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Queering the Study of U.S. Military Family Communicationlocked

Queering the Study of U.S. Military Family Communicationlocked

  • Erin Sahlstein ParcellErin Sahlstein ParcellDepartment of Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  •  and Danielle C. RomoDanielle C. RomoDepartment of Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Military families in the United States reflect diverse family forms. They include not only “traditional” families but also single service members, women service members, dual-career couples, service member mothers, single-parent service members, service members of color, cohabitating military service members (i.e., nonmarried couples), LGB service members, and transgender service members. However, the research primarily reflects white, heterosexual, cisgender, different sexed, married couples who are able-bodied with biological children as well as postpositivist and interpretivist perspectives; trends that parallel interpersonal and family communication studies broadly speaking. Given calls for new approaches within these areas, and in particular military family communication research, scholars should consider “queering” the study of military family communication by including individuals who identify as queer but also varying the research theoretically. Studies that bring attention to different types of military families (e.g., LGBTQ+ military families) would make significant contributions to the scholarship and make these families as well as their unique experiences visible.

Informed by calls for critical military studies and the critical interpersonal and family communication framework (CIFC), recommendations are offered for future queer military family communication inquiry. First, a brief history of queer families in the military as well as the current state of military family communication scholarship are presented. Next, the CIFC framework, discourse dependence, and relational dialectics theory are discussed as conceptual paths for engaging in critical military family communication studies.


  • Communication Theory
  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)
  • Interpersonal Communication

Since 9/11, over two million U.S. service members have deployed (in some cases multiple times) in support of U.S. engagements abroad. While military families are framed as strong and resilient, they face many challenges in practice. Research about the military within communication studies has spanned decades with rhetorical and media scholars leading the field (Sahlstein Parcell, 2015); however, social-scientific inquiry focused on military families and communication has, albeit relatively recently, increased in numbers (Wilson & Knobloch, 2016). This scholarship reflects “traditional” family configurations in sampling and primarily takes postpositivist and interpretivist approaches, trends that parallel interpersonal and family communication studies broadly speaking (Sahlstein Parcell & Baker, 2018). Given calls for new approaches within military family communication research, we argue scholars should consider queering the study of military family communication.

The social-scientific study of military family communication is dominated by studies of white, heterosexual, cisgender, different sexed, married couples who are able-bodied with biological children. While this pattern mirrors most U.S. military families, extant research fails to include and reflect the growing diversity of military families serving the country. Studies that bring attention to single service members, women service members, dual-career couples, service member mothers, single-parent service members, service members of color, cohabitating military service members (i.e., nonmarried couples), LGB service members, and transgender service members would make significant contributions to the scholarship and make these families as well as their unique experiences visible. Informed by calls for critical military family studies (Basham & Bulmer, 2017; Sahlstein Parcell & Baker, 2018; Wool, 2015) and critical interpersonal and family communication research (Moore & Manning, 2019; Suter, 2016), we offer recommendations for future military family communication inquiry focused on the increasing sexual and gender minority, or queer, military families (Dixon, 2019; Eran-Jona & Aviram, 2019). This chapter begins with a brief history of important moments in the U.S. military related to LGBT service members.

LGBT History in the U.S. Military

While the outward facing image of military families has long been a traditional one, the U.S. military has always included a diversity of membership and family forms. There is evidence dating back to the Revolutionary War that individuals with different sexual and gender identities have served in the U.S. military (Frank, 2009). While the U.S. military has only recently embraced (to a degree) lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) service members and their families, its policies and practices were inconsistent at best through the early 1980s and dependent on the country’s wartime status (Korb & Rothman, 2013). In 1982 the Department of Defense formalized its ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military with a directive that called for mandatory discharges for engagement in past, present, or attempted homosexual behavior.

In 1994, after making a campaign promise to lift the ban on LGB military service, President William H. Clinton signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which required LGB service members to refrain from disclosing their sexual identities to others. Not only did DADT ban openly LGB individuals from joining the military, this policy was also used to investigate existing military service members who were suspected of expressing a LGB identity. These investigations led to the discharge of more than 14,000 service members over the course of DADT’s implementation (Oswald & Sternberg, 2014, p. 133). LGB military families were unable to serve in the open and feared being outed and ultimately forced to leave the military. During DADT, some LGB service members chose to take certain actions. For example, some service members participated in cover marriages to maintain their military status and access to benefits only afforded to married couples (Lundquist & Zu, 2014). Ultimately, DADT would last for more than 16 years.

