New York State Capitol
Governor's Reception Room, 2nd Floor
On View June 1, 2022 - July 28, 2022
Pride month is celebrated in June of each year to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, a turning point in the fight for LGBTQIA+ civil rights.
This exhibition spotlights the struggle for the rights of LGBTQIA+ servicemembers in the U.S. Military and shows how New York State supports the fight against discrimination.
LGBTQIA+ Americans have served with honor and distinction in the United States Armed Forces since the Revolutionary War yet were largely prohibited from serving by practice and policy until very recently. Today, restrictions remain for individuals identifying or presenting as nonbinary or intersex, leaving a large spectrum of gender and sexual identities isolated and without equal rights.
Throughout most of U.S. history, servicemembers discovered to be LGBTQIA+ were penalized, often resulting in dishonorable discharges and humiliation. For example, despite countless LGBTQIA+ people serving throughout World War II, approximately 9,000 LGBTQIA+ servicemembers received discharges during the war, barring them from receiving veterans’ benefits and negatively impacting their employment, housing, and reintegration into civilian life. Many were also forced into detention facilities and mental institutions.
Pride Flag flying over the New York State Capitol photo courtesy of the New York State Office of General Services.
“Gays in the Military” is an investigation into the impacts of the military’s ban on the lives and careers of LGBTQIA+ servicemembers. Beginning in November 2009, New York-based documentary photographer Vincent Cianni traveled across the United States recording oral histories and making portraits of veterans and active-duty service members. The project recounts their experiences of discrimination, harassment, and civil and human rights abuses and contributes to the recognition of the valuable military skills and experiences of LGBTQIA+ servicemembers.
This exhibition is a small vignette of artist Vincent Cianni’s larger photographic essay, “Gays in the Military.” The corresponding interviews displayed are excerpts from the original transcripts.
A Statement from the Artist:
Prompted by a November 2009 interview of Pvt. Nathanael Bodon’s mother, who described her son’s discharge from the Army while serving in Iraq as an ‘outing’ by a fellow soldier in his platoon, I was moved to explore how many lives have been affected as a result of homophobia in the military. These issues follow a long history of human rights abuses that gay and lesbian people have experienced. Harassment and discrimination based on sexual preference resulted in lost careers and personal lives. In many cases, these men and women – highly skilled, well educated, patriotic, courageous and productive – attained high rank, received numerous medals and held top-level jobs that were essential to the military.
Hundreds of stories exist. Thousands have gone untold. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and historically, the military ban, failed to protect the human rights of a significant portion of gay and lesbian military. At times service members were penalized and prohibited from receiving an honorable discharge to retain benefits accorded them for serving, oftentimes under extreme conditions of a combat zone. There was no recourse; their devotion to country went unnoticed and jobs were lost due to unjust policies. Some suffered economic pitfalls, and some experienced the same medical, physical, and psychological effects of serving during wartime.
BERT BARES, HOUSTON, TX 2012
LANCE CORPORAL, U.S. MARINE CORPS, FIRST ANGLICO
Served three tours of duty in Vietnam, received numerous commendations, awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star
…I went through intense psychological evaluation and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigated me. After ninety days, I was brought back to the air station for a hearing. The night before, I had a field grade officer come into my room and talk to me: “At the hearing tomorrow, you will say that your combat experience was such that you did not know what you were doing, that what you said was false. And since you are an NCO, you will ask permission to file charges against yourself for making false charges and filing false government documents.”
I did. The psychiatrist said in no way, shape, or form was I a homosexual. The NCIS investigation proved that there were aberrations of my childhood, and that I was not in fact homosexual. They fined me thirty days’ pay, gave me thirty days’ barracks restriction, and on the thirty first day gave me my travel orders to go back for my second tour of Vietnam. Major told me the day that I left, “You have been a consummate Marine. You have besmirched yourself and your Marine Corps. You know what you need to do.” I was supposed to die. And they made sure that I was in situations where it would be highly likely. And I nearly did.
