Miriam Ben-Shalom is a longtime activist in the LGBT community. She is the recipient of several awards for her community activism and has published poetry, short stories and other writings. She is currently a full-time tenured instructor of English with MATC. She is a member of the New England Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans and of the California Alexander Hamilton American Legion Post 448.
Miriam Ben-Shalom was the first gay or lesbian service member to be reinstated to her position in the United States military after being discharged for her sexual orientation. Even though the army eventually forced her out, she was able to serve successfully in the U.S. Army Reserves as an open lesbian, undermining the U.S. military's argument that open gays and lesbians pose a threat to military effectiveness. Miriam Ben-Shalom is a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, having been born in Waukesha, Wis. in 1948, and continues to reside in Milwaukee.
In 1974, Miriam began serving with the 84th Training Division of the Army Reserves. She also completed drill instructor's school, and became one of the two first female drill sergeants in the division. In 1976, she was officially discharged from the Army Reserves for declaring and admitting she was a lesbian. However, she decided to challenge the policy and sue for reinstatement. In May 1980, Judge Terence Evans of the U.S. District Court in Chicago ruled that Ben-Shalom's discharge violated the First, Fifth and Ninth Amendments of the Constitution. He added that sexual orientation should be protected from governmental regulation, including that of the military. The right to freedom of speech was central to Ben-Shalom's case. The Army Reserves did not discharge her because of homosexual conduct, but rather for her statement that she was a lesbian. Through his ruling, Judge Evans made clear that the First Amendment applied to gay and lesbian service members. The U.S. Army appealed this decision, but withdrew its appeal shortly thereafter. And even though Judge Evans had ordered Ben-Shalom's reinstatement, the army simply refused to comply with the order.
Ben-Shalom continued to fight the Army, and in 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago supported the lower court's previous ruling. Still the Army balked. Only when the court threatened the Army with serious contempt of court fines did it relent. In September 1988, Ben-Shalom successfully reenlisted and became the first openly gay or lesbian service member to be reinstated. However, the Army appealed the decision. In August 1989, a federal appeals court ruled against Ben-Shalom. Judge Harlington Wood, Jr., did not see the case as solely about freedom of speech. He concluded that since the military banned homosexuals, her admission, regardless of her sexual conduct, justified her discharge. In response, Ben-Shalom appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. On Feb. 26, 1990, the Supreme Court refused to hear her case, thereby upholding the previous ruling of her discharge.
Although the Supreme Court's refusal to hear her case ended Ben-Shalom's military career, her LGBT activism continued. She founded the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America, Inc. (GLBVA) in 1990, serving as its first president. That organization is now known as the American Veterans For Equal Rights, Inc. (AVER). She also served as one of the Vice Presidents of the organization that has come to be known as PrideFest, and she continues to be a voice for LGBT equality and social justice.
Ben-Shalom's story is portrayed in the new film Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, starring Marc Wolf.