There’s a weird moment in an episode of the show M*A*S*H that seems to simultaneously take place in the past, present, and future.
In the episode, entitled “George,” a soldier takes another character aside and confesses that he’s secretly gay. It’s a huge risk for him to do so, since the show takes place during the Korean War — the early 1950s, when the U.S. Army had an entire apparatus in place to ruin the lives of people suspected of being gay. But it’s also a meaningful storyline for the time that it aired, 1974, when the Army was on the brink of being forced to confront its homophobic ban on queer military service for the first time. And strangely enough, it perfectly predicts the debate that would unfold over the intervening decades, coming to a head in 1993 with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and only resolving in the last few years.
In other words: It’s a show made in the 1970s that uses the 1950s to talk about the 1990s.
M*A*S*H, if you’re not familiar, it’s the malaisey TV series adapted from a Robert Altman film adapted from a book about a medical camp in Korea — and it’s one of the most successful TV shows ever made. The finale holds the record for the most-watched episode of television, outside of Super Bowls. The year that M*A*S*H's “George” episode aired, it was the fourth most popular show on television, airing between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, leading into The Bob Newhart Show and then The Carol Burnett Show. What, as they say, a lineup.
“George” aired on February 16, 1974, and the drama begins when a group of wounded soldiers arrives at camp. Hawkeye, played by Alan Alda (Jack’s dad on 30 Rock), forms a rapport with one of the soldiers, a young man named George Weston played by ‘70s heartthrob hunk Richard Ely. When nobody else is listening, George insinuates to Hawkeye that he’s gay, and once he’s recovered from his injuries, he wants to go back to the front lines.
“It’s important to me that I finish my tour of duty,” he says. “Now more than ever.”
Why was it so important, and why could he only insinuate instead of coming out directly? Because in the 1950s, the Army could have utterly destroyed him for being gay — never mind how dedicated or competent a soldier he might’ve been. The rules varied on a case-by-case and state-by-state basis. Still, in many circumstances, a person discharged for being homosexual could be treated as though they had a felony conviction, which meant losing the right to vote, own property, or get government licenses. The Army would write home to your parents to tell them why they had you discharged. You couldn’t get a job because many employers would refuse to hire gays, and you couldn’t get VA benefits or unemployment. The policy put veterans into a “downward spiral,” as the Army itself wrote.
A quick side note here — homosexuals haven’t always been so unwelcome in the military. In 350 BC, legend has it, the Sacred Band of Thebes was an army of 150 pairs of male lovers. (There’s some debate amongst scholars about whether the band was real or imagined, but that hasn’t stopped creative historians from using it as the basis for, ummmm, adult media.)
Later on, George Washington hired a military consultant named Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben to turn his band of volunteers into a proper army for the Revolutionary War. Rumors about relationships with men had dogged Steuben in Europe, and he’s said to have organized a no-pants party at Valley Forge. (Levi Hastings and Josh Trujillo have an excellent comic about his life.)
But in the 20th century, the Army’s attitude towards homosexuals took a decidedly hostile turn. The military established a ban on sodomy in the early 1920s, following the adoption of a code of justice in 1916; and in 1953, Eisenhower signed an executive order banning homosexuals from all forms of government employment. This was during the rise of the Cold War, and homosexuality was stigmatized as being un-American; investigators dug into the personal lives of countless government workers and are estimated to have purged over 10,000 employees.
That witch hunt reached a fever pitch right around the end of the Korean War, when M*A*S*H takes place, making it a particularly timely topic. News of George’s supposed homosexuality gets back to a character named Frank Burns, a by-the-books bureaucrat (“the curse of a government job,” as Maude put it) who wants George drummed out of the Army. The other officers point out that George hasn’t given them a reason to do so — Hawkeye’s the only one who’s even spoken to him — but that won’t stop Frank. After all, he’s just following orders.
After watching this episode a few weeks ago, I started corresponding with an archivist at the National Archives who dug up some particularly horrifying documents from the mid-20th century, including memos regarding military policies on homosexuality. One, known as the Crittendon Report, says that “homosexuality is wrong, [it is] evil,” and another recommends “indoctrination” for officers to recognize homosexuals in the ranks. Soldiers are advised to be on alert for “an unnecessarily ‘prissy’ way of walking” — the Army leaves unspecified exactly what degree of prissiness is necessary.
Policies like these were simply accepted as a miserable fact of life for decades, but the seeds of their destruction were sowed in 1958. That’s when the Army fired the wrong guy, an astronomer named Frank Kameny. Kameny was furious about his dismissal, and became a lifelong activist and source of constant trouble for homophobes — he picketed the White House in the 1960s, helped remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses in the 1970s, and he created the slogan “gay is good,” inspired by “Black is beautiful.”
Among Kameny’s enduring innovations was his work on an event called The Annual Reminder, a picket in Philadelphia every summer to show the world that queer people were unafraid to show their faces in public. These events were well-mannered and orderly (Kameny was known for insisting on a formal dress code) and not highly attended. Starting in 1965, these summertime protests helped form the foundation of an annual event that began in 1970 — the first Pride.
As queer liberation slowly became less niche and more mainstream, policies about gays and lesbians in the Army came under increased scrutiny. (The conversation, at that point, was not quite nuanced enough to effectively contemplate bisexual, transgender, or nonbinary people; those concepts would prove too challenging for puny heterosexual minds for several decades more.)
By the time M*A*S*H aired, America was undertaking a serious rethinking of its attitude toward queer people. Characters like Frank represented the past, with paranoid witch hunts targeting LGBTQ+ Americans; Hawkeye represented the future, with a more tolerant attitude and a condemnation of bigotry.
The issue on the show is resolved rather neatly when Hawkeye and a friend trick Frank into revealing that they cheated on a test to obtain his medical license, a revelation that could ruin his career — just as he’s threatening to do to George. He begrudgingly sees that he’s in no position to judge, and gives up on his discharge efforts.
In real life, of course, it took a lot longer to end the ban on queer military service. A year after the “George” episode aired, a closeted gay soldier named Leonard Matlovich saw an interview with Frank Kameny and was inspired to come out and challenge the military ban. Within a few years, the military undertook more study into the issue, finding that homosexuality was “unrelated to job performance in the same way as is being left- or right-handed."
But cultural stigma kept the policy in place. By the time Bill Clinton was elected — with significant support from the queer community — the best he could offer was a compromise known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. (The policy’s full name was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass, but the Army tended to ignore those last two parts.) DADT was, as we now know, a huge failure — a colossal waste of time and money that was ineffective at ending the witch hunts. Eventually, Obama signed its repeal in 2010, and in 2017 he formally ended Eisenhower’s long-dormant ban on queer civil service.
Now obviously, the military is a deeply problematic institution, highly deserving of critique whether or not queer people are allowed to openly serve. But ending the ban on open service was a crucial step because there is a moral imperative to establishing legal equality within government institutions, even while being radically critical of the institutions themselves.
It was almost exactly a century from the Army’s first ban on homosexuality to Obama’s repeal, and the episode of M*A*S*H comes right in the middle. It aired just at the crucial turning point, when the country was shifting from the decades-old assumpting that queer people are sick and threatening, to realizing the real threat: forcing good people to hide.