hunters, Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover (“high-heels Hoover”), were gay men.



  1. […] “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), I’ve been musing as to what this all means for the politics of US public education in the imperial age.While my initial sense is “not much will change” at present, I think the integration of queers […]

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