For Pride Month, I wanted to think about the countless hundreds of unnamed gay and lesbian sailors who lived and worked on board Navy ships in the days before our rights were broadly recognized and respected. I owe them so much as an out and proud American citizen! Their honorable service and their refusal to stay silent anymore contributed heavily to the ultimate court decision that gave us our rights.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Winston Churchill’s quip that British Royal Navy tradition consisted of nothing but “Rum, buggery and the lash”! It appears that Sir Winston himself denied he ever said it, saying when asked about it that “I wish I had said it!” It also appears that the origins of the expression itself are lost in the annals of naval lore.
Drunkenness and sodomy were indeed often greeted by the lash in Royal Navy ships from the 1660s onward. Sodomy, i.e. same-sex acts, was specifically the subject of Article 29 of the Articles of War. The prescribed punishment for an Article 29 violation was death, and indeed sailors of Royal Navy ships were executed for these violations up until the 1820s. The 1749 version of the British Articles of War states: “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by sentence of a court martial.” (See the book by N.A.M. Rodger).
Not so in the American Navy. John Adams drew up the equivalent of the British Articles of War, known as the American Articles of War of 1775. According to “The Background of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” prepared by the Judge Advocate’s General’s School of the US Army, these American Articles were based on the British Articles of 1765 and on the Massachusetts Articles. John Adams, it seems, had a horror of matters regarding sexual practice and chose not to include any mention of any homoerotic acts. Captains were left to deal with alleged incidents on their own. Indeed, there are vanishingly few cases in which captains or other officers chose to bring cases like this to any trial. Usually they preferred to just let it drop, or send the accused home, or punish them for some other charge. (B.R. Burg, “Sodomy, Masturbation, and Courts-Martial in the Antebellum American Navy,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 23, no. 1).
The kind of official quiet on homoerotic love among shipmates, a sort of Victorian version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” comes to an end in the early 20th century. From then until the Defense of Marriage Act was found unconstitutional in 2013, gay and lesbian sailors and officers were hounded out, given “blue” or dishonorable discharges, allowed to serve only to have pensions and their GI Bill benefits revoked, physically and verbally assaulted, outed to their friends and relatives, investigated by the FBI, and far worse. This Gay Pride Month, we in the GLBTQ community celebrate the remarkable changes since 2013 that have made our lives, and particularly those of many of our serving personnel, so much better. Battles remain to be fought for true equality within the Armed Forces and without, but we already stand on the backs of heroes! Happy Pride!!!!!