Author (or Editor): Shilts, Randy.

Title: Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  St, Martin’s Press; rev. Fawcett Columbine

Date: 1993, 1994

ISBN:  0-449-90917-4 (rev)

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, then softbound

Relevance to doaskdotell: Gays in the military


This monumental book is the single biggest and most important major work in print on the subject of gays in the military. (Okay, there is my own “Do Ask, Do Tell.” – in that book and on this website I have carried the story forward to present day.)  It is organized in “books” covering historical periods, and these in turn comprise short anecdotes about various gay servicemembers who had to deal with the ban. Along the way, Shilts covers the gradual legal evolution of the policy up until the 1993 debate started by President Clinton (the revised paperback covers the debate rather briefly), particularly the evolution of the “Old Policy: or absolute ban (“homosexuality is incompatible with military service….”) at the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1981, where the services offered honorable discharges but maintained a supposedly uniform policy of asking [technically not actually required in the 1981 regs  but done by all the services] and discharging anyone found to be “homosexual.”  Shilts compares the ban to Nazi Germany’s prosecution of homosexual “thought crimes.” 

Some of the best incidents are early ones, such as those during the Vietnam era, where Shilts discusses the issue of homosexuality and the draft and presents a story of a student expelled from college for homosexuality in 1965 (as I was expelled in 1961, as described in my own book). Shilts frames his story with that of gay Navy doctor Tom Dooley. He presents various other stories of gay “superstars” who served in the military, sometimes in clandestine services, only to be expelled later. I wonder if the current war on terrorism will write the final chapter of this problem.  I think that somehow it will.

Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN) starts many of its own annual reports with the phrase “Conduct Unbecoming.”

Around 1995 there was talk that HBO might make a cable series based on this book, but so far this has not happened.  But maybe….

Rand Corporation (National Defense Research Institute). Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment. Los Angeles: Rand, 1993. $28, contact: Rand, P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, CA, 90407-2138, 310-393-0411 ext. 6686.  About 750 pages, paper. 

This was the study, funded by Les Aspin in the Clinton Administration in 1993, to recommend a way to lift the ban against gays in the military. I have covered this manual in some detail in my first book. There are many detailed sociology studies and tables, and analyses of foreign militaries, especially Israel.  There are concepts like “propinquity” that help establish social loyalties in the military and elsewhere. The book finally comes up with a proposed “Code of military professional conduct” that could be implemented with a lifting of the ban. It was not believed.


Related reviews:   And the Band Played On; Another American: Asking and Telling, video Gays in the Military


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