On September 20, 2011, President Barack Obama repealed DADT allowing LGB service members to openly serve in all branches of the U.S. military. While the repeal was a historic moment for the military, the country, and LGB service members, it was not a complete victory for military families. The U.S. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defined marriage at the federal level as a legal union between one man and one woman, and it gave states the right to ignore marriage licenses of other states (Sahlstein Parcell, 2014a). In effect, DOMA allowed for the denial of benefits and access to resources to LGB military spouses and children; but, in 2013 a U.S. Supreme Court decision (United States v. Windsor) resulted in the repeal of the federal ban on same-sex marriage, which then allowed the military to offer spousal and family benefits to all legally married service members (Smith & De Angelis, 2017). However, not all states issued same-sex marriage licenses. In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that instituted marriage equality across the country and thus made same-sex marriage legal regardless of residence. This decision has had significant and widespread effects on LGB military families. No longer does a LGB service member’s state of residence impact the validity of their marital status.

Transgender service members and their families have also had a complicated history within the military (Rosenstein, 2017). The U.S. military did not implement an explicit ban on transgender individuals serving in the military until 1960, which remained in place for over 55 years. In 2016, President Barack Obama instituted a policy that allowed transgender individuals to serve as well as receive healthcare across their transition. However, in 2017 President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that his administration would be issuing a transgender ban across the U.S. military. The policy was implemented in 2019 and limited the service of transgender individuals in the military to those who were currently serving and fully transitioned, which meant that those without a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria had to file for it before April 12, 2019. Those service members that did not seek or obtain a diagnosis by the deadline were left to either serve as their biological sex assigned at birth or separate from the military. During the 2020 presidential election, then-Democratic candidate, Joseph Biden, promised to overturn the current administration’s ban. On January 25, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order making way for the reinstatement of transgender service members and their families into the military by repealing former President Trump’s orders. This included banning future discharges or denials of reenlistment based on gender identity, overturning prior gender identity dismissals, and initiating a process for open military service for transgender individuals (Detrow, 2021). On April 30, 2021, new policies regarding transgender service members went into effect. They include “provid[ing] a path for those in service for medical treatment, gender transition, and recognition in one’s self-identified gender” (Department of Defense, 2021, para. 2). Moving forward, service members may not be involuntarily discharged or denied reenlistment because of their gender identity, and clinical practice guidelines will be created for the medical support of service members with a gender dysphoria diagnosis.

Queer U.S. Military Family Communication Research

Research about queer military families within communication studies is relatively nonexistent, although scholars have made calls for such research (Knobloch & Wilson, 2014; Sahlstein & Maguire, 2013; Sahlstein Parcell & Baker, 2018). The limited body of research that does exist explores the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender service members. For example, Van Gilder (2017, 2019a, 2019b) has studied sexual stigma in the U.S. military, and Sahlstein Parcell and Baker (2018) interviewed LGBT service members and spouses about their experiences within the military. Scholars who do study military families within and beyond communication studies have typically operationalized them as married straight couples with children and studied them primarily from postpositivist or interpretivist approaches. And while military families are considered nonnormative due to their distinct characteristics compared to civilian families (e.g., frequent moves, separations due to deployments, and unique cultural norms; Sahlstein Parcell & Baker, 2018), queer military families have additional discursive burdens within and outside of the military context. Queer military family communication research should take a critical approach, which is described in the next section.

CIFC Framework

Families wield significant influence over the trajectory of their members’ lives, from the way children are socialized at a young age well into adulthood (Heywood, 2001). Although the word “family” has historically been synonymous with a traditional form, that of a heteronormative, cohabitating couple with children, often White and middle class, nontraditional families who do not meet these criteria are now the dominant family form (Baxter, 2014). Nontraditional, or nonnormative families are those whose status is often stigmatized and challenged by societal norms that prescribe the traditional, nuclear family as ideal. Galvin (2014) advances that the less traditional a family is (e.g., lack of genetic ties), the more dependent they are on discourse to create and maintain their familial identity. As such, these families are more at risk of being buffeted about by changing sociohistorical forces that constrain their development and maintenance. Nonnormative families have an additional discursive burden to rationalize, justify, and explain their family identity because, historically, prevailing culture and societal institutions often failed to recognize their legitimacy. That they are rising in numbers and are heavily impacted by changing social norms makes these families and their experiences rich sites of exploration, particularly when using a critical approach.

