“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.

A Simple Revolution is available now from Aunt Lute Books. For marketing or publicity inquires, contact marketing@auntlute.com

 

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Community Forum

  1. Judy Grahn says:

    Thanks for all these comments. With the advent of Gays in the military being accepted, and the ongoing struggle within those institutions–Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines– to give equal benefits to Gay spouses, it’s a whole new world from anything I experienced. Hearing President Obama’s speech and the listing of “Stonewall” along with Seneca Falls (women’s rights) and Selma (Black civil rights) I knew we had crossed a huge threshold of national commitment. There will be lots of struggles ongoing, but no going back. Still, the first step in liberating a community is everyone being “out” as far as possible, as this is the only way to know where other people stand. And, it’s taking your own stand. Is it worth it?

  2. MD says:

    Judy

    Your excerpt is a powerful one. Your description of these experiences evokes my own memories of oppression, and being expected to operate and behave within a framework (and society) that systematically keeps pushing non-heterosexual women down and out.
    Living out loud is something i strive to do every day… for myself and for the greater lesbian community. Visibility is so important among us.

    Thank you for your allowing us a journey into your thoughts, emotions, feelings and experiences.

  3. Patricia Jackson says:

    Judy, dear friend

    Thank you for being the real kind of warrior then and now- standing up to speak truth to power. How ironic that on the anniversary of Roe v Wade the military announces now women too can be sacrificed in combat and participate wars! We women activists in the ‘70s did not speak out, stand up and strive for this. Yes, many of us working class lesbians in the ‘50s & ‘60s saw no other economic way out –unfortunately still true – other than joining the military; we were kept naïve by the propaganda. (I myself, in 1959, wanted to join the WAVES, a unit of women in the Navy, my mother however forbade it.)

    All youth today deserve more choices than facing decades of school loan debts, dead-end jobs, unemployment, or joining the military. How much more positive to replace military service with free education and programs that prepare youth for living in a society founded on social justice.

    Thank you Judy for this memoir, for sharing so many parts of your life, for preserving our herstory. I have now read your book twice and live in all the moments! Our herstory is rarely part of any textbook a youth might discover in a classroom – certainly not one with individual stories about gay elders’ encounters and experiences. Sharing stories with youth anchors our herstory/history for them.

    And, I am filled with hope for the words of youth on this community dialogue, your analysis and admiration. Again, this shows the power and support we can bring together as youth and elders.
    Patricia

  4. Ellen says:

    Judy,

    Thank you so much for this piece and for opening up this community dialogue. I’ve shared this excerpt with a few friends and one thread of conversation that has followed is the subject of being ‘out’ as a public or private identity. Sometimes I think it’s difficult for gay people of my generation (in our early twenties) to understand what the world looked like for queers even 50 years ago. I think we still get a lot of silence or static, so to have a concrete description of the institutionalized, targeted, alienation is really powerful. It’s something solid I can carry with me.
    With that history of authoritarian silence on the table, I wonder at the ease with which many young queer people choose not to come out, or at least not beyond a small circle. On the other hand, the phrase ‘strip searching of the soul’ really drives home the desire and fundamental right to privacy and to intimacy. So, to whom do we owe the truth of ourselves? The people we love, sure, but is it also the people who find our love uncomfortable?
    In any case, I just wanted to let you know that your work is definitely buzzing around my life and creating conversations, so thank you again!

  5. Chelsea M says:

    Pure magnetism… A must-read and must-order without a doubt.

    Just by this brief excerpt, I’m struck by Judy’s simultaneously frank, unapologetic, and searing content which she addresses through her incredibly conversational style.

    Juxtaposing her comparatively mild tone with brutally honest observation and remembrance makes for a surprisingly compelling journey for any reader… it seems the bleak and often horrific nature of what she describes as the “aesthetics of barracks life” is tempered into something productively palatable and profoundly relatable across generations and communities.

    This story seems to stand testament to Judy’s legacy of creating waves in radical politics and artist-hood, in the face of the beating seas of coerced and violently enforced silence, exclusion, division and invisibility. Her strength and resolve are made tangible here, and, more importantly, made a materially emotional resource for the making of THIS generation’s feminist activist poets!

  6. LH says:

    Hi Judy,

    This is such an incredibly powerful excerpt. It is one thing to understand oppression as a social concept, but to read about the ways in which you directly experienced isolation, invisibility, and silence as blatant tools of oppression being systematically imposed upon your life inside and outside the military shows that oppression was and is a living, breathing (and unrelenting) entity. And one that must be continuously and actively broken through, dismantled, and dissolved…

    By someone like you, a warrior, who breaks the rules! By people who break the silence by utilizing their voices, and “saying it out loud” in the face of adversity. Your single act of coming out to the captain cut holes in the cloak of isolation and invisibility that shrouded the barracks, and allowed a glimmer of community to form amongst the closeted women who reached out to show they were “with you”. I can imagine it was the glimmer that helped keep many women’s hearts alive in that environment of constant repression and fear.

    It is so amazing, and wildly inspiring, to read your story. This work is a beautiful testament to the limitless power of voice, courage, and living Out Loud- things that I believe are just as relevant and crucial for us to embrace now as they were then. I am so grateful for your voice and your stories. Thank you!

  7. animal prufrock says:

    wow judy.

    i had no idea. i mean of course i had ideas – the military just seems its inherently full of horror stories – as its function is to horrify “enemies” – but the scary part is that once anyone is trained to view “enemies” – they can be named – found – anywhere – no one is safe.

    it is so important to read these stories – especially now – as we turn a corner – the tilt towards “gay” being an accepted part of society. spoken even by the president – it is critical to our maturation as a community to re-member how we came to be – through what trials – and tortures –

    amnesia is insidious and silent and quick onset…

    i almost take for granted – but must mention – how superb your writing is – the poetry to unfold complex and otherwise “long stories” with a brevity, grace and passion that only a poet can truly create.

    thank you for remembering and writing down this legacy of lesbian struggles which are matched with triumphs – even within the barracks of our minds.

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