Day 888: The Real Section-8ness Of The Section 8

originally published June 6, 2014

On the 27th episode of M*A*S*H, only three shows into its second season, Corporal Max Klinger made his most serious and likely push for his dismissal from the US Army. It was a running gag throughout the first seven years of the show that Klinger would wrap himself in dresses, stoles and boas in an effort to acquire a sacred Section 8 – a discharge from the army due to a psychiatrically diagnosed case of nuttiness. But the gag should have been quashed after the episode in question – “Radar’s Report.”

In this episode, psychiatrist Dr. Milton Freedman (he’d be assigned the first name ‘Sidney’ in all subsequent appearances) tells Klinger he’ll give him the Section 8, but only by putting down in the official record that Klinger is a transvestite and a homosexual. Outraged, Klinger insists he’s none of those things – just crazy.

Beneath the surface of this punchline lies the real truth about the Section 8. This method of discharge was a frequent tool for commanding officers who wished to rid their platoon of “subversive” gays. It was a cold and calculated bayonet to the career of anyone whose preference in a mate – or even whose skin color – offended the sensibilities of a bigoted officer. Klinger could have taken Dr. Freedman up on his offer, but it would have come at a cost.

In 1916 the US Army came up with a form of discharge that hovered in purgatory between “Honorable” and “Dishonorable”. It was printed on blue paper, and came to be known as the blue discharge or a blue ticket. It was originally used to send home kids who had enlisted to fight in World War I underage, though that act of teenage patriotism was eventually promoted to an honorable discharge. For gay troops though, the blue ticket was an easy get.

Army tradition was to court-martial anyone who had been caught engaging in homosexual conduct, charge them with sodomy and slap them with a dishonorable get-the-hell-outa-here card. But with the Great War’s little brother ramping up to become more than just a tiny little sequel, it wasn’t prudent to weigh down officers with the responsibilities of dealing with each case in such an elaborate manner. The blue discharge became the method de rigeur of disposing of this “undesirable” behavior.

In 1944, it was decided that the best way to deal with homosexuals – you know, guys who are willing to give their limbs and lives for their country but happen to enjoy the company of other dudes – was to have them committed, examined by psychiatrists and discharged under Regulation 615-360, section 8. This regulation wasn’t drafted specifically for this purpose, but it fit what they were going for: not a dishonorable discharge, but well short of a smiley, congratulatory way-to-go. But once the Surgeon General of the United States Army’s office learned what happened when these troops returned home, they pushed for a policy change.

Recipients of a blue discharge – and be careful Googling this term, as you’ll stumble upon some rather unpleasant medical conditions – were denied benefits by the Veterans Administration. The G.I. Bill states that benefits are only supposed to be denied to those who receive dishonorable discharges, but the VA didn’t really care. They held off on benefits, and since most employers requested discharge papers for any potential new hires with military experience, the discrimination didn’t end at the government’s doorstep. The blue discharge was the army’s way of blindly screwing over people whose biological urges were too ‘different’.

It wasn’t only the gays who were sent back into civilian life with a blue slip of shame. 22.23% of all blue discharges during WWII were issued to African-American soldiers, despite the fact that they only made up about 6.5% of the army population. These discharges carried with them no other message than somebody’s commanding officer didn’t want to deal with them.

The American Legion fought the blue tickets, as did the NAACP, the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Veterans Benevolent Association. The Pittsburgh Courier launched a campaign against this discriminatory piece of paperwork, warning their readers not to accept one and instructing those who had on how to appeal it. The hope was that the army would either stop issuing these ridiculous tickets or that they’d become so bogged down in appeals hearings and paperwork, the blue discharge would appear more trouble than it was worth.

Carl T. Durham – a Democrat from South Carolina who served over 20 years in Congress yet who is curiously immortalized by a Wikipedia page shorter than this paragraph – headed up a committee to investigate the blue discharge situation. In their final report, Durham and his associates expressed their astonishment that people who had received these papers would be willing to speak out and risk further stigmatization. It was a form of activism that was not yet commonplace; clearly it was an indication that reforming this system was a matter of non-negotiable import to these tossed-aside troops.

Durham’s committee found that the nature of the blue discharge lent itself to “prejudice and antagonism.” They ordered that all future blue discharges receive an automatic review, that those being handed one should have a right to counsel, and that the discharge should state explicitly that it is not a dishonorable discharge. The blue discharge was discontinued not long after, in the summer of 1947. Hooray! An end to discrimination!

Nope.

The Section 8 discharge – Max Klinger’s dream, until Jamie Farr and the writers agreed the schtick was getting old – still existed, and even through the Korean War and the rest of the 1950s it was being used as a way for the army to quietly dispose of its homosexual population. A population who, I should add, were still exempt from receiving benefits. By the 1970’s, a gay man or woman could leave the army with a general discharge, as long as they hadn’t been caught engaging in any homosexual acts. Essentially, the message was: “Don’t volunteer to serve your country because your country doesn’t give enough of a fuck about you to honor you if you do.”

Of course the notion of ‘volunteering’ for the army back then was less common than getting an unlucky number in the draft. This backwards discrimination would continue until 1993 when a new kind of backwards discrimination – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – would take over.

Klinger didn’t take the Section 8 because the stigma of his alleged sexual preference would be his burden upon returning to civilian life, and the Veterans Administration would deny him any respect for having served. That’s a hell of a policy.

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