History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - People - Bios

Miriam Ben Shalom


Primary Involvements:

Gay Rights Activism in the Military
Lesbian Activism



View a Picture & Article Gallery of Miriam's life and career.



Miriam Ben Shalom was a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army who was discharged when the revealed she was a lesbian. This began a lifetime of fighting the Army's discharge and for the rights of gays in the military. Miriam was also active in the lesbian and feminist movements.

Miriam was the 2005 recipient of the Stonewall Award, presented at PrideFest in June 11th, 2005. Her career and continuing work is well summarized in the PrideFest announcement of that award:

    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 an Adjunct Teacher with MATC, MIAD and Bryant & Stratton Business College and works with at-risk youth. 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, WI 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 re-instatement. 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 re-enlisted 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 February 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.

A biographical panel was created by the Milwaukee LGBT History Project, and was featured in a display first appearing at PrideFest 2011. The text from that display is as follows:

Miriam Ben-Shalom is a central figure in the historic struggle of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the United States military. In 1974, she began serving in the Army Reserves 84th Training Division. She completed drill instructors school, becoming one of the first two female drill sergeants in the division. During this time, she became openly involved in the local gay rights movement and lesbian-feminist organizations. In late 1975, she publicly expressed her sexual identity as a lesbian. She was honorably discharged from the Army Reserves on December 1, 1976 under then-existing Army Regulation 135-178, para. 7-5(b)(6), which provided for the discharge of any soldier who “evidenced homosexual tendencies, desire or interest, but is without overt homosexual acts.” Ben-Shalom promptly filed suit claiming that her discharge violated her constitutional rights to free speech and privacy. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin agreed, and on May 20, 1980 ordered that she be reinstated. The U.S. Army refused to comply with the order. In August 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago supported the lower court’s ruling, and Ben-Shalom was finally reinstated in September 1988. She is the first gay or lesbian member of the U.S. military to be reinstated after being discharged for her sexual orientation.

The Army appealed the decision and on August 7, 1989 the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed itself and ruled against Ben-Shalom. She then appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On February 26, 1990, this body declined to hear her case and let stand the previous court’s ruling, effectively ending her military career.

Ben-Shalom is a vocal opponent of the federal law commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), which bans gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. She protested in 1993 when President Clinton signed the law, and again in November 2010 when President Obama failed to take action to repeal it. She was present when President Obama signed a law on December 22, 2010 that would repeal DADT and allow gays and lesbians for the first time to serve openly.

Ben-Shalom formed the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Veterans Association in 1990 (now known as American Veterans for Equal Rights). She has received several awards for her community activism, and published poetry, short stories, and other writing.


Flyer for 1990 presentation at Rockford

Biographical panel created for PrideFest 2011

Credits: information from various articles;
Last updated: May-2012.