Originally I was going to do And the Band Played On at the same time as Conduct Unbecoming. However, to do so would be a disservice to both books. For me, I can think of few other journalist/authors that have had the impact that Randy Shilts has had. This series has already featured one of his books, The Mayor of Castro Street.
Before I begin, I have a problem with how we think of history. Reading something from the pages and experiencing something are two different things. Events shape the actions that get written down, but sometimes they fail to grab context. President Obama finally succeeded in ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That was a policy put in place by Bill Clinton.
Conduct Unbecoming is a book that directly addresses Gays in the Military.
The story begins with a chapter called, The Dangerous Difference. It is an overview of the history of homosexual soldiers. It highlights how there are two forces in the military: the persistent presence of and hostility towards homosexuals.
There are seven sections in the book. Each highlights different people in different eras after WWII for the most part. What the examples show are able men and women serving in the military and who are forced to leave for a variety of crap reasons. What Conduct shows is how ingrained gays were in the military and how well they did their jobs regardless of sexual orientation.
The Epilogue is titled, Promises to Keep. So many lives were broken and careers ruined because of policies and policymakers. Reading back through the book I am struck by just how far this country has come in a short amount of time. In 1990, when I was a freshman in college, we were protesting for responses and action on the AIDS crises and the discriminatory firing of gay and lesbian service men and women.
In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned on changing existing policies. In 1993, he tried to forge a compromise since then Sen Sam Nunn refused to repeal the ban on gays in the military. That is how the craptastic Don't Ask, Don't Tell came into being. (It's twin brother, DOMA came about in 1996 and was partially killed last month.)
The broader point is that in twenty years of discussing LGTB issues, the nation has moved to a supportive attitude and that is one that gets more supportive as the generations sampled get younger. In many ways, looking back at this book is looking back at a window in Time to a rapidly fading age. I mentioned the AIDS crises because Randy Shilts was one of the foremost chroniclers of the struggle that Gay America faced in the Eighties.
What it comes down to is simple: this book is a work of historical journalism. An age has passed where discrimination was allowed to flourish legally in the US Military. And this book is a reminder of human price that was paid for those policies. May they rot in the dustbin of history.