Denny Meyer:There's a lot of attention being paid, these days, to our young heroes' sacrifices and subsequent suffering for having served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in OEF and OIF. They have come home, those who survived, with grave wounds both physical and mental. Their troubles have their own abbreviations that everyone knows, TBI -traumatic brain injury, MST -military sexual trauma, PTSD -post traumatic stress disorder, and the list goes on and on. We all know the new catch phrases for the horrors they experienced, such as IED -improvised explosive devices -which used to be called 'land mines.' And we know that among those brave young heroes and heroines are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender volunteers suffering the same horrors for their service.
Its important stuff; these young heroes and heroines deserve all the love and caring that we can give. They need a lot more than, "thank you for serving" platitudes. Some actually need everything, a place to live, a job, money for food, transportation to the VA for their medical care, and most of all: respect. Would it kill you to give a big sloppy hug to a gay veteran in a wheel chair and whisper "thank you for serving" in his ear with a kiss? Can you deal with it? Imagine what he went through, please. Take a selfie with him, show everyone how brave you are; inspire others, start a movement.
At least they are being talked about now, our young heroes. But, when was the last time you ever even thought about an 89 year old gay senior citizen who served in World War II? When was the last time you saw one, and smiled in admiration of all that they accomplished during nearly a century of life when they could not be who they were? When was there a time that you wanted to sit down with a member of our own gay Greatest Generation and hear his or her story, before its too late?
Gay and Lesbian young folks, like most other young Americans in 1941, were moved to volunteer to serve our nation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. And thousands and thousands of young gay patriots like me volunteered during the war in Vietnam. They did the same thing after the 911 terrorist attack in 2001. What has become of all these gay heroes?
Many of those who served in WWII hardly knew they were gay when they joined. There was no internet and no television, just radio. There was never any mention anywhere of homosexuality, no news, nothing. So, in those days, you might know you were somehow different, but generally you had no clue what it meant except that you had to keep it a secret, even from yourself. It was only after you were inducted into the armed forces and found yourself in an open bay barracks full of other young men, in a big city full of things to explore, that your eyes began to open up to your inner self. But, there was no time to deal with that, there was a world war on, your hair was cut off, and you were being trained to be a part of a great big sweaty fighting force. And after that, there was the real grit an horror of battles in Europe and the Pacific, invasions and death all around you. And when these men came back, on ships, long after their last battle, they wanted nothing more than a home mom-cooked meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes bathed in gravy in the peace and quiet of small-town America, with the scent of new mown hay on the evening breeze, and the gentle sound of the river at dusk, as heard through the Sycamores 'on the banks of the Wabash, far away.'
Seriously, many of these battle weary veterans of WWII had little choice than to do what was expected of them, get married, raise their own children, work hard, and have a house with a white picket fence around it, and live happily ever after without ever thinking about the strange feelings they had while at war. And that is exactly what a lot of them did though the 1950s and 60s until their sons were old enough to go to war in Vietnam. And then they began to remember. They remembered the horror of battle, and the scent of a fellow soldier as well.
A few were among the first gay pioneers daring to step forward and speak up for our rights, as proud Americans and proud veterans. Dr. Franklin Kameny, a PFC WWII combat veteran who fought his way across Europe from Holland through the heart of Germany under heavy artillery bombardment to liberate Czechoslovakia, was most proud of his Combat Infantryman's Badge. It was the only decoration he ever wore as he led the gay liberation movement for over fifty years, until the day he died on National Coming Out Day in 2011.
Our LGBT WWII veterans are in their late eighties now, and are prouder than any younger person could ever be. They had to hide who they were, not just during their war service, but through most of their lives. What a sacrifice to convention and bigotry! We need urgently to sit down and hear their stories, now, before our history is gone forever!