RAY CHISM, BRONX, NY, 2010
AIRMAN SECOND CLASS, U.S. AIR FORCE, 1963-67
PRIVATE SECOND CLASS, U.S. ARMY RESERVE, 1980-1984
Other than Honorable Discharge, suspicion of homosexuality; prevented from reenlisting
…I went into the Army reserve in 1980 to 1984. I missed the camaraderie, being in an organization and working. I wanted the compensation for being enlisted too. I didn’t have much of a job. I enjoyed the reserves while I was in, but I feel that I was wronged. They didn’t allow me to reenlist because they found out that I was living with my uncle who was gay, which wasn’t really a reason to indicate that I was gay. They had ways of checking up on people. Somehow, they found out. They gave me a less-than-honorable discharge.
I wouldn’t say that I’m angry as such. I just feel that there’s a strong need for adjustment for the military. Those rules and regulations that they have are old and archaic and they should change and come up to date and accept people as people are.
HEATHER DAVIES, ROUND ROCK, TX, 2010
LIEUTENANT, U.S. NAVY, 1989-1998
U.S. Naval Academy Graduate
Operations Watch Officer and Officer Recruiter
…The person I started dating in Wales was really helpful in terms of trying to find a new system or a new path that was really going to help support me a little more in terms of realizing who I was. Everything happened in real extreme secrecy because it was a very small base; we were both on the same base.
I still didn’t have an awareness then of DADT. But the person I was dating was older than me and had been in the Navy quite a bit longer. She grew up under the old regime where there were active witch-hunts to catch gay people in the act to get them out. And so I learned that culture in the military. I was terrified of that the whole time I was in. I thought that’s what was going to happen to us, that they were going to come and someone was going to break down the door and they were going to have a camera and that they were going to take pictures; that was the fear that I lived under. I had no way to sort it out. It was so confusing…
VICTOR FEHRENBACH, BOISE, ID
2011 LIEUTENANT COLONEL, U.S. AIR FORCE, 1991-2011
F-15E Fighter Pilot. Retired
Tours of duty in Iraq, including Operation Iraqi Freedom, and in Kuwait and Afghanistan; 88 combat missions, 400 combat hours
Successfully fought his discharge under DADT
…At the time, I was the highest-ranking, most decorated person discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. My job was to protect the Marines and soldiers on the ground. The way I saw it was, if I’m the highest-ranking person, I have the leadership role by default. I have to lead and protect those under me. When I talked to my commander, the day after the first interview, he said, “Are you coming to work on Thursday? We’re having a commander’s call.” When I drove to work and put my uniform on, I found myself walking with a pride I’d never felt before. I was about to walk (into the squadron) and never have to hide and never have to lie. I thought people would look away, ignore me. Nothing but handshakes and smiles and Congratulations! – we’re happy for you. Nothing but support from total strangers to brothers I went to war with, including my buddy Flaps, who I flew over Baghdad with. He told me, “I’m proud of you for fighting. You’ve always been a fighter, and that’s why I always want you with me in combat.”
KATIE MILLER, NEW HAVEN, CT, 2010
U.S. MILITARY ACADEMY, WEST POINT, 2008-2010
Resigned appointment on moral grounds
…Seeing my former comrades react so strong is devastating but leaving the people that I actually cared about and were supportive of me was more devastating. I was not going to be able to have it both ways. Either I was going to be in the closet at the Academy under a repressive military law, or I was going to be at Yale studying but not a part of an institution that I really believed in – The U.S. military.
Vonda Todd and Mary Harris
VONDA TODD, AUSTIN, TX 2012
SECOND LIEUTENANT, SOUTH CAROLINA NATIONAL GUARD, 1983-1988
MAJOR, U.S. ARMY RESERVE, 1998-2012
Quartermaster, Fort Sam Houston, TX, Retired
MARY HARRIS, AUSTIN, TX, 2012
MAJOR, U.S. ARMY, 1982-1987
U.S. ARMY RESERVE, 1988-2002
Adjutant Generals Corps, Fort Sam Houston, TX, Retired.
