Conduct Unbecoming | Chronogram Magazine

Conduct Unbecoming

In the spring of 1975, Air Force Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich became the first member of the active US military to declare himself homosexual in an attempt to challenge the Pentagon’s standing rules against homosexuality in the military. A veteran of three combat tours in Vietnam during which he received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for bravery in combat, Matlovich had an exemplary service record and yet was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force. He sued to obtain a “less than honorable” discharge, which would have allowed him to keep his pension and medical benefits, eventually settling with the government for $160,000 in exchange for dropping his attempt to be reinstated. Matlovich remained bitter over his forced discharge until he died in 1988. Engraved on his headstone is a simple but poignant epithet, one that he puzzled over throughout the latter part of his life, “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

The last 50 years have seen major changes in the mindset and culture of the United States. The desegregation of public schools, the civil rights movement, and the growth of feminism were all part of the rising tide of resentment over social injustice in this nation’s history. In all of these cases, massive public protests led to rulings by the Supreme Court and action by legislators that leveled the playing field for school children, blacks, and women. In the years since these movements began, the consciousness of the country underwent great change as well. Likewise, recent calls for the legalization of same-sex marriage have led to changes in many states. New Paltz Mayor Jason West took up the mantle for equality when he presided over several dozen same-sex unions in February 2004. In May 2004, Massachusetts became the first (and so far the only) state to constitutionally legalize same-sex marriage. In late December 2006, New Jersey legislators legalized same-sex unions. While there is movement by individual states to extend the same marriage rights that exist for heterosexual couples to same-sex couples, the process is very slow.

So much has changed over this last half century that today, it would be unthinkable and illegal for an employer in the private sector to evaluate a candidate for hire or promotion based on race, gender, or more recently, sexual orientation. Similarly, public employment on the local, state, or federal levels must also disregard ethnicity or gender issues and must comply with Equal Opportunity statutes. Legislation such as the Family Medical Leave Inclusion Act (1993) and the Federal Employment Protections Act (1998), both enacted under President Clinton, were among the first laws designed to ensure the rights of gays and lesbians. It would seem logical to assume that such laws and rights granted to everyone in civil society would naturally extend themselves to cover all aspects of federal employment. While much has been done over the past half-century to ensure that jobs and careers are open to everyone on an equal basis, there is one place where such discrimination not only occurs routinely, but is legal—the United States military.

Much has changed, yet much has stayed the same since Matlovich’s days. In today’s American military, a soldier can still be discharged for admission of homosexuality. The Universal Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Section 925 Article 125 addresses sodomy. It reads:

(a) Any person subject to this chapter who engages in unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same or opposite sex or with an animal is guilty of sodomy. Penetration, however slight, is sufficient to complete the offense. (b) Any person found guilty of sodomy shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
In other words, those caught engaging in such an act would typically be punished by a court-martial and discharged. Such a discharge could cost the soldier benefits and pension. In the case of homosexuals, treatment of individuals in this group amounts to legalized discrimination that can be damaging to career goals, and at the very least stands in stark contrast to the major civil rights cases and laws of the recent past that have been hailed as creating an equal workplace and society. UCMJ 925.125 was only used until the 1990s as grounds for dismissal of military personnel. While it was never used on heterosexual personnel, there have been many incidents of heterosexuals being disciplined or even dismissed from service for such offenses as adultery, which the UCMJ also prohibits.