“Who you are is love.”
When I got the military bus, I began walking down toward the barracks where I lived. There were about 85 women in the building and every time someone new would come, they all knew about it. So, I was walking down the street with my duffle bag, my suitcase, my gear and stuff, and these girls were hanging out the windows, waving. As soon as I walked into the building, they were all on the stair steps. They were all looking at me. I thought that was really funny. Here they were hanging out the window. It was obvious that they were gay, so that was kind of funny. There were about 85 of us; I would say that 40 percent were lesbians. You always can tell who is gay. This one, Sergeant Lavardi, she was so funny . . . I got there after the meal. She took me up to the NCO club to get me something to eat. We started to talk and she asked me if I was gay. I really gave her a bad time. I said, “No, but some of my best friends are lesbians.” I really had her going there for a long time, but then I told her “Yeah.” I just felt something, like I could trust her. But sometimes they would plant women in the barracks to act gay and they really weren’t.
If they discharged all the gay people out, there wouldn’t have been anybody to run the hospital. We had one commander who was gay and he was a commander at a hospital. If you went to work every day, did your job, and you didn’t try to hit on the straight women, they looked the other way. All they expected you to do was go to work every day and do what you were supposed to do. Your social life was your social life. Sometimes CID [Criminal Investigation Division] has a list of names that they want to interview. But if the commander didn’t want the girl to be interviewed at that time by the CID, then they couldn’t interview you. Some of the girls got in [the Army] and then decided they didn’t like it, so they would turn themselves in [as gay]. Most of the time we pretty much stuck together.
In fact, our commander was gay. She was a captain and she was living with one of the sergeants. I think they knew, but she did what she was supposed to do, got good reports and stuff. We were evaluated every year. That’s all they wanted—even the straight ones. You come to work every day, and do what you’re supposed to do, and keep your personal life quiet.
There were a couple of girls [lesbians] that got beat up. I think it was more of a personality conflict. I’m not sure. They beat one up real bad. They got the girls that did it. I think it was more race motivated than her being gay, because I overheard a conversation in which she said, “Oh, those lazy Niggers.” And, you know, you don’t say that. Those kinds of things you keep to yourself. The two girls she was calling those names found out about [it], and that is why they beat her up. I don’t think it was about her being gay, I think it was more of a racial thing.
But there have been instances [of violence], especially with the men beating up gay guys. I didn’t really know any of the guys that got beat up. I just heard. This one guy, he a00ctually flaunted it. He would try and hit on the straight guys. Well, the straight guys didn’t want that, so he got beat up. It was his own fault. If he’d just lain low like everybody else did . . . He’d go to the gay bars on the weekends and come out of the barracks in drag. He was really funny. Everybody liked him, except those that didn’t want to be involved with him. He was well liked. Everybody felt bad when he got beat up, but he hit on the wrong one. I guess he’d liked this one guy for a while. He decided to make some sexual overtures toward him and the guy just didn’t like that. As far as I know these were just isolated instances, where somebody might get warned, “Look if you put your hands on me again . . .” It’s the same way, you know, you’re not supposed to touch people. Some people don’t like to be touched. There weren’t a lot of people just getting hurt, that I was aware of.
There was a lot of sexual harassment with men wanting to take you to bed. Then, if you didn’t go to bed with them, they’d accuse you, “What’s the matter? Are you a lezzy?” A lot of them actually knew that the woman was gay. They’d threaten to turn them in if they didn’t go to bed with them. I found that more in Germany than when I was in the States. Some of the younger [women would] be afraid of being turned in, so they’d go to bed with these guys. Then the word would get out with the men, “Hey, we just need to threaten to turn them in and they’ll go to bed with us.” In Houston there was a big investigation about that—the girls being intimidated. I left. I went to my new duty station, so I don’t know whatever became of that, but I know they had some kind of investigation.