Both came under scrutiny and underwent questioning in an investigation based on their health insurance beneficiary forms and shared home address
VONDA: When a soldier has a complaint and they go to the IG, they have to turn it into a formal investigation. We don’t know what the initial complaint was. But I'm sure it was the unit administrator because she is the only one who has access to those records. We could have turned around and filed a complaint for privacy issues.
A few years later I had to get my civilian medical records for the military. I had gone to my gynecologist and she had written that I was at high risk for HIV because I was gay. I had them transferred (to my command) without going through them.
MARY: Her unit administrator knew Vonda was a good officer. She handed her the records, walked out of the room and said, “Do what you need to do.” Vonda just took that piece of paper out. Not everybody has those kinds of stories. It comes down to how one person feels about you. You look at somebody crossways and your career is gone.
VONDA: My retirement ceremony was in February 2012. It was time for me to leave. I had done my time and (I had) medical issues. The latter part of my career did get hard because our daughter, Danielle, was getting older and it’s hard being a single parent, even if its just for the weekend. When I spoke at the ceremony, I introduced Mary as my partner and Danielle as our daughter and thanked them for their support.
MARY: She didn’t want to do it because she was sick of the military. I said, “We need to do it. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell didn’t stop people from asking questions.” They go after you for the wrong reasons. If Vonda was to deploy and something happened to her, I wouldn’t be the one to get the call. The military can say, “Well, you’re nothing.” When we were younger and just us, I don’t think we thought about it as much. But when a child comes into the mix, it changes everything. We didn’t want to put Danielle in that position.
It was neat to be able to go to her retirement and for her to be able to recognize her family there, despite their discomfort. They’re going to have to get comfortable with it. Vonda’s not going to be the last one. The soldiers that worked for her came up and shook my hand and talked to me and talked to Danielle. You could tell that they just weren’t fazed by anything. But of course, they’re younger. They’re more open to things. It’s totally changed now. It’s a whole different military, a whole different mission.
An entire visual culture was sparked in response to the Gay Rights movement, solidifying visual art as one of the strongest ways to evoke awareness and document the evidence of significant histories. Some of the artists and designers of these visual symbols have their own connections to the United States military.
Gilbert Baker (1951-2017)
Drafted into the United States Army to serve as a surgical nurse stateside during Vietnam (1970-1972), Baker’s harrowing experiences included frequent abuse and harassment to the point of an attempted suicide. After being honorably discharged in 1972, Baker joined the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement. In 1978, at the suggestion of Harvey Milk, Baker set out to create a visual symbol of the movement. Originally eight colors, the flag was designed with visibility, liberation, and hope in mind. As an artist and activist, Baker created the six-striped rainbow flag ubiquitous with the LGBTQIA+ movement.
Monica Helms (born, 1951)
From 1970 to 1978 Helms served in the United States Navy as a nuclear-trained machinist mate and was assigned to two submarines: USS Francis Scott Key (1972–1976) and USS Flasher (1976–1978). During her time in the Navy, Helms began dressing as a woman while based in South Carolina. She later said in an interview that it was the deepest, darkest secret in her entire life. When reassigned to the San Francisco area in 1976, Helms said she finally felt like she could be out in public as herself. She left the Navy in 1978.
Helms began her gender transition in 1997. One year later, she reapplied to her local chapter of United States Submarines Veterans Inc.. Helms had been a member in 1996, but now faced push-back after changing her name, including a referral to a more generic veteran's group for women rather than the submarine specific group. Helms persevered and was one of the first women to join the organization.
As an activist, Helms was inspired to create a flag for her own community. In 1999, she designed the first transgender pride flag. On the flag, Helms choose to include light blue and pink stripes, colors traditionally associated with boys and girls, but designated a white stripe in the middle to signify those who are transitioning, intersex, or do not identify with a gender.
Documentary photographer and educator, whose 2013 photographic essay and subsequent publication, Gays in the Military, is featured in the exhibition.
Deputy Director for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for New York State Division of Veterans’ Services who served as both non-commissioned officer and commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserve, and Army National Guard for more than 25 years.
Author, activist, United States Navy Veteran, and designer of the first transgender flag.