On May 6, 1950, then-U.S. President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Uniform Code of Military Justice, establishing a formal set of rules for the conduct of those serving in the American armed forces. Among the restrictions listed in the UCMJ was one outlawing gays and lesbians from military service. While the ban was nothing new — a Continental Army officer named Frederick Gotthold Enslin was likely court-martialed during the Revolutionary War for being gay — those rules were typically informal before the UCMJ was enacted. Once this new law was on the books, the military had a lot more leeway to investigate who their servicemembers were sleeping with.
Which is why the Navy went hunting for a woman who didn’t exist.
On October 14, 1981, a man named Mel Dahl enlisted in the United States Navy. He was assigned to a base near Chicago, but he never made it far past there. According to a court decision a decade later, “during an official interview on March 10, 1981, [Dahl] disclosed in response to questioning that he is a homosexual, but denied engaging in any homosexual conduct subsequent to enlisting in the Navy.” Despite having an “excellent service record,” per the court, Dahl was ultimately dismissed from service due to this admission. Dahl sued (hence the court case) and his efforts drew the attention of the media. As recounted by LGBTQNation, “Dahl told a newspaper reporter that there were many gays serving at the base, which spurred the Navy to launch a purge of what they presumed to be a massive network of homosexuals at [the Chicago-area base].”
The Navy decided to look into his claims. The Naval Investigative Service (now the “Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” or NCIS), according to Pride.com, sent investigators to spy on gay bars in the area. And the NCIS discovered two things. First, they determined that Dahl was telling the truth — there were a few gay servicemen on the base. And second, they learned that many of the people they spoke with called themselves “friends of Dorothy.” And that gave NCIS an idea: find Dorothy. The New York Times, quoting the book “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military,” explains: “[NCIS] believed that a woman named Dorothy was the hub of an enormous ring of military homosexuals in the Chicago area. The [NCIS] prepared to hunt Dorothy down and convince her to give them the names of homosexuals.”
They failed, of course: there was no Dorothy. “Dorothy” was most likely a reference to the protagonist from the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz,” portrayed by Judy Garland. Garland — for reasons unclear, even to her — had a huge fanbase in the gay community and was widely considered a gay icon. Her popularity within the gay community was so strong that her very name became part of coded communications. As the Smithsonian Institute explains, “during the years before greater openness and understanding, members of the LGBT community sometimes resorted to coded speech or behavior as a safeguard. Other community members could understand these codes, but not outsiders.” Asking another man if he was a “friend of Dorothy” was one such example. The Institute continues: “one man is attracted to another but isn’t sure if the feeling is mutual. To test the waters, he’ll ask, ‘Are you a friend of Dorothy?’ If the response is a puzzled ‘Dorothy who?’ he’ll know it’s wise to move on. But if the response is ‘Oh, yes, I’m a very good friend of Dorothy,’ he’ll know it’s safe to proceed.”
The code was so effective in the early 1980s that it befuddled the NCIS. The search for Dorothy was fruitless. Per “Conduct Unbecoming,” it only came to a close because a young sailor wanted to leave the service: “When one unfortunate sailor acknowledged he was gay in order to get out of the Navy, [NCIS] agents sat him down and told him that they knew all about Dorothy. What they wanted to know from him was how to find her. The sailor, who was too young to know the code, was baffled,” and the NCIS began to realize their mistake.
From the Archives: A Dog’s Life: The main story is about Toto, Dorothy’s dog in “The Wizard of Oz.” The bonus item is probably the more fun fact, though!