Andrew Belonsky

On The U.S. Army's First Gay Discharge

Filed By Andrew Belonsky | June 29, 2010 8:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: Frederick Gotthold Enslin, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, George Washington, Independence Day, Peter Spriggs, Revolutionary War

Well, Americans, it's been 234 years since our revered Founding Fathers declared this soldier-revolution.jpgyoung nation independent. It has been a hard road, to be sure, and yet our democracy remains adolescent: rampant discrimination continues to plague our land, such as the fact that people can still lose their job for being a little thing like LGBT, or are turned away from the wedding line simply because they and their partner have identical genitals. It's an affront to the American dream.

Our armed services, the forces that helped liberate us from colonialism are doing no better: gay people must still live in enforced Congressional silence. As our politicians continue to debate a Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal, it's important to remember the gays who helped forge our beloved nation.

Social conservatives don't want to believe it, but gay folk have a long history in the U.S. Army. They have just as long a history of being persecuted by our armed services. The seminal U.S. discharge came in the form of Lt. Frederick Gotthold Enslin, who in 1778, the middle of our glorious revolution, was ejected from the Continental Army for allegedly trying to "sodomize" a fellow soldier. Gen. George Washington and company were not impressed, and the future President demanded that poor Enslin be "dismiss'd [from] the service with Infamy." He was "to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the Army, never to return." That's a pretty dishonorable discharge, and one that social conservatives enjoy using to their advantage.

Social conservatives have tried to use Washington's reaction to justify why gays should not be allowed to serve openly. "If members of Congress and homosexual activists want to argue for repeal of the existing law in order to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, let them make their case," wrote Family Research Council's Peter Sprigg two years ago. "But it is sheer nonsense to claim that such an action would be anything but a radical deviation from the unbroken practice of the American military throughout our country's history." Of course Enslin wasn't the only same-sex loving soldier fighting for our independence.

As always, it's difficult to pin the "gay" label on those who lived before the word "homosexual" came into being in 1869. Still, one of George Washington's closest confidantes, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, definitely qualifies as sexually suspicious. The Germans certainly believed so: they booted him from their ranks in 1776, after von Steuben was accused of homo relations. Unwanted in his homeland, the military office high-tailed it to the United States, where he joined Washington at Valley Forge in 1777. He would soon become the armed service's first inspector general, and Washington's Chief of Staff.

In addition to training young cadets, von Steuben also initiated sanitation programs at military bases, and helped turn revolutionary Americans onto the power of the bayonet, which he taught them could be used as an effective weapon, rather than just a cooking implement. Perhaps most importantly, however, von Steuben helped establish the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, a form of which our armed services still use today.

Our government has denoted two key dates to remember our fallen soldiers: Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. If you ask me, though, anyone who cares about this nation, particularly its unachieved democratic dreams, should remember fallen soldiers every day, especially those who fought for our independence. If it weren't for them, we would all be speaking with funny foreign accents and saying "cheerio."

Our armed martyrs, even those who dare not speak their sexual names, helped us achieve this spirited, almost divine independence. The best way to honor Enslin, von Steuben and the rest would be to allow modern day patriots like Dan Choi fight for the nation they love so much.

Now, if only we could convince our ideological enemies to see the truth: gay people helped give them the right to free speech. They should use it to honor our fallen soldiers, rather than smear their names.


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You mention that van Steuben was "definitely qualifies as sexually suspicious"; you should elaborate more on that instead of just mentioning that the Germans kicked him out for 'believing' so.

There is also the Marquis LaFayette, who not only aided the revolution but was, IIRC, instrumental in designing the layout of Washginton DC itself. Again, as you note, it's almost impossible to say for certain, but the clues do a good jog of suggesting he played for our team.

Andrew, Great article. You may want to take a look at the video I made having to do with transgender veterans before the 20th Century. You can find it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqbe-TbEjaE

Excellent article.

Aside from pointing out the obvious to the cretins who would wipe us out of history (and the future if they could), I find our gay history endlessly fascinating. Thanks for this ....

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 30, 2010 10:10 AM

I two words to say about this: Alexander Hamilton. Yes, he married and produced children. He was Washington's Aide de camp of all things and wrote half of the Federalist papers in addition to being first secretary of the treasury.

He also, like Lincoln, left considerable written evidence of his love of his fellow man.

As Orson Wells said: "Gluttony is the only sin you cannot hide."

Lt. Enslin was having a sexual relationship with Private John Monhart, a clear case of fraternization regardless of the sodomy charge. Even today such a relationship is a punishable offense under the UCMJ as it should be. Considering that all the American Colonies punished sodomy with death or lengthy jail sentences, only being dismissed from the Continental Army was actually quite liberal for the times.

I wish you'd written more about Von Stueben as a counterpoint to Perkins' claims about Washington. The future Prez knew all about VS's history in Germany and still embraced him for his knowledge and expertise.

Rick Sours | July 1, 2010 8:25 AM

Thank you for sharing this part of Gay history.