Militarism, especially in the US, has long been associated with masculinity and heteronormativity. Between 1993 and 2009, 13,194 gay men and women were discharged from the US Army under the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. However, after widespread campaigns ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was repealed in 2010, allowing openly homosexual and bisexual men and women to serve in the US military from the following year. Transgender people were only fully granted protection to serve in the military from June 2016, but in January 2017, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump tweeted that openly transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the US military in any capacity in an attempt to limit army medical costs. Despite this, in November 2017 the Defence Health Agency approved payment for male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery for an active US military service member for the first time. So how far have women’s and LGBT+ rights in the military really come since the days of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’?
War has long been heterosexualized by the language of violence. Carol Cohn’s hugely influential 1987 study described how hyper-heterosexual language was used during the Cold War, with descriptions of nuclear missiles as “erector launchers”, and discussions of “deep penetration” and “orgasmic whumps” of nuclear impact. It is not difficult to see how this has continued today with Donald Trump’s bragging tweets about his nuclear button being “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s, adding: “and my Button works!”. The hyper-sexualisation of the military can also be seen in the mass counts of sexual abuse. The sexual violence carried out in Abu Ghraib prison shows this most clearly, where the use of homosexual abuse to humiliate and torture Muslim prisoners shows how the torture was rooted not only in racialized but also in (hetero) sexualised violence. This continues within the US military itself, where rape is so commonplace that female soldiers are encouraged to carry condoms in order to limit the effects of, but not prevent, rape.
Heteronormative values in the military are further reinforced through war films, which are frequently used to construct the war-minded, macho, heterosexual solider via the use of homophobic slurs, as seen in the famous opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, as the drill instructor refers to the new Marine Corps recruits as “twinkle-toed cock-suckers.” A particularly interesting example of this is in GI Jane, in which Demi Moore’s character shouts “suck my dick.” The use of a homophobic slur, even when spoke by a female character, reinforces this association between the military and hyper-heterosexuality. Perhaps it is only when society can move past these popular images of heterosexual soldiering that the US military will be able to truly accept LGBT+ citizens.