“Site of the Crime” from A Simple Revolution
The aesthetic of barracks life was spare to the extreme, and at night, holding down a two hour shift of “barrack’s guard” felt like being in a movie, eerily moving through the sparsely furnished building, entering each room without regard for privacy of the occupants, shining a flashlight at each window to check for broken locks or intruders.
After training as a medic, I was assigned to a hospital job at Andrews Air Force base in Washington, D.C. Sometimes I was washing patients, carrying bedpans. Sometimes I was in the ER, strong enough to help carry three-hundred-pound patients. Sometimes I worked in the nursery, where usually only two of us cared for thirty babies. We swabbed their belly buttons with iodine, changed them, carried some of them to their mothers, bottle fed the remainder, rocked them when they shrieked.
Our schedule was supposed to be ten days on, three days off. Actually it was designed to make us work extra shifts—we’d work midnight to 8 a.m., and then come back for a 4 p.m. to midnight shift, then back again at 8 a.m., and so on. In a ten-day period, we’d actually work fourteen shifts. For this we received room, board, and $80 a month, of which I was sending $50 to my parents, who were coming apart in my absence and couldn’t pay their rent.
The doctors gave out lots of speed, ostensibly to help the chubby women take off weight, and they freely passed the Dexidrene caps out to the rest of us, and that is how we got through our many swing shifts. Shifty. Sleezy, actually. Now, I was young and heroic, so I didn’t mind all this. What upset me was the gay hypocrisy, in which I was participating. Homosexuality was not tolerated, we were told, instructed to turn people in who lingered in each other’s rooms or hugged or held hands. We were told to stay away from all gay bars in the city. Some noncommissioned officers even participated in entrapment, offering drinks and a night in their apartment, then turning the woman in if she accepted. The officer did this treachery in exchange for immunity from a disgraced discharge herself.
At the same time, the place was running over with people who seemed to me, even in my near-ignorance, very gay, very very very gay. Especially the sergeants.
A group of women who were being processed out for homosexuality was declared off limits; we were not to associate with them in any way. The term for this was “guilt by association,” an interesting method of isolation.
Incensed that someone was telling me who I could and could not know, could and could not befriend, I immediately broke the rule. When I was called in for a warning I told the captain in charge that I too was a lesbian and didn’t see anything wrong with that.
Naively I imagined—what? A slap on the wrist? “Gee, we are so sorry, we have to let you go?” Instead, men in trench coats marched me into an interrogation room, after searching my belongings, seizing letters, addresses. They would notify everyone whose name they had acquired, to drive them away from me. In the interrogation room they intimidated and deprived. I was vulnerable and alone; it only took three days for me to come apart. The room was bare, lit by naked light bulbs. We sat at a table, me on one side, two investigators on the other. They wanted me to confess to particular crimes of lesbianism, they wanted details. I cannot tell you how humiliating this is, what a strip searching of the soul, what a betrayal of love and relationship. And to my shame, I gave in.
I was criminalized, that’s what it means to be arrested and interrogated and confined to barracks. I became a nonperson. And my crime was….what was my crime? Not lesbianism, obviously, though everyone was pretending that’s what it was. My crime was saying it out loud. My crime in my own mind was authenticity. Honesty. Honesty, that obligation of poets and writers.
I would spend a couple of years puzzling through the first layers of the morality of what had happened, and the shame heaped upon me. Ostracism is a profound experience, something my parents must have felt often enough. This form of it was concentrated and totally overt. The women in the barracks were told not to speak to me under any circumstances, not to visit me, not to sit with me while I ate, not to make eye contact. My roommate and others were charged with reporting on me.
This cloak of untouchability was a humiliating experience yet it was something more as well. The dayroom would be full of chatter until I walked in, and then silence. Eyes staring, then looking down. Eyes riveted, and then pushed away. Even in my bubble of isolation and confusion, I sensed that I had a kind of power, to cause this deep silence, a silence full of lies, and they were not my lies. A silence full of potential speaking.
Even though I was placed under barracks arrest, I had gone on acting as a lesbian, seducing a woman who lived across the hall from me. Doing a painting in my room of a woman whose eyes stung out at the viewer, whose hair was long and green, and whose fingers were flames. So when the anonymous woman came down the dark staircase to deliver her message of secret solidarity, I took this to mean that some of the other lesbians in the military at that time approved of my refusal to be cowed, to stop being who I am. And from the hastily delivered message of support for me, delivered on the shadowed basement steps, I understood that “some of us” meant that at least a few lesbians were talking to each other, were “with” each other too.
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