Psychiatry and Homosexuality Draft Exemptions During the Vietnam War

tags: military history, Vietnam War, LGBTQ history, medical history

Natalie Shibley is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Science in Society at Wesleyan University. She was previously a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program on Race, Science, and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

When Bob McIvery reported for his mandatory physical exam to determine if he could be drafted into the Army, the doctor didn’t believe he was gay. Although McIvery, a member of the Gay Liberation Front, had checked the “homosexual tendencies” box on his pre-induction medical form and stated verbally that he was gay, he was nonetheless classified as 1-A (available for military service). He was ordered to report for induction in 1970 but did not do so and, after several months, was arrested and charged with failing to report. Although he did eventually report—and at that time did not meet the standard on a different medical test—he was still prosecuted for his initial failure to report. McIvery and his lawyer mounted the defense that his induction order was invalid because he could not legally be classified as 1-A. In their view, the Army couldn’t simultaneously ban homosexuals and require them to report for induction.1

The military barred gay men from service under medical fitness standards, so they were not supposed to be drafted. Yet doctors at induction centers didn’t always disqualify them, even when they stated they were gay. Some gay men actively sought 4-F classifications. Others wanted to serve, and some gay men judged the risks of claiming homosexuality to be greater than those of the draft. At the same time, some men who did not otherwise consider themselves to be gay successfully exploited the homosexuality exemption in an attempt to avoid service, often by intentionally adopting stereotypical mannerisms that they believed would persuade doctors.2 Needing to fill draft quotas and concerned about fraud, induction officials sometimes assigned 1-A classifications to men who had claimed to be homosexual.

In the way that men used doctors’ notes to claim medical exemptions for causes such as bone spurs or a childhood history of asthma, men seeking homosexuality exemptions often provided letters from psychiatrists. At the time of McIvery’s case, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-II still listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, although it would soon be removed after a controversial battle at the American Psychiatric Association.3 The medical model of homosexuality could be seen as a sympathetic position, since it suggested that homosexuality was not a moral failing, but an illness. By the early 1970s, however, gay rights activists increasingly argued that treating homosexuality as a disorder pathologized and stigmatized a normal identity. This presented a dilemma for gay men seeking disqualification from the draft. The strategy required claiming a medical exemption. Yet many gay men did not consider their sexual preference to be medical at all.

Although many gay rights organizations argued that the exclusion of homosexuals from the armed forces was unconstitutional and discriminatory, several of the same groups also offered advice to gay men who wanted to be disqualified from military service. Part of a massive draft resistance movement, draft counseling helped men consider options to get themselves deferred or disqualified from induction, like conscientious objector status or medical exemptions.4 As Justin David Suran has shown, members of newer, more radical organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front saw antiwar resistance and draft resistance as much as part of their political platform as more traditional gay rights issues.5

Read entire article at Nursing Clio

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