Since as long ago as the Revolutionary War, members of the LGBTQ+ community have been serving in the American military. Times back then weren’t as open as they are in today’s day and age, so let’s look back at some of the greatest LGBTQ military heroes who contributed to our nation’s safety and security.
5 Inspirational LGBTQ Military Heroes
1. Baron Friedrich von Steuben
Baron Friedrich von Steuben was known by many for his outstanding bravery, courage, and discipline.
Originally from Magdeburg, von Steuben would go on to join the Prussian military at only 17 years old, famously serving next to Fredrick the Great. In 1763, Steuben became an army captain, but he was abruptly discharged. In 1775, he hoped to continue to work in the military, so he tried to join multiple foreign armies. This is when he attempted to join the army in Baden, Austria, but was denied after a horrible complaint.
According to the Smithsonian, someone submitted a letter with a rumor claiming that Steuben had “taken liberties with young boys” in his previous position. This complaint was completely anonymous, unsubstantiated, and was written solely to destroy von Steuben’s reputation. These false allegations stemmed from public dislike of his presumed homosexuality, a dangerous and irresponsible conflation that is not all too uncommon in modern times.
But, von Struben’s will to work in the military wasn’t so brittle. In 1777, he traveled to France for more opportunities.
After learning of Benjamin Franklin’s presence in France, von Steuben offered his services to the American troops battling the British. Franklin was struck by his understanding of military order and discipline. Steuben was then assigned to George Washington’s quarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where he trained the Continental Army. Steuben had done so well that he was appointed as first inspector general of the Army.
Many historians believe von Steuben was an openly homosexual man during his time in the military. Once the war was over, von Steuben was granted U.S. citizenship. Von Steuben was one of early America’s most outspoken LGBT personalities, but he wasn’t the only male who was forthright about his feelings for other men. And, despite the fact that he was instrumental in saving the American Army, his role is mostly overlooked today.
2. Johnnie Phelps
Decorated WWII Veteran and lesbian rights activist Nell Louise “Johnnie” Phelps is an essential addition to any LGBTQ military heroes list. Originally born and raised in North Carolina, Phelps joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943, becoming a medic and sergeant.
She famously discouraged General Dwight D. Eisenhower from “ferreting out” lesbians from the WAC. Eisenhower asked her to gather a list of people who identified themselves as members of the LBTQ community. She told him she would but that she would be the first name on the list. Phelps was stationed in the South Pacific, where she met a partner in the WAC, but in 1944 her partner passed in a bombing. In 1945, Phelps was wounded, received a Purple Heart, and was ultimately discharged.
3. Alan Turing
Alan Turning helped turn the tide during WWII and saved thousands of lives through his incredible contributions. Turning, also referred to as the founder of modern computer science, was extremely intelligent, assisting the American military by decoding the encryption of German Enigma machines during WWII.
He was forced to live as a gay man in secrecy, preventing him from getting the proper recognition for his achievements and success. In March 1952, Turing was convicted of “gross indecency,” meaning he was convicted of being homosexual.
He was sentenced to twelve months of hormone therapy, also called “chemical castration,” and was never allowed to work in the military again. Afterward, Turing spent the remainder of his years working on artificial life, but he unfortunately passed away soon after his conviction. The cause of his passing has been attributed to many things, such as the hormone treatment he received, suicide, or a simple accident resulting from inhaling cyanide fumes from his laboratory.
Turning’s prosecution for being gay will live in infamy after all of the valiant efforts he made to save hundreds of lives. The Queen of England pardoned Turning in 2012, lifting his 1952 conviction. People all across the nation now understand him to be an integral person among many established LGBTQ military personnel.
4. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer
Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer worked as a colonel in the Washington National Guard and is a Vietnam Veteran and Bronze Star beneficiary. Cammermeyer served as an active-duty LGBT Army nurse, and she volunteered to serve in Vietnam. In Vietnam, she was the head nurse of the neurosurgical intensive care unit. Not only that, but she is also a gay rights activist and came out as being a lesbian for the first time during a security clearance interview.
Unfortunately, Cammermeyer was honorably discharged from the National Guard in 1992 after coming out as a lesbian. After civil court proceedings in which Cammermeyer filed a lawsuit against the decision to discharge her, the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington ruled that her discharge was unconstitutional. She was able to return to the National Guard, where she served until her retirement in 1997.
She and her partner Diane Divelbess became the first same-sex couple to get married in Island County, Washington, in 2012.
5. Eric Alva
Eric Alva enlisted in the Marines in 1990 at age 19 and served over ten years. In 2003, he was in charge of eleven Marines in a supply unit when he stepped on a landmine, losing his right leg. He is one of many gay military Veterans who sacrificed an unthinkable amount in service to their country. After thirteen years in the United States Marine Corps, Alva was awarded the Purple Heart for his heroism and was medically discharged.
Alva is now an LGBTQ rights activist and spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. Like many LGBT military members, Alva was not open about his sexuality during his service for fear that he would be discharged from the Marines. Alva continues to speak up for marginalized communities in the Marines and continues to forge the path for future LGBTQ military heroes.