LGBTQ+ people in the military once faced dishonorable discharge if they came out (or were outed), and although they can serve openly now, some of their stories have been overlooked. But the Library of Congress’s collection “Serving in Silence: LGBTQ+ Veterans,” part of the library’s Veterans History Project, is shining a light on them.
“It’s been a long road to making sure that we are able to collect, to preserve for posterity, to make accessible and therefore discoverable, the fullness of the human story of America’s veterans, and that includes necessarily those of LGBTQ+ experience,” Monica Mohindra, director of the project, recently told New Jersey newspaper The Record.
Throughout LGBTQ+ history, the experience of bisexual people has often been ignored, even though they make up the largest portion of the LGBTQ+ population. Cliff Arnesen, one of the veterans featured in “Serving in Silence,” is seeking to address this.
“You don’t know how many bisexual people have made enormous contributions to the overall” LGBTQ+ movement, Arnesen told The Record. “People like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie — all bisexual. But none of that comes up in certain history books. That’s why the bisexual community is up in arms all the time and we’re trying to educate.”
Arnesen came out as bi when he was under arrest for being absent without leave from the U.S. Army base at Fort Dix in New Jersey in 1966 (he had been visiting his mother, who was suffering domestic abuse at the time). He was dishonorably discharged the following year. He eventually channeled the anger he felt at the military into activism, becoming the first bi veteran to testify before Congress and helping found American Veterans for Equal Rights.
He also worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs and became president of New England Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans Inc. His discharge was upgraded to “general under honorable conditions” under an amnesty program established by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. During President Joe Biden’s time in office, Arnesen and other bi vets have been meeting with administration officials to talk about issues faced by bisexuals.
Arnesen is one of 22 LGBTQ+ veterans whose stories are posted on the “Serving in Silence” web page, but Mohindra noted that it’s “not fully encompassing of all of our collections of the LGBTQ+ experience.” The Veterans History Project has more than 118,000 individual narratives, and the public can add to this. Anyone can contribute, and there are online instructions for interviewing veterans for the project.