Miriam Ben-Shalom: The Woman Who Fought 'Don’t Ask Don’t Tell'

Back then, women who refused to fall in line with a male-dominated way of thinking, were shut down immediately.
06/30/2017 06:13 am ET Updated Jul 05, 2017
1988 newspaper clipping of Miriam Ben-Shalom, reinstated into the U.S. Army
1988 newspaper clipping of Miriam Ben-Shalom, reinstated into the U.S. Army

Miriam Ben-Shalom, a Jewish lesbian born in 1948, was the first gay service member to ever be reinstated in the U.S. military after being discharged for sexual orientation. Ripped from the pages of his-story, you would have to dig to find out that a woman—a Jewish lesbian—started the war on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

Although Ben-Shalom railed against the patriarchy, you’d be hard-pressed to find an article on the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” that mentions her name. But don’t get it twisted—Miriam Ben-Shalom not only put her life on the line to fight for our country, she also kick-started a legal battle so that Americans could serve their country, regardless of sexual orientation.

In 1976, when Ben-Shalom was discharged for admitting she was a lesbian, she picked herself up by the bootstraps and made a bold move—she would fight the decision in a court of law. Back then, women who refused to fall in line with a male-dominated way of thinking, were shut down immediately, put in their place, and told their voices simply didn’t matter. But as the saying goes: Well-behaved women rarely make history.

In 1976, Ben-Shalom was kicked out of the Army for identifying as a lesbian. At the time, she was one of few female drill sergeants, and in 1988, became the first openly gay person to be re-enlisted in the Army by court order. —The Daily Beast

Women were expected to be quiet, while male lawmakers made decisions for them. In those days, it was much harder for a woman to come forward, and when they expressed concerns, they were chided and accused of having irrational fears. But in the 1970’s raping a woman was legal. And until 1978 a woman could get fired from her job for being pregnant. In a time when women were often bullied and even threatened into silence, Sergeant Ben-Shalom stood up and fought back.

 ‘I can tell you that when I decided to stand up and challenge the ban on gay people in the military, being a Jew profoundly influenced that,’ [Ben-Shalom] said. —Forward

Pride flag with Jewish Star of David
Pride flag with Jewish Star of David

In 1980, Judge Evans ruled that Ben-Shalom’s discharge violated the U.S. Constitution, specifically, and most importantly, the right to free speech. This was a win in more ways than one. It not only gave a voice to an oppressed group of people, it gave a voice to a woman. And women, at the time, could barely get a word in edgewise.

Historically, being born female can come with a dangerous set of consequences—The statistics of violence against women are staggering and young girls are ingrained with a horrible sense of vulnerability. Miriam Ben-Shalom gave women a much-needed role model. She spoke up and someone heard her. She was a trailblazer. A Jewish lesbian hero.

But the 1980 ruling was short lived. The U.S. Army refused to comply with the courts decision. It wasn’t until 1988, that the army finally allowed Sergeant Ben-Shalom to reenlist. She became the first openly gay soldier to be reinstated into the Army and was promoted to SSG (Staff Sergeant).

That victory was stripped away a year later when it was appealed in 1989. Ben-Shalom tried to remain hopeful.

‘’ ‘I do not believe America will let me down,’ said Ms. Ben-Shalom. ‘I’m nothing but a good soldier.’ ″ —New York Times, 1989

In 1990, the Supreme Court refused to hear her case.

Time and time again, women were taught that they didn’t have a place in the conversation—even when those conversations directly affected them. When they dared to chime in, they were quickly shut down—ignored and disgraced. This time, SSG Miriam Ben-Shalom was not even given a discharge. She was released from the army as an ‘erroneous enlistment.’ Effectively erased.

She’s still fighting to have the ‘erroneous enlistment’ reversed.

“[Ben-Shalom’s] commitment to community action has roots in her Judaism.” —Forward

For Ben-Shalom, being a Jewish woman is deeply linked with an obligation to speak up. Jewish lesbians still face a harsh level of discrimination when their views don’t align—At this years Chicago Dyke March, Jewish lesbians and lesbians in general, with different beliefs than the March organizers, were told not to attend. Several Jewish women carrying a rainbow flag with a Jewish star were harassed, questioned, and thrown out of the event by the organizers. Celebrities like Rosanne Barr considered this a real wake up call.

The culpable Dyke March organizers claim that they are inclusive and fighting for social justice, but only if the participants believe like them and support their politics, and all other things be damned. —The Advocate

SSG Ben-Shalom fought to give us our rights, but in 2017, it often feels as though lesbians are facing eradication. Less than a handful of lesbian bars remain open in the U.S. Under rainbow rulership, lesbians still face a great deal of homophobia. And a woman’s opinion is still not taken into consideration when it comes to decision making.

Growing up in the ’50s and ‘60s, the world must’ve looked very different through Miriam Ben-Shalom’s eyes. As a strong Jewish woman, she went to battle, so the rest of us wouldn’t have to carry a burden of shame. At a time when a woman’s opinion was considered problematic, she bravely came forward, so we could someday feel ‘Pride’. Back when a woman was still expected to play house, SSG Miriam Ben-Shalom stood on the front lines, and she fought.

photos courtesy of Ben-Shalom

Julia Diana Robertson is the author of the recently published novel Beyond the Screen Door. You can find her (and her fiction) at www.juliadianarobertson.com

*edited to include promotion to Staff Sergeant SSG, links added

CONVERSATIONS