Editor’s note: This is the latest article in “Rethinking Civ-Mil,” a series that endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding civil-military relations in the United States. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to MWI’s research director, Dr. Max Margulies, and MWI research fellow Dr. Carrie A. Lee for their work as series editors.
Twelve years after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the US Army is at a turning point in how it portrays the modern military professional. As the American public has become increasingly polarized, who serves—and is celebrated for their service—has become a political and partisan issue. Meanwhile, the traditional American ethos concerning civil-military relations is deeply rooted in Samuel Huntington’s objective control paradigm, in which military professionals are tasked with being experts in the affairs of war and leaving the politics to civilians. Yet, as partisanship and political expression have become more prevalent among the rank and file, some leaders and scholars have argued that future military effectiveness depends on redefining what it means to be an apolitical member of the military. Ongoing discourse on this topic provides US Army leaders a chance to take steps to ensure that a new image of military professionalism encompasses greater inclusion for LGBTQ+ soldiers and their families. Doing so will not only bring due recognition and dignity to the contribution of such soldiers but will also demonstrate to the civilian public that support for LGBTQ+ service members is a simple matter of professionalism, not partisan preference.
While the Army has made progress on ensuring that LGBTQ+ soldiers are allowed to serve openly and without discrimination, these soldiers have not necessarily experienced full inclusion within their units. Throughout much of the Army, especially in combat arms branches, the culture remains strongly based on the idea of “masculine self-sufficient aloofness.” Popular perceptions of the warrior ethos—generally defined by unemotional and heteronormative independence—leave little room for gay identities, which remain largely “unacknowledged and otherwise marginalized,” even more than a decade after the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Simply being allowed to exist in a space does not imply acceptance by the others already there. Unit morale and organizational effectiveness depend on the perception that soldiers will have a positive work environment and respectful colleagues.
When LGBTQ+ soldiers perceive their workplaces as noninclusive, they feel obligated to hide or downplay parts of their identities. Not only does this distract them from delivering on their full professional potential, but it also impacts the unit’s effectiveness by fostering an atmosphere of secrecy, distrust, and suspicion. Fixing this issue requires leadership at all echelons to openly demonstrate their support for LGBTQ+ inclusion, rather than simply assuming inclusion exists because discrimination is technically prohibited. Specifically, there are two areas in which the Army can make strides in improving LGBTQ+ inclusion as an organization: visibility and supporting resources.
The first area in which the Army can improve inclusion is addressing its current lack of LGBTQ+ visibility and representation, both within the service and how it presents itself to the public. Most notable is the near-total absence of LGBTQ+ images on the Army’s social media pages. For example, even during Pride Month one must diligently search the Army’s Facebook page for LGBTQ+ content. In June 2022, the only reference to Pride Month was approximately seven seconds of a ninety-second video that included content pertaining to four other unrelated topics. These seven seconds, shrewdly tucked away in the middle of the video, could very easily be perceived by viewers as a sign that Army leadership remains so uncomfortable with LGBTQ+ soldiers that they may only be publicly acknowledged in an inconspicuous manner.
Other public-facing Army products also lack LGBTQ+ representation. One may click on a plethora of Army websites, recruitment videos, or official brochures and see that when an image of an “Army family” is presented, it is invariably heterosexual. For example, every image portraying a family on the Army Quality of Life web page and GoArmy Family Benefits web page is comprised solely of male-female couples. These are just two out of many Army websites that fail to include LGBTQ+ imagery.
The same lack of representation is evident in popular portrayals of soldiers in film and television. Mainstream entertainment productions often include portrayals of American men and women in uniform, yet perpetually omit the stories of LGBTQ+ soldiers that also serve. If the Department of Defense’s goal in working with filmmakers is to “accurately depict military stories,” it is so far failing by not including the stories of LGBTQ+ service members. While the department cannot dictate what Hollywood produces, its substantial influence in the industry is key to promoting more inclusive representation of LGBTQ+ service members. It has a responsibility to ensure that it uses its connections to advocate for accurate representation of all service members, including the queer ones.
