First Gay Man to be Honorably Discharged from the Navy Passes Away at 81

October is LGBT History Month, a time to celebrate all the brave people who came before us and to remember the enormous impact they have made in securing the protections and equality LGBT people have today. At GLAAD, this month also signals an opportunity to tell the stories of some of history’s unsung heroes. Gary Hess — a gay former Navy Commander who in the mid-1970s advocated for an honorable (rather than dishonorable) discharge from the military and won — is one such hero. While Hess passed away in August at the age of 81, his daughter Wendy contacted GLAAD last week to ask that her father’s contribution be recognized and remembered this LGBT History Month.

Hess lived most of his life in Santa Barbara, Calif. A well-known and highly respected member of the community, he was the associate director of learning resources at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of the Santa Barbara County Board of Education. He also served as a Navy officer for 23 years, rising to the rank of Naval Reserve Commander at Point Mugu.

In 1965, Hess realized he was gay. He struggled for several years before deciding in the early 1970s at the age of 44 to come out to his family, friends and colleagues, a move that perhaps unsurprisingly put him in a difficult situation with the Navy. Faced with the probability of a dishonorable discharge, Hess filed a federal suit to ask that his discharge be blocked and that the Navy’s regulations barring gay people from military service be struck down. He also asked for $10,000 in damages, according to an article in The Press Courier published July 2, 1975.

“He was a proud gay man, and he was outraged that he was treated like this after he had put all his time into the military,” his daughter Wendy said.  

Hess found little support in the community he had served for so long. Wendy recalls around that time having their house’s lawn burnt, hateful messages painted on their sidewalk and, on several occasions, their house being covered in toilet paper.

“It was a difficult time for our family,” she said. “We always supported him, but it was hard.”

But Hess did find allies in the Navy. According to Wendy, her father’s high-ranking and spotless record left a number of people who were willing to advocate for him. Indeed, a 1975 Miami News article said it was a three-person Navy fitness panel that recommended Hess be honorably discharged.

And so, on February 6, 1976, Hess officially became the first person in Navy history to be honorably discharged for being gay, marking a historic moment in LGBT history and foreshadowing the possibility of acceptance of LGBT people within the military.

Hess went on to be an active member of the community in Palm Springs, Calif., where he spent the last 30 years of his life. In July 1976, Hess was joined in holy union with his partner Alex Fournier, with whom he lived until he passed away this August after struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for 13 years.

Hess’ story shows how far LGBT people have come in their interactions with the military over the past 36 years. Since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was implemented last month, LGB people can openly serve their country without the fear of automatic dishonorable discharge, like Hess worked so hard to avoid. GLAAD encourages readers to use this year’s LGBT History Month to engage with important stories like that of Gary Hess, whose courage and success can inspire hope in the continued pursuit of full equality for LGBT people.

(all photos courtesy of Wendy Hess)