In 2003 our New York Chapter of American Veterans For Equal Rights (AVER) had our first march in the NYC Pride Parade. A friend of mine, in his 70s, flew up from his retirement home in Florida to march with us as a proud veteran. He'd served in Korea in 1953. Several million spectators lined the streets. As we came into view on every block, thousands cheered wildly and shouted, "Thank Your for serving!" The thunderous sound of so many cheering gave us goose bumps. My friend started to cry. I asked him what was the matter. "Nobody ever thanked me before for being a gay veteran," he said. He'd waited FIFTY YEARS! It meant a lot to him.
As AVER Veterans Affairs officer, I recently heard from a woman in her late 80s living alone in rural America; she'd been a Marine during and after WWII. During General Eisenhower's witch hunt and purge of homosexuals in the early 1950s, she'd been dishonorably discharged as a lesbian. She needs and gets a lot of help these days; meals on wheels arrive daily, a physical therapist visits her at least once a week, and someone comes in every morning to help her bath, etc. When a social worker asked her if there was anything else she might need help with, she said, "Yes, I want to die as a Marine!" Despite all her ailments of old age, that was what bothered her the most more than sixty years later, not being able to call herself 'A Marine! Because of her discharge, she cannot be buried in a National Cemetery. It makes her sad and angry. Most people think that the repeal of DADT took care of all that. It didn't. It still takes years, often over a decade, to get a discharge upgrade for the many thousands of LGBT patriots given less than honorable discharges due to being gay during decades between WWII and 1994 when DADT was implemented. For most, the complex and cumbersome paperwork is just impossible. Last Summer, the Restore Honor to Service Members Act was introduced in Congress by Representatives Pocan of Wisconsin and Rangel of New York, and Senators Gillibrand of New York and Shatz of Hawaii. The bill would streamline and automate the process for gay veterans discharged due to homosexuality both before and during the DADT Era. With conservatives blocking everything, this bill isn't likely to go anywhere in time to fulfill this proud patriotic woman's end of life wish.
Danny Ingram: One of the greatest honors of my life will always be the opportunity of placing a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery with three remarkable gay World War II veterans. On June 11th, 2010, as part of AVER' 20th Anniversary Celebration and Operation Golden Eagle, I placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns with the late Dr. Frank Kameny, Reverend Dr. John McNeill, and my good friend Jack Strouss. These brave men all fought in Europe during World War II. John McNeill was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and survived a Nazi POW camp. Dr. Kameny and Jack Strouss both came home after the war only to be caught in the McCarthy-style anti-gay witchhunts, both being fired from their jobs in the federal government for being gay. Kameny was one of the founders of the Gay Rights movement, and McNeill became one of the most prolific authors on LGBT spirituality, only to be later removed from the Jesuit Order for his outreach to our community. These brave men survived the horrors of World War II, came home, and continued to make sacrifices in the struggle for freedom against discrimination and prejudice in their own nation. Honored warriors. Continuing their fight for freedom.
I also recall my interview with 91 year old Annabelle "Tommie" Kulpinski in May, 2011. Kulpinski joined the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1942, and later became one of the first women in the Regular Army when Congress converted the WAAC into the Women's Army Corp (WAC) in 1943. Tommie met her partner Elaine Maxie in 1944 while they were serving together in the Army, and the two women spent the next 65 years together until Elaine passed away. What a remarkable wartime love story and a testimony to the strength and commitment of same-sex love.
As we fought the very long and difficult battle to lift the ban against LGBT service, we often looked to our seniors for inspiration, perspective, and patience. And we continue to uphold the great nation they passed on to us. Like a truly fine automobile once cherished by someone who has passed it along, I am only now beginning to see its value and take care to keep it polished and mechanically maintained. Fortunately, I can see how much it was loved, and begin to care for it, to maintain it, to restore it, to pass it on to the next hopefully worthy owner. So to my dear and valued friends Jack, Frank, John, Tommie, and so many others, thanks for the keys to the Caddy. I will try to love her as much as you have, and though I may never value her as much as you did, I will try my best to keep her moving along with steady dignity, to pass along to the kids who come after me, hoping in good faith, as you have, that they too will learn to love her.