Addressing this lack of representation is important for two key reasons. When decisions are being made, members of an organization want to know that their voices and input are genuinely heard, even if their ideas are not ultimately implemented. Increased representation will signal to LGBTQ+ soldiers and families that their contributions matter, and that the Army genuinely values their service. This will have positive effects on morale, cohesion, and ultimately, retention. Studies show that when individuals feel more comfortable presenting their full identities at work, they experience higher job satisfaction and lower levels of work-related anxiety. Additionally, some authors suggest that LGBTQ+ personnel are more inclined to remain with an organization they believe is more inclusive. The Army risks losing valuable talent and resources by having to recruit and train replacements for those who leave the organization for more inclusive employers.
Moreover, representation has a significant impact on socialization and identity development. Young adults spend many hours per week consuming images and information through the internet and digital media, and often rely on the narratives these sources provide to form their identities. This means that LGBTQ+ soldiers will be less inclined to identify with the values of the Army so long as they do not see themselves represented by it. Conversely, potential recruits from the LGBTQ+ community who see themselves represented by the Army will be more likely to join because they can visualize themselves contributing and being appreciated for their service.
The second area in which the Army can improve inclusion is examining the level of professional resources and support it provides to LGBTQ+ soldiers and families. The equal opportunity program provides some level of support in that it explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and allows soldiers to report violations of this policy. However, because the program grants commanders the sole authority and responsibility to enforce the program within their units, its success is dependent on whether the commander happens to agree with the purpose of the program and faithfully carries it out. Furthermore, the availability of punitive measures for discrimination does not imply that the overall atmosphere of the unit is conducive to LGBTQ+ inclusion. Veritable inclusion would entail commanders’ consistent public affirmation of LGBTQ+ support and repudiation of the “heteromasculine” military culture, which perpetuates the idea that LGBTQ+ soldiers should suppress their identities to avoid offending heteronormative sensitivities. Consequently, the atmosphere created by the equal opportunity program is not necessarily one of tolerance or understanding unless the commander explicitly makes it so.
There are specific steps that Army leadership can take to remedy these shortcomings in ways that highlight the military professionalism of its LGBTQ+ members. In terms of representation, the first step leaders should take is to simply include more LGBTQ+ imagery and content on social media. In celebration of Pride Month, post content highlighting the contributions of LGBTQ+ soldiers to the Army. In September, post content recognizing the anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Even without special occasion, the Army could simply include photos of LGBTQ+ couples in order to increase queer visibility.
Moreover, Army leaders should incorporate LGBTQ+ imagery into public-facing digital media and advertisements. For example, in April 2022, a short video appeared on the GoArmy YouTube channel that advertised paid parental leave as an Army benefit. It’s a funny and relatable commercial that depicts a young couple waking up in the middle of the night when their newborn baby begins to cry. Using a gay or lesbian couple in the same situation would be a simple way to include LGBTQ+ imagery in a supportive and constructive manner. This kind of realistic representation is exactly what the LGBTQ+ community is asking for: to see normal people with normal lives who simply happen to be gay. The same principle applies to Army websites. Exchange some of the photos of heterosexual couples with homosexual ones, and the Army will have made important progress in improving LGBTQ+ representation.
Finally, the Army can improve representation by lobbying for more queer visibility in popular culture. The Department of Defense has long maintained a relationship with Hollywood in order to shape popular perception of the military, yet images and representation of queer soldiers remain largely unseen. At a minimum, the Army should advocate for greater inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and narratives in films or series that involve the military. For example, in a deployment homecoming scene writers could include a lesbian couple and their children hugging for the first time in months. Or they could devise a plot in which a trans soldier is a unit’s respected weapons expert. These experiences are just as real and valid as the traditional cisgender, heterosexual narratives that are usually depicted. Of course, DoD cannot force Hollywood to produce such stories but advocating for their inclusion is an easy way to better represent the LGBTQ+ military experience.
