Miriam Ben-Shalom

[On August 30, 1975, Technical Sergeant] Leonard Matlovich in his crisp blue Air Force uniform was on the cover of Time magazine, over the bold headline I AM A HOMOSEXUAL. His picture could be seen at every checkout stand and magazine rack in the country.

It marked the first time the young gay movement had ever made the cover of a major newsweekly. To a cause still struggling for legitimacy, the event was a major turning point. For the general public, the interest in Matlovich reflected a deeper, almost unconscious fascination with the incongruities of his case. On one hand, Matlovich defied everything people believed homosexuals were. The substance of his case, however, pitted the gay movement, the ultimate affront to the ethos of American manhood, against the military, the last great bastion of male heterosexuality. At a time when sex roles were being called into question, the conflict was too archetypal for the media to resist.

For others in uniform, Matlovich's message rang closer to home. One of these soldiers was Miriam Ben-Shalom, a 27-year-old single mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For over a year, Ben-Shalom had spent every other weekend training with the Eighty-fourth Training Division of the Army Reserves. She was attending drill instructor's school and would soon begin her stint as one of the first female DIs in the division. When she saw the Time cover, she asked her commander, "Why don't they kick me out?" She was gay, too, and had been involved in lesbian-feminist groups for several years.

"Because you're a good NCO," the commander replied. He explained that the exercising of regulations was discretionary. This made sense to Miriam. As she continued her biweekly drilling, she formed a resolution that one day people should know they allowed open lesbians in the Army.

About the time that Jay Hatheway was court-martialed and Copy Berg faced his separation hearing, Sergeant Miriam Ben-Shalom graduated from drill sergeant's school in Milwaukee. Not only was it a very proud moment in her military career but it was also the time she had chosen for her "coming out," as the public acknowledgment of being gay was now called in activist circles. It was a time she had been moving toward since her conversation with her commander at the height of the publicity surrounding Leonard Matlovich. Later, her commander asked her again whether she was a homosexual.

"Sir," Shalom answered, "homosexual is an adjective."

"You know what I mean," he said impatiently.

Yes, she said, she was.

Now she had decided to let other people know about it, too, and she told reporters for the local gay newspaper that she would be graduating that night.

"How does it feel to be a lesbian in the Army?" a reporter asked her.

"It feels like everybody else," she answered.

Though her commander had been willing to accept a privately lesbian sergeant, he was not ready to retain a publicly gay one. A few days later, furious, he confronted her. "Why didn't you say, 'no comment'?" he asked. With that, he initiated discharge proceedings. Miriam Ben-Shalom knew that her performance evaluations documented that she was as good as any soldier in the Army Reserves, and a good deal better than most. She decided to fight such proceedings - all the way to the Supreme Court if she had to.

With that decision of the then-unknown substitute teacher in Milwaukee, the stage was set for the next 15 years of legal maneuvering around the issue of homosexuals in the military. Until well into the 1990s, when people talked about the civil rights of gays in uniform, or, for that matter, the civil rights of gays in the United States, the names of those whose court cases would be most frequently cited were Matlovich and Berg, Ben-Shalom and Jim Woodward, Jay Hatheway and, within a few years, Perry Watkins. As these people began the arduous process of seeking redress through the federal court system, their names were reduced to the italics on the covers of legal briefs: Matlovich v. Secretary of the Air Force, Ben-Shalom v. Secretary of the Army, and so on. As they left the military, they would help define the legal limits of freedom for homosexuals in the United States.

Copyright 1995 ApolloMedia (tm) Corporation. All rights reserved. Copyright 1993 Randy Shilts. Copyright 1994 Estate of Randy Shilts. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with St. Martin's Press.