Serving in Silence: The Experiences of Three LGBTQ+ Sailors

By Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

The United States military has a long, complex, and often discriminatory history with the LGBTQ+ community. Prior to the 1990s, individuals were not explicitly prohibited by law from serving, but that did not stop all branches of the military from discharging service members for engaging in homosexual acts or from screening suspected homosexuals upon enlistment. 

By World War II, the military’s language regarding homosexuality had transformed from “acts of sodomy” to “psychopathic personality disorders.” Whereas prior generations could be discharged for acts committed, now enlistees could be turned away simply for their identity. In the seventy years since this change of language, LGBTQ+ sailors have continued to serve honorably, often hiding their identities to continue their service. 

Vietnam War Era

By the time Hospital Corpsman Third Class Sam Deloach joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, public support had grown for civil rights for gay men and women. Nevertheless, had he identified himself as a gay man, Deloach would have been turned away for military service. In fact, claiming homosexuality became a common tactic for draft dodgers. Meanwhile, men and women like Sam Deloach hid their sexuality in order to serve.

When Deloach joined in 1973, he was fortunate to be stationed at the Naval Hospital in Oakland, California where the general tone towards homosexuality was ambivalent. The hospital’s proximity to San Francisco and its gay neighborhoods helped Deloach, “a young boy from Alabama find his way out of the closet.” In his oral history interview with the Library of Congress in 2001, Deloach explained, “Nobody [at the Naval Hospital] particularly cared, but it was the medical end. Had it been [in] the fleet, had we had a different base commander, it might have been a different story.” Some sailors were not as accepting as Deloach’s base commander. At one point, Deloach remembered, a couple of anti-gay sailors drew up a list of all the gay sailors they knew and took it to the hospital lawyer. Fortunately for Deloach and his fellow gay shipmates, the lawyer was also gay and refused to move forward with disciplinary actions.

A protester supporting the repeal of the U.S. Military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in 2010. Image adapted from, Georgetown Law Library (current as of June 4, 2021).

Gulf War Era

A decade later, the official military stance toward homosexuality remained discriminatory. In 1981, a new Department of Defense directive stated, “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service. The presence in the military environment of persons who engage in homosexual conduct or who, by their statements, demonstrate a propensity to engage in homosexual conduct, seriously impairs the accomplishment of the military mission.” The directive also stated service members were subject to mandatory discharge if found to attempt any homosexual act.

It was in this same year that Robert ‘Bob’ Robledo enlisted in the Navy. Originally a yeoman, later a legalman, Robledo spent twenty-three years in the Navy hiding his identity. In order to maintain his long career, Robledo played the part of a straight man and kept his sexuality a close secret only shared with select friends. Robledo brought femme female friends as dates to command functions to deflect any potential rumors about his sexuality. He traveled from his home port of Norfolk to Washington DC to visit gay bars and clubs in the hopes that he’d be “lost in the crowd of a big city.” And he distanced himself from younger gay men aboard ship who hadn’t learned how to adjust to the secretive gay life necessary to remain in the fleet. 

Electronics Technician 2nd Class Thomas Sawicki, winner of the “first kiss” lottery, greets his boyfriend on February 9,2015 following the return of the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS San Francisco (SSN 711) to Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California after completing an extended seven-month deployment to the Western Pacific region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom/Released.

In his oral history interview, Robledo explained that he was fearful the Navy would discover his sexuality. One of the scariest instances was when a fellow gay shipmate was outed and interrogated. Officers promised the outed sailor he would not be discharged if he outed any other homosexual sailors aboard the ship. This was a lie. Any and all outed sailors were discharged in line with official Navy policy. Fortunately, Robledo’s secret was never discovered and he looks back with pride in his military service. Regardless of the personal fulfillment the Navy gave him, Robledo cut ties with the Navy upon his retirement in order to live out and proud as a gay man.

War on Terror

Although the treatment of gay service members has gradually improved, transgender sailors continue to advocate for acceptance and inclusion. JaeLee Waldschmidt enlisted in 2003 as an Electrician’s Mate. She served for nine years, primarily aboard the USS Hawaii (SSN 776). In her years in the Navy, Waldschmidt was primarily still figuring out her own identity. She recounts how difficult it was to serve with an all-male submarine crew while living in the closet and struggling with gender dysphoria. She struggled to connect, to make friends, and to live authentically. It was “one day, one breath at a time.”

After her separation from the Navy, Waldschmidt continued to serve in a civilian engineer capacity. She is pictured in 2017 receiving the Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely Jr. Award for achievement in equity and diversity at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in West Bethesda, MD.U.S. Navy photo by Jake Cirksena/Released.

This was in the era of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) which was supposed to be a step forward toward equality for LGBTQ+ service members. Sadly, the bill had unintended and harmful consequences for a large number of queer service members. For Waldschmidt, DADT forced her to be more hidden, more closeted. “I compartmentalized part of my life… buried who I was, put on this façade, this mask of somebody who I wasn’t.” In 2012, Waldschmidt chose to voluntarily separate from the Navy so she could transition and live her life authentically. When Waldschmidt was interviewed in 2015 after the repeal of DADT, she applauded the change of policy but expressed caution. “They [LGBTQ+ sailors] are still afraid to come out because of that culture of the military. That Type A, ‘be like us’ mindset that still exists. It’s going to take a generation of people to come and go” before reaching a culture of true acceptance. 

Conclusion

The move toward full acceptance and equality of LGBTQ+ sailors is an ongoing struggle. It is significant to point out that LGBTQ+ people have served admirably for generations. These are people who have given of themselves while living half their lives in secret. The experiences of Sam Deloach, Robert Robledo, JaeLee Waldschmidt, and countless others are difficult and inspiring lessons of honor, courage, and commitment.

President Barack Obama signs the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense.

Listen to the full oral history interviews of Sam Deloach, Robert Robledo, and JaeLee Waldschmidt at the Veterans History Project from the Library of Congress.

Sam Deloach
Robert Robledo
JaeLee Waldschmidt

Sources:

  1. Department of Defense Directive, Enlisted Administrative Separations, DOD 1332.14, January 16, 1981. 
  2. JaeLee Waldschmidt Collection, Veterans Oral History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
  3. U.S. Naval Institute, “Key Dates in U.S. Military LGBT Policy,” Naval History Blog, https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/03/26/key-dates-in-u-s-military-lgbt-policy 
  4.  Robert Robledo Collection, Veterans Oral History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
  5.  Ross Benes, “How Exclusion From the Military Strengthened Gay Identity in America,” Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/how-exclusion-from-the-military-strengthened-gay-identity-in-america-125267/
  6.  Sam Deloach Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
  7. U.S. Naval Institute, “Key Dates in U.S. Military LGBT Policy,” Naval History Blog, https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/03/26/key-dates-in-u-s-military-lgbt-policy 

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