LGBTs share World
War II home front stories
by Heather Cassell
It was the 1940s and there was another great war going on. Men were called off to battle. Women were called to serve on the home front. It was a major shift in gender roles and social mores for the U.S., but somehow little is known about life for LGBTs on the home front during World War II.
The Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond is seeking to rectify that and, in the process, make history by being one of the first national parks to document LGBT history.
The park was established in 2000 to gather artifacts, information, and stories about civilian life during World War II.
LGBT life on the home front was the focus of a discussion earlier this month. About 30 people came out to listen to Elizabeth Tucker, lead park ranger, and public historian Donna Graves present "LGBT Hidden Histories on the WWII Home Front," at the museum.
The June 14 presentation was a part of the launch of the historical project announced in March.
This was the second event reaching out to the LGBT community for stories and support. In April, the campaign kicked off with an event at a senior community center in Walnut Creek as a part of the project's outreach program to find LGBT individuals who lived through or had family members and friends who can recall stories from that period in U.S. history.
The goal is to produce an exhibit and to build a growing archive of LGBT stories during World War II.
The greatest rainbow generation
While the project is young, the researchers have so far been able to find three LGBT individuals who served on the home front and overseas during the war who have been present at the events.
A trans man, Jeffrey Dickemann, 85, known then as Mildred; a lesbian, Bev Hickok, 94; and a gay man, Selwyn Jones, 92, shared their stories.
The war was on. Dickemann heeded the call. There weren't any men to harvest the farms, so he followed his sisters from Brooklyn to upstate New York to work on the land during the summer in the 1940s. In spite of his youth, he knew who he was and he suspected that the work was going to attract certain types of women and it did, he being one of them at the time, he told the audience. Dickemann transitioned to being a man at the age of 65, the oldest known on record to make the transition.
One girl was a bit too "rambunctious," and sent home, Dickemann recalled. The incident led to the older girls at the farm discussing the "problem" of "homosexuality."
"I had never heard anyone discuss what I felt and what I knew," said Dickemann, a retired anthropology professor who participated in the project because he hadn't seen or heard about LGBT stories during the war.
One of the older girls, who was college age, "gave this little talk in which she said, 'It's just another way of being and it is alright,'" Dickemann said.
It changed his life, he said.
Dickemann is also participating in a historical project about his wartime farm experience for the Regional Oral History Project at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
Sorority girl, farm boy
It was quite a different experience for Hickok and Jones.
Hickok was a sorority girl at UC Berkeley who had little interest in finding a rich husband like the other young women. Jones, a farm boy from Texas, enlisted in the Air Force, but before deployment he served as a court reporter.
While Jones was still stationed in Tampa, Florida he witnessed the dishonorable discharge of a gay man working as a court reporter, he told the audience.
Lesbian personal historian and photographer Cathy Cade read from Hickok's autobiography, Against the Current: Coming Out in 1940 about being a living lesbian "Rosie the Riveter" working on the assembly line at Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California in 1942. Hickok, who is frail and in a wheelchair, listened in the audience.
Rosie the Riveter is an American cultural icon, representing women who worked in factories during World War II.
Hickok's parents weren't in favor of their daughter's working class job, but they allowed it because it was acceptable for the times.
The war served as Hickok's escape out of the privileged world in which she was raised and into her life as a lesbian. On the first day on the job, the other gay girls pegged her and invited her to sit with them at lunch. Hickok didn't look back. She went on to join the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as WAVES, and became a librarian at UC Berkeley until she retired.
Hickok's life story was captured by Cade, 72, who helped compile her history, both with her first partner, Becil Davis, and later, her second partner, whom she married in 2008, photographer Doreen S. Brand.
Hickok's wartime experience is one of the few detailed accounts of LGBT civilian life during the war currently available.
Another rare account of LGBT life in the U.S. during the war was captured in Tina Takemoto's documentary, Looking for Jiro , Graves noted. The documentary unearths the story of Jiro Onuma, a gay Japanese man who was incarcerated in central Utah during World War II. Takemoto is an artist and associate professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
There have been many accounts – personal histories and fictionalized – about how World War II liberated women by sending them out into the workforce as Rosie the Riveters or as female baseball players, which was depicted in the film, A League of their Own .
Little has been documented about LGBT life on the home front during the war, however. There's a sense of urgency to gather such stories.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Many of the people who lived through and served in the war are dwindling as the generation is dying.
During the presentation, Graves displayed some of the artifacts she's been able to obtain through her research at local archives. But firsthand stories and stories from friends and family members, personal documentation from diaries to photographs, and more remain to be discovered to piece together the larger story of LGBT life during the war.
"This is American history," said Tucker, the park ranger, who is a lesbian. "We are a part of American history, so therefore we need our voices to be heard. The only way to do that is if we share those voices with American institutions like the National Park Service that preserve American history."
Tucker, 47, couldn't dream of heading up a project like this when she first joined the National Park Service nearly 30 years ago.
Dickemann agreed, calling the project "path-breaking."
"Although [Elizabeth] is focused on this one historic monument in Richmond, it is really a national issue. I think it is incredibly important," said Dickemann.
Graves and Tucker, as well as others, also have a sense of urgency to gather these stories.
"There is an urgency, because ... only the youngest people from this WWII generation are left," said Tucker.
One of the audience members agreed.
"Time is running out. These people are in their late 80s and 90s now," said Therese Ambrosi Smith, a 58-year-old ally and author of the novel Wax, which follows her lesbian protagonist during and after WWII.
Smith is donating the proceeds of sales of Wax to the Rosie the Riveter Trust.
More than $3,000 has been raised from donors and sales of the book to support the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park LGBT history project and exhibit in 2015, said Marsha Mather-Thrift, executive director of the trust.
"These are probably some of the most incredible stories from the home front and one of the most stories kept in the dark," said Mather-Thrift, a 67-year-old ally, who hopes that the exhibit will travel to other places. "We are committed to the entire diversity of the home front."
Graves said the project is righting a wrong.
"That for LGBTQ people to have been written out of history and written out of society in many ways – to have been so invisible for so long – is a painful and tragic piece of our cultural history," said Graves, a 58-year-old ally, adding that the exhibit "feels like one small piece of the larger effort to achieve equal rights for people who have been marginalized."
Cade agreed, adding that the new collection is for the LGBT community and anyone else who is interested.
"It's our history. It's for us. It's for the LGBT community to know about people who came before for us, but it's also for the general public to know that this whole LGBT thing didn't just happen in the 1970s and it's to get the nitty-gritty detail that makes it all human," said Cade, who appreciated Hickok's stories about how physically hard the labor was rather than hearing the "romanticized" versions of women's liberation.
The Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park is searching for LGBTs who served and/or were Rosies during World War II to share their stories or any stories people may have about LGBT civilians during WWII for a traveling exhibit in 2015. For more information, call the confidential phone line at 510-232-5050, ext. 6631, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.nps.gov/rori/planyourvisit/seeking-lgbt-stories-from-wwii-home-front.htm.
The Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park, 1414 Harbour Way South, #3000, Richmond, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on select national holidays. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/rori/Index.htm. Entrance to the museum is free.
To support the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park's LGBT Project, visit the Rosie the Riveter Trust at www.rosietheriveter.org.