Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Coming out of WWII: Researchers Are Rushing to Record the Stories of Gay and Lesbian World War II Veterans before It's Too Late

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Coming out of WWII: Researchers Are Rushing to Record the Stories of Gay and Lesbian World War II Veterans before It's Too Late

Article excerpt

Harry Harkness is turning 79 in June, but the memories of his days as a ball turret gunner on a B-17 "Flying Fortress" during World War II are as fresh as yesterday. "I flew 32 credited bombing missions over northern Italy, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Germany," says the openly gay AT&T retiree from his San Francisco home. "We saw lots of flak [antiaircraft fire] on every mission, some more intense than others." Harkness's primary job was to ward off enemy fighters and count parachutes from downed Allied planes. "Not a pretty picture, especially when the crew lived in a tent next door to your crew," he says.

There aren't many men like Harkness left these days: gay veterans of WWII who fought in a conflict that left nearly 50 million dead. There aren't many of WWII's veterans left at all; as many as 1,100 die every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It is why researchers from the Library of Congress are in a desperate rush to record the stories of soldiers, straight and gay, male and female, before they forever slip into history. The war's veterans will also be honored Memorial Day weekend with the opening of the long-awaited National World War II Memorial on the National Mall.

"To be honest, I haven't the slightest idea how [gay soldiers] coped with it all," says Lara Ballard, who serves as American Veterans for Equal Rights' national coordinator for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. "It continually astounds me what these average Americans were asked to do, and what they did, without batting an eye. Added to the stress of combat was the stress of concealing your sexual identity, and I don't know how anyone could have coped. But the fact is, they did, and they performed heroically"

Ballard, a lesbian and former Army officer who served in Kuwait as part of Operation Southern Watch during the 199l Gulf War, is working overtime to get as many GLBT veterans as possible to submit videotaped oral histories of their military experiences. She's interviewed dozens of veterans from World War II through Ore present so that their stories won't be lost. Top priority is given to those now ill their 70s and 80s, whose tales call forch a time that's almost unimaginable to today's young gay men and lesbians. It is a time before domestic-partner benefits, before antidis-crimination laws, before Stonewall, before the word gay meant anything other than "happy" to most Americans.

Harkness's experiences as a young solder in the 1940s aren't much different from his straight contemporaries, more Band of Brothers than The Boys in the Band. He assumed his sexual orientation was just a bothersome phase and that he'd grow out of it. He and other gay soldiers of the time dismissed their youthful encounters largely as a sort of recreation, which was never spoken of afterward. In his two years of active duty Harkness can remember only a single sexual episode with another man--one night aboard a troopship making its way across the North Atlantic, bound for Europe. "I was getting queasy five decks below and went topside to get some air," he recalls. "I saw an infantryman over by a lifeboat ... he was jerking off, so I joined him. Never saw him again, or even said a single word at that time." After the war Harkness married and had three children before his divorce mid move to San Francisco. He has long since come to terms with being gay, but he still says he "wouldn't like any living members of my crew to know about his sexuality. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.