Even though the Pentagon had an outright ban on gays in place in 1944, Melvin Dwork (1922-2016) worked tirelessly for decades to change his dishonorable discharge from the Navy in 1944. Dwork was a 22-year-old Navy enlisted man sitting in his officer candidate school class in Charleston, South Carolina when he was taken away by the M.P.s. His boyfriend had been arrested in New Orleans, and he had named Dwork as a fellow queer. Dwork was put in the brig, found “deviant” by psychiatrists, and he was discharged as undesirable at the height of World War II.
As the decades went by Dwork became a very successful interior designer in New York City, and found a longtime partner. He never forgot what happened to him in 1944, yet he eventually forgave the man who betrayed him, but not the Navy.
It meant an awful lot to me because I know I never did anything disgraceful or dishonest.
Dwork was believed to be the first veteran of World War II to have an “undesirable” discharge for being gay expunged, although his case may have opened appeals in hundreds of similar cases. His status was changed shortly before the military ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after 18 years. DA/DT barred openly gay people from service but prohibited discrimination against those not open about their sexuality; in other words, you could serve your country as long as you hid your true self or lied.
Gay men and lesbians were explicitly barred by the military during WW II, yet many quietly served with an implied understanding that they would just need to be discreet.
Dwerk and his lover were inducted in 1942 and, in 1943, they joined the Navy Hospital Corps, which was known to be tolerant of gays. Dwork worked at the Naval Hospital at Parris Island, and the boyfriend, never publicly identified by Dwerk, went to New Orleans. They exchanged love letters and phone calls, and one secret liaison.
Dwork applied for officer candidate school and was accepted for classes at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston in 1944. Friends warned him and his boyfriend to stop exchanging letters because of the dangers of exposure in the military’s campaigns against queers.
At the time of his arrest, he believed that intercepted letters had given them away. He said it was not until many years later that he learned that his boyfriend had been arrested first and had fingered Dwork under the pressure from prolonged interrogations.
I had not taken many classes when the military police came for me. They took me to the brig originally, then to the psychiatric brig. They kept me there for weeks. It was not pleasant. The doctors were freakish. The psychiatrists were so stupid and asked such stupid questions. It was disgusting. They had no feeling for who I was and why I was there.
He grew up in Kansas City and studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, then moved to New York City to attend the Parsons School in 1941 and 1942. On summer break, he returned to Kansas City and met his wartime boyfriend. Their plans for a life together were obliterated by the war and their exposure.
Dwork’s longtime partner was John Butler, a noted choreographer and former dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company; dancing with the company from 1945 to 1955, and dancing the role of Curly in the Dream Ballet in Oklahoma! on Broadway in 1943 and in On The Town the following year. When Butler took that final bow in 1993, The New York Times obituary named Dwork as his “friend”, even though they had been a couple for 32 years.
After failing on his own to overturn the Navy’s “undesirable” discharge, Dwork got help from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, founded in 1993 to fight discrimination against gay and lesbian military personnel. It interceded on his behalf.
In August 2011, The Board for Correction of Naval Records in Arlington changed Dwork’s discharge to honorable. A record of the proceedings said the Navy had undergone a “radical departure” from its wartime ban on gays. It noted Dwork’s “exemplary period of active duty” and said it was acting “in the interests of justice”.
The ruling on Dwork’s discharge entitled him to veterans benefits, including a military burial.
Years after Butler’s death, Dwork and his wartime lover met to catch up on the passage of six decades. The boyfriend had married and had children, and had never told his family about Dwork.
He had always denied his sexuality. He didn’t want to be exposed. After all those years in denial, and your own family doesn’t know who you are? I said: ‘Let them know. They’ll love you anyway’.’But he couldn’t do it. I forgave him.
Unlike most men of his generation, Dwork was always open about his queerness.
He began work as an interior designer in 1956 and continued to work into his 80s. He created interiors for both commercial and residential customers and was named as one of Architectural Digest‘s Top 100 Designers. His clients were decidedly A-list. His designs have been published in Interior Design, The New York Times, House & Garden, Town & Country and Elle Decor.
Dwork established The John Butler Foundation in 1997 to preserve and promote Butler’s legacy as a choreographer. Dwork and Butler’s circle of friends included Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Ezra Pound, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. On Fire Island in the 1960s, he shared a house with Halston and Angelo Donghia before building his own house there in 1967.
Dwork lived in Manhattan until his ultimate honorable discharge from this life in June 2016. He was 94-years-old.
About 100,000 troops were discharged between 1942 and 1993 for being gay and lost their benefits. Under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, about 14,000 troops were forced out for being LGBTQ, but most were given honorable discharges that allowed them to draw benefits.
I always knew I was innocent, and I wasn’t ashamed of what I was or what I am. It was just a sad period. I didn’t know frankly at that point it would affect the rest of my life.