U.S. Navy Investigates the USS in Antilesbian Witch Hunt

The U.S. Navy attempted to purge women believed to be lesbian from their assignments on the USS Norton Sound. Navy officials used coercion and fabricated testimony in their investigations. The American Civil Liberties Union defended the women in a case that was unique because the accused spoke out against the charges and because the case received widespread media attention.

Summary of Event

In the late 1970’s, the military began to enlist women at an accelerated pace to compensate for a decline in the number of male recruits. When the United States entered a recession in 1980 and more male recruits became available, the military’s regulations and procedures against gays and lesbians tightened. [kw]U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch-hunt (May-Aug., 1980)
[kw]Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch-hunt, U.S. (May-Aug., 1980)
[kw]USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch-hunt, U.S. Navy Investigates the (May-Aug., 1980)
[kw]Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch-hunt, U.S. Navy Investigates the USS (May-Aug., 1980)
[kw]Antilesbian Witch-hunt, U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in (May-Aug., 1980)
USS Norton Sound
Military, U.S.[Military US];and lesbians[lesbians]
Discrimination;in U.S. military[US military]
Lesbians;military service
Navy, U.S.[Navy US];antilesbian witch-hunts by
Norton Sound Eight
[c]Military;May-Aug., 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch-hunt[1380]
[c]Civil rights;May-Aug., 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch-hunt[1380]
[c]Government and politics;May-Aug., 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch-hunt[1380]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May-Aug., 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch-hunt[1380]
Wilson, Helen Teresa
Harris, Alicia
Williams, Wendi
Brock, Carole
Gaskins, Tangela
Underwood, Barbara Lee
McGreivy, Susan

The formal investigation aboard the USS Norton Sound of women believed to be lesbian was begun by the Naval Investigative Service (NIS), when the ship’s commander, James Seebirt, was on leave. The officer responsible for the investigation was known to oppose the Navy’s Women at Sea program (which assigned women to ships for the first time). The Women at Sea program was only a year and a half old when the NIS started its investigation.

On May 16, 1980, an NIS agent questioned servicewoman Helen Teresa Wilson about an incident of drug dealing and loan-sharking on the Norton Sound; she was also asked if she knew of lesbians on board ship. Wilson accused twenty-four of the ship’s sixty-one women (including all but one of the African American women). Her accusations were based solely on the women’s attitudes, appearance, and behavior, such as using endearing terms when talking to women, sitting close to them, looking “masculine,” Masculinity;female or defending homosexuals when the topic came up in conversation.

The next move by the NIS was to call in the thirty-eight servicewomen not named by Wilson and ask them to check off, on a roster of all the ship’s women, anyone they believed to be lesbian. Again, although none of them had witnessed any sexual encounters, twenty-nine women were named. Those whose names were checked most often were interrogated by NIS agents.

Later, gay journalist Randy Shilts Shilts, Randy conducted extensive interviews and gathered a variety of documents on the Norton Sound incident. He discovered that NIS investigators employed a variety of coercive techniques. First, women were asked explicit, suggestive questions or were told that since the NIS already had evidence against them, they should simply confess. Some were told that if they did not sign statements against their shipmates, their leave could be delayed, they could be court-martialed for withholding evidence, or they themselves could be investigated as lesbians.

The Navy began its formal investigation with twenty-four women. Carole Brock, a twenty-two-year-old Engineman Second Class, and other accused servicewomen, met with Johnnie Phelps Phelps, Johnnie of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women National Organization for Women;and lesbians in military[lesbians in military] (NOW). Phelps, a veteran of World War II, arranged a meeting of the women with Susan McGreivy, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) specializing in lesbian and gay rights. The ACLU held a press conference on June 13 to announce that if the Navy discharged the women without hearings (as the women had been told could happen), the ACLU would take the incident to federal court. On June 20, Commander Seebirt announced that charges against eleven of the women had been dropped. The charges against the remaining eight were changed to misconduct, a lesser charge that would allow them an administrative hearing.

Later known as the “Norton Sound Eight,” the women did not refrain from going public with their experiences; they and attorney McGreivy welcomed media attention to expose the Navy’s tactics. The servicewomen appeared on the TV shows Phil Donahue and Today, were supported by a fund-raiser hosted by producer Norman Lear and actor Ed Asner at a Hollywood disco, and were grand marshals for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade.

The hearings, which were held on board the ship, began on August 4 before a three-member administrative panel. Administrative hearings had no rules of evidence, so prosecutors were allowed to present hearsay and unsworn testimony. Evidence submitted by prosecution witnesses included seeing a servicewoman reading a book about homosexuality, seeing a card from one servicewoman to another signed “Love, Tange” (Tangela Gaskins), and hearing that one servicewoman attended “gay night” at a Los Angeles amusement park.

Five of the twelve servicewomen whose statements were the foundation of the Navy’s case said that the NIS altered or invented parts of their statement. Somewhat more substantial was the testimony of three witnesses who said they had seen Alicia Harris and Wendi Williams touching and caressing each other in a public area of the ship during the day.

For Gaskins’s and Barbara Lee Underwood’s defense, attorneys called as witnesses men who had engaged in sex with them—including Gaskins’s fiancé and Underwood’s supervisor, a petty officer first class. No such witnesses were available for Harris and Williams, though. Hearings were held on only four of the Norton Sound Eight. The Navy recommended retention for Gaskins and Underwood and an honorable discharge of the two African American women (Harris and Williams). On August 21, the Navy announced it had dropped charges on the remaining four because of insufficient evidence.


The Norton Sound incident was one of many witch hunts against lesbians in the 1980’s. Similar incidents occurred on the USS Gompers (earlier in 1980), the USS Yellowstone (1988), and the USS Grapple (1988), and at the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot (1986-1988). Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot, Parris Island From 1980 to 1990, an average of fifteen hundred servicemembers per year were discharged for homosexuality; 23 percent were women, although women comprised only 10 percent of all servicemembers. The NIS’s techniques of coercion and intimidation in the Norton Sound incident had been used for years by military special intelligence units, according to Susan McGreivy.

Unlike other military witch hunts, the Norton Sound incident received widespread media attention, with daily coverage in California newspapers and broader coverage by magazines, television, and national newspapers. Also, unlike other incidents, the accused women resisted and talked openly about the case. Because of their persistence, combined with the pressure of publicity and support from the ACLU, the Navy’s attempted purge of twenty-four servicewomen resulted in two discharges, two retentions, and twenty dropped charges. USS Norton Sound
Military, U.S.[Military US];and lesbians[lesbians]
Discrimination;in U.S. military[US military]
Lesbians;military service
Navy, U.S.[Navy US];antilesbian witch-hunts by

Further Reading

  • Lindsey, Robert. “Navy Sends More Women to Sea, Despite Problems.” The New York Times, June 29, 1980, p. 14.
  • McGreivy, Susan. “Norton Sound Case Shows Investigators Rely on Intimidation and False Evidence.” Civil Liberties, June, 1981.
  • Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Conduct Unbecoming: Annual Reports on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass.” 1994-2003. http://www.sldn.org/.
  • _______. Survival Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass,” and Related Military Policies. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: Author, 2003.
  • Shilts, Randy. Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. 1994. New ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.
  • ______. “The Ship That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Village Voice, September 24-30, 1980, p. 13-14, 16, 63.

1912-1924: Robles Fights in the Mexican Revolution

March 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1976-1990: Army Reservist Ben-Shalom Sues for Reinstatement

May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier

1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans

August 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams

October, 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians

November 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented

January 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military