Suter (2018) contends that a critical interpersonal family communication (CIFC) framework is useful for exploring sociopolitical dimensions of power around family identity and communication. In her framework, Suter proposes that CIFC research should explicitly take up one or more of four dimensions—the situatedness of power, a collapse of the public/private binary, research that engages in critique and resistance, and research that foregrounds author reflexivity. From a CIFC framework, issues of power are centered and foundational, and in turn, power is conceptualized “in terms of larger sociocultural systems and discourses impacting individuals, relationships, and family” (p. 5). Interpersonal and family researchers typically frame power as an individual-level phenomenon that is “a characteristic, property, attribute, or resource (e.g., credibility) of the person” (Suter, 2018, p. 5), but a CIFC framework advocates decentering the individual “variable” of power that resides in specific actors within interpersonal and familial contexts. Rather, power is assumed to be located in either systemic influence or localized discursive interplay. Foregrounding issues of power in this way requires researchers to examine power inside the family dynamic and, perhaps more importantly, as external to the family and situated in sociocultural systems (Suter & Norwood, 2017). These issues of power can manifest unobtrusively through the performance of roles and routines that seem normal. Taking a critical approach has the potential to expose how these messages are taken for granted and how families may be unwittingly contributing to their marginalization (Baxter, 2014).

Interpersonal and family communication research often separates public and private domains of family by studying the family in isolation from its larger political, historical, and material surroundings. However, in CIFC research, the binary of public and private domains collapses to illuminate the family’s inherent politicized status (Suter, 2018). As Suter (2018) argues, “CIFC advocates interpersonal and family research that examines public/private interpenetrations” (p. 7). Families influence and are influenced by public institutions, such as government and religion. Combining macrodiscourses with microlevel discourses further attunes researchers to those nontraditional family types that are underrepresented in interpersonal and family communication research (Suter & Norwood, 2017).

CIFC calls upon researchers to also recognize and pursue the critique, resistance, and transformation of the “status quo in service of social-justice ends” (Suter, 2018, p. 124). In this way, CIFC has the potential to move military family research from a consensus-orientation to a dissensus-orientation, where investigators could seek to move beyond traditional translational research to “encourag[ing] the questioning of larger structures and discourses creating conditions that necessitate coping” while “empower[ing] participants to critically reflect on the current conditions of their own lives” (Suter, 2018, p. 132). Employing a stance of resistance, critique, and transformation in CIFC aids in better understanding research projects that do not always fit or tie together neatly. Instead, a dissensus view of research is undertaken (Deetz, 2001), one that “encourages studies that embrace rather than minimize conflict, that presumes that struggle is the natural state” (Suter & Norwood, 2017, p. 4) and sees societal systems as contributors to unequal representation. An orientation toward critique, resistance, and transformation further displaces the consensus view of research by introducing a social justice element whereby researchers may call on their participants to question and examine the otherwise accepted social conditions surrounding them (Suter, 2018).

Lastly, Suter (2018) encourages authors to exercise reflexivity by questioning and assessing their own assumptions and biases throughout their research. Author reflexivity in CIFC extends these practices by asking researchers to consider which actors are being privileged or which dominant beliefs are crowding out other ways of making meaning (Suter, 2018). In doing so, authors heed this call by recognizing and embodying possibilities of social justice for families—the essence of CIFC.

Taken together, Suter’s framework for CIFC sees the family as a political site whose microlevel and macrolevel interdependency is inextricably linked. By focusing on how power is manifested in families externally and internally. communication scholars can critically interrogate how these intersections make meaning for families. When interpersonal and family communication scholars are willing to trouble their own assumptions in addition to prevailing cultural hierarchies, the transformative change CIFC proposes can take place.

Future Queer Military Family Communication Research

What pathways should queer military family communication research take in the future? Guided by the CIFC framework, there are at least four recommendations. First, military family researchers should (re)consider how they conceptualize power by decentering it from within individuals and identifying discourses of “family” and related concepts (e.g., fatherhood, caregiving) that are at play when queer military families are making sense of their experiences and/or other military families. For example, research outside the discipline has considered how discourses of “heteronormative relations of kinship and care” underwrite the experiences of service members with disabilities (Wool, 2021). A theory communication scholars could use to frame similar work is relational dialectics theory (RDT; Baxter, 2011; Sahlstein Parcell, 2018; Sahlstein Parcell & Baker, 2018). Second, the CIFC framework pushes scholars to question the binary often assumed between the public and private, where interpersonal and family interactions are considered almost exclusively as “private.” The case of queer military families brings into bold relief how “the family” is simultaneously a site of public and private considerations. Queer military family communication scholars at minimum should situate the site and subjects of their studies within the ongoing history of the military and families within it. Third, in relation to CIFC’s call for research that critiques, resists, and transforms the status quo, queer military family research arguably is best conducted under the domain of critical scholarship to identify ways that queer military families are marginalized within the military context and seek positive change for them. Given that families are where heteronormative ideologies are mobilized, queer interventions into interpersonal and family communication research are appropriate (Chevrette, 2013). Instead of (re)establishing patterns of behavior and experience, the research should challenge the military and the communication within and about it. Lastly, the CIFC framework encourages queer military family communication scholars to engage in reflexivity. As much of the existing military family communication research has been conducted not only about normative military families but by white, cisgender, heterosexual scholars (Sahlstein Parcell & Baker, 2018) coming from primarily postpositivist and interpretive intellectual traditions (Braithwaite, Schrodt, et al., 2018; Braithwaite, Suter, et al., 2018), reflexivity on both fronts would be beneficial for future inquiry.