When I got somewhere new, I’d always find out who the gay guys were. Then I’d get to know them. Before I went to Germany, my two friends had gotten out; they were in the Air Force. They had been in Germany. They knew Hack and George. They told them about me, that I’d be coming over. So, when I got there, Hack came, picked me up the next night, and took me to their house for the weekend, so I could get to know him. I didn’t have to worry much, because he would come and get me. You know, everyone would see him come to the barracks. So no one ever suspected me, except for the ones that I chose to tell.
I only met three gay black people in the military, and they were women. If there were black men, I didn’t know about them. In fact, when I went to Basic Training, the last two weeks of B.T., if you didn’t have too many demerits you could go into town. Well, I was in Alabama; that is where Fort McClellan is. We took a bus into town to go to a restaurant. Well, one of the girls was black. There were four of us that went, to get some decent food. We sat there and sat there in the restaurant. It wasn’t even busy. We sat there waiting for the waitress to come over with water and menus. Finally, I got this woman’s attention. We were all in uniform. I got her attention and I said, “Could we please have some menus so we can order something to eat?” She looked at me and said, “We don’t serve niggers in here.” And I looked at her and said, “Oh, that’s good because we don’t eat them either.” We just got up and left. Ann, the black woman said, “I’m just going to go get on the bus and go back to base.” And I said, “No, you are with us. You are our friend. We’ll find something to eat.” So we went into this restaurant just up the street. The waitress in there was real nice, brought us menus, and water and stuff. Well, Ann went back to the bathroom and I said to the waitress, “We stopped at that restaurant a couple of blocks down the street.” And she said, “Oh, my God. They are getting ready to close them down.” Then I told her what this woman had said to us. I was just appalled, because I came from the North and I had never seen that kind of discrimination. She said that the NAACP had a big investigation going and were ready to shut them down because of the way they treated . . . Well, she called them “negroes.” [She said,] “But you are all more than welcome here; we don’t discriminate.” This was in 1971. I didn’t think that things like that still went on in the South. I think that even up to this day there is still a lot of prejudice. I just felt so bad for Ann. It was like someone had kicked her in the face. She was my friend and I really liked her.
In Korea, it’s funny to me, I don’t know why, but it’s funny seeing a Korean gay person, because of their culture. Then again, I met them in bars. I didn’t meet them in [the Korean Friendship Club. The people there] were probably the more well-to-do Koreans who invited us to their homes for an authentic Korean meal, and we’d invite them to an American meal. They had an area on base where the military dependents, their families, lived. We’d switch back and forth. This one Korean girl, she kept looking at me and looking at me. She’d smile and I’d smile back. I wasn’t even thinking gay. After we had our meal . . . I used to smoke, so I went outside to smoke. She comes over to me and she said “I think you gay.” I said, “What?!” She said, “I think you gay.” I said, “You do?” And she said, “I am.” That was pretty cool. Her name was Yung Hi and we got to be pretty good friends. She taught me a lot of Korean, but it’s been so many years now that I’ve forgot a lot. She was really nice to me; her family was real nice. I really liked her grandmother; her grandmother was nice. Well, you could say she didn’t speak any English, but she would watch me. Yung Hi told me, because she would translate so we could have some kind of conversation, “My grandmother really likes you.” And I said “I really like her too.” I hated to come back. We would go to plays and stuff, but they were all in Korean. We’d go to movies and they had subtitles. She liked to walk and we used to walk for miles. She said, “My family doesn’t know I’m gay. I wish I could tell them but it would be too sad for them.” That is the way she described it, “It would be too sad for them.” I wrote to her for about six months. Then the letters just kept getting scarcer and scarcer; I finally lost contact with her when a letter came back “not at this address.”
Well, the only thing I can say for parting words of wisdom is: “Just be who you are. Just be who you are and be proud of that. Who you are is love, to me.”
In this section on military life, specific locations are often not clear.
Source: Interview with Maureen Nickerson, 22 November 2006; held in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.