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Psychiatry and Homosexuality Draft Exemptions during the Vietnam War

When Bob McIvery reported for his mandatory physical exam to determine if he could be drafted into the Army, the doctor didn’t believe he was gay. Although McIvery, a member of the Gay Liberation Front, had checked the “homosexual tendencies” box on his pre-induction medical form and stated verbally that he was gay, he was nonetheless classified as 1-A (available for military service). He was ordered to report for induction in 1970 but did not do so and, after several months, was arrested and charged with failing to report. Although he did eventually report—and at that time did not meet the standard on a different medical test—he was still prosecuted for his initial failure to report. McIvery and his lawyer mounted the defense that his induction order was invalid because he could not legally be classified as 1-A. In their view, the Army couldn’t simultaneously ban homosexuals and require them to report for induction.1

The military barred gay men from service under medical fitness standards, so they were not supposed to be drafted. Yet doctors at induction centers didn’t always disqualify them, even when they stated they were gay. Some gay men actively sought 4-F classifications. Others wanted to serve, and some gay men judged the risks of claiming homosexuality to be greater than those of the draft. At the same time, some men who did not otherwise consider themselves to be gay successfully exploited the homosexuality exemption in an attempt to avoid service, often by intentionally adopting stereotypical mannerisms that they believed would persuade doctors.2 Needing to fill draft quotas and concerned about fraud, induction officials sometimes assigned 1-A classifications to men who had claimed to be homosexual.

In the way that men used doctors’ notes to claim medical exemptions for causes such as bone spurs or a childhood history of asthma, men seeking homosexuality exemptions often provided letters from psychiatrists. At the time of McIvery’s case, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-II still listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, although it would soon be removed after a controversial battle at the American Psychiatric Association.3 The medical model of homosexuality could be seen as a sympathetic position, since it suggested that homosexuality was not a moral failing, but an illness. By the early 1970s, however, gay rights activists increasingly argued that treating homosexuality as a disorder pathologized and stigmatized a normal identity. This presented a dilemma for gay men seeking disqualification from the draft. The strategy required claiming a medical exemption. Yet many gay men did not consider their sexual preference to be medical at all.

Members of the Gay Liberation Front in 1972. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Although many gay rights organizations argued that the exclusion of homosexuals from the armed forces was unconstitutional and discriminatory, several of the same groups also offered advice to gay men who wanted to be disqualified from military service. Part of a massive draft resistance movement, draft counseling helped men consider options to get themselves deferred or disqualified from induction, like conscientious objector status or medical exemptions.4 As Justin David Suran has shown, members of newer, more radical organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front saw antiwar resistance and draft resistance as much as part of their political platform as more traditional gay rights issues.5

Even many of the older homophile groups also saw draft counseling as part of their responsibilities to their members. Columbia University’s Student Homophile League, the first gay student organization in the country, provided draft counseling as one of its services. The group suggested the possibility of using the homosexuality exemption to both self-regarded homosexuals and other students, viewing use of the “homosexual tendencies” box as a way to interfere with the Selective Service system itself.6 Similarly, the North American Conference of Homophile Associations adopted the resolution that all young men should consider checking “Yes” on the “homosexual tendencies” question, “bearing in mind the universal presence of some homosexual tendencies, broadly defined, in all persons at some point in their lives.”7

Even if they didn’t agree with the notion of homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis, some gay rights groups and other organizations that provided draft counseling suggested appealing to medical authority to strengthen exemption claims. While most believed that a self-declaration of homosexuality ought to be all that was required, some groups advised that an individual’s claim would be strongest if he provided proof in the form of a doctor’s note. By 1969, the Mattachine Society of Washington had developed a standard affidavit for men seeking disqualification. In the affidavit, men stated that they had engaged in a “continuing pattern of conduct involving emotional, affectional, physical and sexual associations and relationships with other men” and that they intended to do so “indefinitely.” MSW claimed to have a 100% success rate in its draft counseling, which included the affidavit, a psychiatrist’s letter, and coaching. 8

Other groups felt that draftees should resist demands for medical evidence. The Boston gay men’s publication Fag Rag urged readers not to submit letters from themselves or others, emphasizing, “There is nothing about homosexuality which can be proven by testing.” They suggested that men denied exemptions appeal and offered to do it on their behalf. If officials attempted to induct men despite their claims of homosexuality, they advised refusing induction.9

Bob McIvery’s case was ultimately dismissed. His chapter of the Gay Liberation Front helped him obtain a lawyer who successfully argued that McIvery was gay and therefore exempt. Although he was willing to use psychiatric diagnosis to support his claim and brought three psychiatrists to court as expert witnesses, they did not testify. In fact, it was the prosecutor who tried to make a medical argument, claiming that because a psychologist had previously reported that McIvery’s mental health status was good, he therefore could not have been gay. However, the judge accepted McIvery’s own testimony that he was a gay man.10 Doctors’ opinions, previously the primary determinants of McIvery’s draft suitability, were unnecessary. Despite the stigma caused by conceptualizing homosexuality as a medical problem, in this case, the notion of homosexuality as a disorder provided a limited but important benefit. Bob McIvery was able to stay out of the Army.

Notes

  1. “Gay army or no, draft case dismissed,” The Advocate, April 14–27, 1971, 14. Return to text.
  2. Sherry Gershon Gottlieb, Hell No, We Won’t Go! Resisting the Draft during the Vietnam War (Viking, 1991). Questioning men at induction centers about their sexuality began during World War II, as detailed by Allan Bérubé in his groundbreaking book, Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 1990). Return to text.
  3. Jack Drescher, “Out of DSM: Pathologizing Homosexuality,” Behavioral Sciences 5, no. 4 (Dec. 2015): 565–575; Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis (Princeton University Press, 1987). Return to text.
  4. For more on draft counseling, see Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Straus, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation (Knopf, 1978); Amy J. Rutenberg, Rough Draft: Cold War Military Manpower Policy and the Origins of Vietnam-Era Draft Resistance (Cornell University Press, 2019); Michael S. Foley, Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Gottlieb, Hell No, We Gon’t Go!; Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Randy Shilts, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military (St. Martin’s, 1993), 65–68. Return to text.
  5. Justin David Suran, “Coming Out Against the War: Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam,” American Quarterly 53, no. 3 (Sept. 2001): 452–488. Emily Hobson also discusses draft resistance among gay liberation groups, see Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (University of California Press, 2016), 28–29. Return to text.
  6. Student Homophile League, Columbia University, “The ‘Homosexual’ Draft Exemption,” October 28, 1969, North American Conference of Homophile Organizations Records, 1966-1970, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, Box 1, Folder 19, Alexander Street. Return to text.
  7. Resolution cited in the above. Return to text.
  8. North American Conference of Homophile Organizations Committee on the Federal Government Memorandum, Vol I, No. 2, Subject: Draft Affidavit, September 29, 1969, North American Conference of Homophile Organizations Records, 1966-1970, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, Box 1, Folder 10, Alexander Street. Return to text.
  9. “How is declaring my gayness going to keep me out of the Army?” Fag Rag, June 1971, 5. Alexander Street. Return to text.
  10. “Gay army or no, draft case dismissed,” The Advocate, April 14–27, 1971, 14. Return to text.

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