Beyond recommending the CIFC framework, a topic for future research should be the military’s culture with respect to queer military families. United States military culture has distinct qualities (Knobloch & Wehrman, 2014), and it has been labeled a “greedy institution” given the demands it places on service members and their families (Segal, 1986); but what are the implications specifically for queer military families? For example, how do queer military families manage their privacy concerns within the strong metaphor of “family” that exists in the military (Trivette, 2010)? There is evidence that queer service members have evoked “family” to manage such needs (Ramirez & Sterzing, 2017). Family communication scholars have identified post DADT as an important period to study same-sex military marriages given the uncertainties queer service members and their family members experience and negotiate with significant policy changes and subsequent shifts in military culture (Lannutti, 2014; McNamara et al., 2021; Westcott & Sawyer, 2007). While post-DADT is an important period for queer military families, military family scholars should reflect on specifically who they are studying within these units.

Centering three types of family members in future research would add considerably to the queer military family communication scholarship. One important subpopulation are queer veteran service members, and those with mental health issues are of particular concern. Those training military health care professionals should “be alert to the unique needs of this population amongst both active duty service members and [veterans]” (Wiskoff & Sammons, 2017, p. 557). Further, the military should consider how their offerings for family members are also attentive to such needs. For example, akin to the extant research within family communication about military families and mental health (e.g., Knobloch & Basinger, 2021; Peck & Sahlstein Parcell, 2021; Wilson et al., 2021), scholars should focus on how mental health is talked about within queer military families. Military researchers have recommended studies of trauma and mental health for queer veterans (Averill et al., 2015, p. 3) and including their family members is key for understanding their experiences, and in particular surrounding DADT and other policy changes that impact service members relationships with their families. For example, one study reported after DADT was repealed showed family readiness was “enhanced” along with trust and honesty among troops (Belkin et al., 2012, p. 591). To underscore previous calls within the military family research (Kauth & Shipherd, 2016; Laski & Albright, 2017; Sherman et al., 2014), family communication researchers should seek out queer veterans given the vast majority of research conducted has been about active duty service members and their families. It is important that research extend beyond active service as for most their connections to the military are lifelong.

A second family member group in need of attention are queer military spouses/parents. Most extant family communication research studies concerning military spouses/parents are either explicitly or assumed to be focused on heterosexual marriages. Family communication researchers have explored the experiences of (heterosexual) military wives within their family readiness groups (Sahlstein Parcell & Maguire, 2014) and (heterosexual) motherhood within the military (McFarlane, 2021) among others. Future research should recognize the unique experiences of spouses/parents within queer military families (e.g., how lesbian military spouses navigate spaces within and outside the military; Tannenbaum, 2019).

A third group that is understudied within military family communication research are military children; especially children who are members of queer military families as studies are virtually non-existent within the field. While there are studies and calls for this scholarship in the broader area of military family studies (e.g., DePedro & Shim-Pelayo, 2018; Gyura & McCauley, 2015) and within family communication (e.g., Knobloch et al., 2017; Sahlstein Parcell, 2014b, 2015), there is a strong need for understanding the experiences of children of queer military parents as well as queer military youth.

Military family communication researchers have much to offer the study of queer military families given the astonishingly small studies that even begin to address the unique experiences and concerns of these families relative to the abundance of studies produced about heterosexual military families. It is important that as the scholarship moves forward researchers consider diversity (Rohall et al., 2017a) and intersectionality (Rich et al., 2012; Rohall et al., 2017b) as central to their thinking as well as how to “queer” their methods (Fish & Russell, 2018). Given the evidence that additional support will benefit queer service members (Conway et al., 2021), the next decade of military family communication research should help these underserved members of U.S. military communities. The CIFC framework (Suter, 2018) and RDT (Baxter, 2011) are two approaches well-suited for this work.

Further Reading