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Flag Memories


Denny Meyer

Several months ago our local chapter of LGBT vets (AVER) received an inquiry from an elderly member of the gay senior's group (SAGE); "Would you accept the funeral flag of a WWI veteran?" This, of course, is one of the most basic functions of any veterans' association, and we immediately agreed. The history of this flag is a long and convoluted story of a long forgotten proud and patriotic hero of The Great War, the passage of his family through time and the twentieth century, and the wish of a gay grandson to have his long departed grandfather somehow honored and remembered.

Much of the story has been lost in time. We can speculate that our WWI vet was born in the late 1800s and volunteered to serve his country. We know nothing of his life through the first half of the twentieth century, nor even the date of his death. Yet, we might imagine that he lived into the 1950s (the flag has 48 stars) and that his funeral flag, folded into a triangle by his honor guard, was presented to his widow.  In due course, the flag passed on to his son and then to his gay grandson. What little we do know is that when the grandson died in old age over a decade ago, the flag passed to his lover.  One of the grandson's last wishes was that the flag be given to a group of gay vets as there were no members of his family left to pass it on to.  His lover kept it and brought it along into a new relationship; and after he subsequently died, the flag passed to his partner who eventually got around to contacting us to ask that we please accept it.

What is the meaning of a veteran's coffin flag, kept neatly folded into a triangle, passed from one elderly American to another over at least more than half a century, from loving widow to son to grandson and to lovers and strangers? Some others might have thought of it as just an old musty piece of cloth, something to be sold at a flea market or tossed into a dumpster along with old sofas and other tattered flotsam and junk of someone gone and forgotten. But these Americans somehow thought to preserve the last honor of a long ago American Veteran.

The flag is just a piece of cloth; but its meaning is in what it symbolizes, which is American Freedom.  The flag and its meaning do not belong to any political party.  It belongs to every American, whether they have been a citizen for five minutes or their family has been American for five generations.  To some, in other countries, it represents a dream and a wish for freedom and opportunity.  Some Americans take it for granted, and the beauty of taking it for granted is the faith that our freedom is everlasting.  For a first generation American like me, the flag is sacred.  My family were refugees in the late 1930s from the Holocaust in Europe.  As a young man in the 1960s, I saw student anti-war protestors, and I too was against war.  But, when they burned the American flag, I felt as if I were on fire too.  I thought, "Its time to pay my country back for taking my family in when they were refugees."  And I joined the US Navy.  That is what the burning flag inspired me to do.  I was young, gay, and idealistic; now I'm an old man.  But, if I could go back and redo life's choices, I'd proudly choose to serve my country again.

It is the American freedom to choose that matters, whether  you are gay, straight, black, white, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, male, female, or whatever.  All Americans are free to choose not to serve; and so too every American should have the right to choose to serve their country.  When I was a young sailor, fresh out of boot camp and wearing my dress-whites proudly chest out and square jawed, I visited New York City and found myself on Fifth Avenue on some holiday; The Stars and Stripes fluttered grandly on every tall building on the city's most elegant artery, stretching off into the distance.  New Yorkers bustled about their business, oblivious.  But I was transfixed by the sight;  I wanted to salute every single One.  (one does not need to salute such stationary displays; but had I done so, New Yorkers would not have noticed the nutty little sailor boy overcome with patriotism).  My grandfather, who came to America from the displaced-persons camps of post-WWII Europe, would have stood at my side pointing out each flag.  Though he'd passed away a decade earlier, I felt him with me on that day.  As a Jew, he'd been a slave laborer in Berlin under the control of the Nazi Gestapo; he understood freedom all too well.

Now, some forty years later, I've had the honor and duty of attending the funerals of gay vets, some who served in WWII, some more recent.  As their honor guard plays Taps and folds their coffin flag, I somberly salute.  In the case of a gay vet, his folded flag is quietly presented to a sister or mother.  Often, the family does not even know that the vet was gay; and lovers are often not even invited to attend let alone receive the last honor of their sacrifice, the flag.

The last wish of the grandson, we were told, was for his grandfather's flag to go to gay veterans. The flag has been forwarded to AVER national, to a farm in the American heartland. And so has come to pass, over 100 years after he served his country in a great war, a veteran's flag remains honored.

What will become of our flags, I wonder, a hundred years after we have served?

  2009  Gay Military Signal