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Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military Paperback – May 10, 1994

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Editorial Reviews Review

When Randy Shilts's Conduct Unbecoming was published in 1995, it was greeted as the major analysis of homosexuality and the U.S. military to date; this continues to be true. Shilts's collage of historical research, interviews, and U.S. military documents (both public and confidential) portrays in detail the vital role that gay men and lesbians have always played in the armed forces, and painstakingly--and painfully--exposes how homophobic and often irrational government policies have demonized them through lies, witch-hunts, and antigay purges. As he did in And the Band Played On, his documentary history of the AIDS epidemic, Shilts takes large issues and histories and renders them into readable, understandable narratives. In Conduct Unbecoming he has uncovered new information about homosexuality and the military and has woven it together in a seamless fashion that combines the personal and the political in such a vibrant way that the arguments for basic gay civil rights become irrefutable. Particularly interesting is the story of Dr. Tom Dooley, a gay man who became a folk-legend praised for his humanitarian and anticommunist work in the 1950s, while at the same time persecuted for his refusal to hide his homosexuality. Conduct Unbecoming is a milestone in gay history and social theory; compelling, readable, and always illuminating, it is invaluable in understanding contemporary gay and lesbian politics and culture. --Michael Bronski

From the Publisher

"The history of homosexual people and the movement for gay and lesbian equality in the United States can nowhere be more clearly told."--The Los Angeles Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1st Ballantine books ed edition (May 10, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0449909174
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449909171
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,425,634 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Marlo Messina Rees on July 25, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book because my Great Aunt is a retired Colonel in the US Army, and she is a Lesbian. She was interviewed for this book and is quoted in the book. Therefore, I wanted to have a copy of this book because I feel it holds a part of my family history.
I got my copy while at work, and immediately flipped through to find the sections that spoke about my Aunt. I started reading out loud to my co-workers, and pretty soon, a small group had gathered and was raptly listening to me read aloud. I was amazed that they were interested in the stories in the book as well as touched at their outrage at the discrimination I was reading to them.
This book is very interesting and talks about a part of history many people do not realize. I'd always been so proud of my Aunt for being one of the FEW women Colonels in her day, yet I never realized the scrutiny she lived under in the Army and the constant fear of being "outed" as a Lesbian.
Gay people have contributed greatly to our United States Military, and this book recognizes that fact as well as opens our eyes to the discrimination that gay women and men fighting for our country had to face, an added burden that didn't fall on the shoulders of the heterosexual soldiers.
I would strongly recommend this book.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By D. Eichholz on February 3, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I knew one of the Navy men detailed in this book and the author nailed this one on the head. I was a Navy wife for many years, until my husband retired. In the great witchhunt years, when no stone was left unturned and no method nasty enough, I saw sailors who did their jobs well and with honor, but who were systemically chased and hunted down until they were forced out of service because they chose to care for someone of the same sex. I also saw innocent heterosexuals threatened and blackmailed in order to help NIS make a charge against their potential targets. There was nothing mean enough or underhanded enough that the NIS wouldn't do to make a charge stick, even resorting to lies and innuendo to force someone to entrap a suspected gay or lesbian. It shouldn't matter who you love or long as a person does his or her job with professionalism and honor. Try telling that to investigators who work without honor. The military policy is deeply flawed and I believe it has to change. Amazing, isn't it...the military swears to defend its' people, yet will go to great lengths to destroy a selected few, because of ignorance of its' own making.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on August 10, 2004
Format: Paperback
I was raised on military bases for much of my younger life, with a career-military father who, when this topic became a big topic in the early 1990s, said to me: 'I don't see what the big issue is with this. They were always there, and we knew that.' That was a surprise to me.

Randy Shilts, better known perhaps for his book (later constructed into a telefilm) 'And the Band Played On...', about the AIDS crisis, turned his journalistic eye and talents to one of the last great approved discriminations in America -- that of the institutionalised disapproval of the military (one of the largest economic forces in America, and one of the largest employers and providers of training and benefits) of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people within the ranks.

Shilts begins his discussion historically, looking back over the history of the United States as to how this issue has been dealt with. Actually, there isn't that much information for the longest period (1778-1954), understandably as (as the Victorians would have phrased it), the love that dared not speak its name in fact rarely did. This 750+ page tome devotes a mere 19 pages to this historical period, in which Shilts argues that there was back-and-forth acceptance and rejection of gays in the military. This perhaps is wishful thinking on his part -- one could even argue that 'gay' didn't exist in quite the same way then as now (sociologically speaking), so to address the issue then as now would be difficult to compare.

Throughout the rest of the text, Shilts examines, largely through personal stories and accounts, of how the armed forces viewed, disapproved, and rooted out military personnel suspected of same-sex activity.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Mazza HALL OF FAME on March 4, 2005
Format: Paperback
In "Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military," author Randy Shilts takes on one of the most controversial topics in military studies. The revised and updated paperback edition is truly a monumental work at over 800 pages. The bulk of the text deals with the years from 1954 to 1990; there is also a short prologue covering 1778 to 1954 and an epilogue dealing with the early 1990s.

In the opening "Author's Note," Shilts writes that he interviewed 1,100 people for the book; this included "military personnel, their families, and their lawyers" as well as others. He also notes that in his research he "accumulated nearly 15,000 pages in previously unreleased documents." The nitty gritty work shows in this richly detailed book, and is well documented in the endnotes.

From the raw material Shilts has fashioned a truly epic narrative. At times it reads like a novel with many characters whose stories are woven into one overarching story. The tale spans the globe and many decades. Along the way Shilts introduces many remarkable people, among them Air Force sergeant Leonard Matlovich, Army sergeant Perry Watkins, Navy midshipman Joseph Steffan, and many more.

Shilts recounts many horrific stories of surveillance, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, and suicide. The stories are often dystopian nightmares that seem more like tales out of Nazi Germany or the USSR. But there are also accounts of personal courage and triumph which counterbalance the harsher material. Particularly fascinating is Shilts' account of the persistent gay/lesbian subculture in the military, particularly aboard naval vessels. The details of Shilts' stories are illuminating and memorable, and sometimes humorous.
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