Increasing queer visibility in such a manner would be beneficial to public perception of the military and LGBTQ+ service members alike. It would demonstrate that although LGBTQ+ individuals share different interests and experiences, they are just as committed to the Army’s mission and contribute just as much as their straight colleagues to the organization’s success. To some, these changes may seem inconsequential, but they reflect a monumental shift in both awareness of and appreciation for the service of LGBTQ+ soldiers.
Looking inward at the resources and support it provides soldiers, the Army should facilitate the creation of a service-wide forum such as an affinity group or professional networking organization for LGBTQ+ service members and allies. Undoubtedly, such an organization would be a novelty for the Army. Some might claim that it would reflect a sense of favoritism or political bias, but in reality it would significantly contribute to the goals of the 2020 Army People Strategy by supporting greater diversity and inclusion, emotional well-being, and authentic leadership. Within an Army-sanctioned organization, queer soldiers could meet openly to discuss common questions and challenges, provide insight into their experiences, and be a visible part of the Army community. There are already some notable LGBTQ+ military-wide organizations, such as SPARTA or The Modern Military Association of America, but their services focus mostly on national education and advocacy, and their members encompass veterans and service members from all military branches. As a result, these forums are less prepared to tailor their services to the specific needs of local Army communities. They also only help to connect service members who are out of the closet and take significant personal initiative to find and link up with them. A professional organization endorsed by the Army would provide a more accessible space for closeted soldiers to seek information and help destigmatize the idea of coming out. By amplifying the voices and visibility of LGBTQ+ soldiers, the organization would demonstrate to those still closeted that there are plenty of other soldiers who have experienced similar concerns and anxieties while serving in the Army. It would provide an example of the type of support and camaraderie available to them should they decide to reach out. Ultimately, the organization would significantly increase LGBTQ+ visibility and understanding and help promote an Army-wide culture of solidarity and inclusion.
The creation of an affinity group could also assist immensely with efforts to collect valuable data that is needed to increase awareness and representation of LGBTQ+ service members in research and policy circles. Current estimates of the number of queer soldiers are just that: estimates. They remain “undercounted and underrepresented” in the types of data sources that inform decisions on health care, funding, training, research, and other services. By not collecting this type of data, the Army inadvertently deprives LGBTQ+ soldiers of an essential tool they need to advocate for better resources and representation. Moreover, the fact that the Army does not collect this data signals to soldiers and the public that it is acceptable to ignore the needs of the LGBTQ+ population. Creating a service-wide support and networking organization would facilitate the collection of important data, help promote discussions that have historically been stigmatized, and greatly increase LGBTQ+ visibility in the Army.
The increase in political expression among soldiers and the subsequent scholarly discourse on military professionalism have created an opportunity for the US Army to help redefine the public’s perception of an apolitical military professional. By taking steps to improve LGBTQ+ representation on social media, in online materials, and in popular culture, the Army can help create an organization more representative of its members and reflective of the values it professes. Furthermore, increasing the level of organizational resources and support for LGBTQ+ soldiers will not only create a healthier and more fulfilling work environment for soldiers, but will also help solidify the notion that supporting LGBTQ+ service members is a matter of military professionalism, not political partisanship. It will provide an important example to the civilian population and the world that the US Army values the contributions and sacrifices of all soldiers, not just the straight ones.
Captain Austin Wilson is a US Army field artillery officer currently serving in South Korea. He was previously assigned to 2nd Cavalry Regiment at Rose Barracks, Germany. He has served in support of Enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and Operation Inherent Resolve in Kuwait and Iraq. He holds a BA in European Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and is a student of the MA in Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image: Soldiers participate in US Army Central’s Pride Month observance (credit: Sgt. Amber Cobena, US Army)