Gay Veteran Reflects On Life In And Out Of The Navy.

by jim darby

1950s: Sailor Spends A Night In Jail After Gay Bar Is Raided.

In 1952, I received what we call the SSS, Selected Service System envelope. Every young man who got one of those, of course, you got instant diarrhea because it meant your life’s over. You are going off to the Army. I went to the Naval recruiting station, and I told them my story and asked if I could get into the Navy, even though I was drafted. He said, “Well, if you sign right here, we’ll take you.” Of course I did. That’s how I got in the Navy. I didn’t want to go in the Army, I didn’t want to crawl in the mud.

When you go into the military, there is a form that you fill out. The very bottom question has to do with homosexuality. On my application it said, are you a practicing homosexual?” I decided I could morally say, “No.” I’m not practicing, I have perfected it. I know how to do it.” And so I wasn’t lying.

I liked the Navy very much. There were lots of tasks that you had to perform, swinging on the ropes and the swimming and crawling and everything. I felt I could do all that stuff. I couldn’t take a gun apart very well. Even firefighting I enjoyed. Jumping off a three-story building with all your clothes on into the water. Then taking your pants off and they’re wet, and you make a flotation device out of them. That was challenging and fun.

I remember coming home on leave. My friend Ronny, who was gay, I worked with him in the stockyards. I was now 21 when I came home actually. He said, “Now that you’re 21, we can legally drink, let’s go to a gay bar.” We went to a bar called Sam’s at Clark and Division, which was the gay neighborhood in the 50s. There were probably five or six bars, two blocks apart. You could go to one, and then to another. We went to Sam’s, had a couple of drinks. Suddenly, all the lights went on. The police came in the front door and said, “It’s a raid, don’t anybody move.” Everybody ran out the back door. The back door was wide open. There was a ramp and a paddy wagon. Everybody was ushered right into the paddy wagon. Were we dumb!

We were arrested and thrown in jail. I remember, Ronny was in the next cell. I was thrown into a cell with a guy in the Air Force. I was in the Navy and he was home on leave. Very tall, handsome guy. Only one metal bunk, two people had to sleep on the metal bunk together. We did. Of course we partied all night. My friend Ronny was in the next cell, “What are you doing? What are you doing? What’s going on in there?”

I remember saying, “That is the biggest dick I’ve ever seen in my life.” Ronny’s arm came around the bar, said, “I want it, I want it, I want it.” He’s yelling. And the bailiff or jailkeeper, whatever, he had his wooden club. He’s pounding on his desk and said, “Shut up you fucking queers and go to sleep.”

In the morning, we went before the judge. The judge looked at us and said, “You are in the Navy and you’re in a place like that.” He turned to the other guy and he said, “You are in the Air Force and you’re in a place like that. What is this country coming to? Disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, 25 dollars, get the hell out of here.” I assumed that they would notify the Navy and that I’d be out. They never said anything. They never sent anything up to Great Lakes. That was it.

 

1952: “Mr. Darby, Do You Know What A Homosexual Is?” Navigating the Witch Hunts of Gays In The Military.

This is 1952, and the witch hunts were out there, way out there somewhere. We heard about them. People would disappear, but we also knew that you could not be gay in the military at that time. People were actually being hunted down. The method was, you get one person, and you tell that one person, “We’ll give you an honorable discharge if you give us the names of everybody you know who is gay.” That’s what was going on. They would get one person, and that person would panic and snitch on others. If there were any.

I knew that because I was gay, I had to, so to speak, keep my mouth shut. I did, but I am the type of person who does a lot of talking with my hands. I think my hands give me away anyway, so I figured the hell with it. There were a lot people in the military that knew I was gay. Because it was the Korean War, they were lenient. I can remember sitting at a typewriter and a very handsome sailor walked by, and I went like that (turning his head and ogling).

My commanding officer says, “Darby, you’re going to fall off your fucking seat.”

“What? What are you talking about?” I didn’t realize I wasn’t so obvious.

I was stationed on an island off the coast of Seattle called Bainbridge Island. That is where our radio station was and our schools. We went through three or four different technical communication schools. I was waiting for a top secret clearance. I did get a call to come into Seattle. They wanted to talk to me. I thought, here it comes.

I went over to Seattle. Ferry boat. Went into a dark room with five guys around the table. I sat down and they said, “Well, Mr. Darby, do you know what a homosexual is?” I thought, “Oh, shit. They found me out.” I’m glad it was dark, because I probably blushed.

I said, “I think so.” Then they started asking me a lot of questions.

One of them was, “Well, on April 4th, you went on liberty with these three guys and you stayed at the Stratton Hotel in Seattle.”

I thought, “Oh my God, they followed me around.” It turned out they weren’t after me. They were after another guy. A strange story of a guy who got caught blowing somebody. The guy who caught him was blackmailing him. He was blackmailing him for two dollars a week. One week, he came to the guy twice and said he wanted the two dollars. The guy said, “I gave you that two days ago.” He says, “No you didn’t.” They argued about it and he says, “I want a receipt for every money I give you.” He started collecting receipts.

At one point, he couldn’t take it any longer and he went to his commanding officer, and he threw all the receipts on top of them. He says, “I’m out of here. I want out of the fucking Navy.” I went on liberty with him, not knowing that he was a gay person. That was the connection. I think they thought they had a really live wire with me, because they figured this guy easily could be gay.

In that interview they asked me if I knew anyone who was a homosexual. I said, “No.”

Actually, that interview ended by one of them saying, “Mr. Darby, what do you think about homosexuality?”

I said, “Well, I’m Roman Catholic, and it’s against my religion.”

And then he said, “Okay, that’s it. Over.”

As I walked out the door, I thought, “So is lying, and cheating, and stealing, and everything else, and I do that too.” That was a life saving response. If I said yes, I would be out. I didn’t want to get out of the Navy. Number two, if they asked me, I would have said, “You know, am I not allowed to have some secrets? I don’t tell people I have a pimple on my ass. That’s my personal business. Being gay, that’s my personal business. It’s nobody else’s business except my own. I shouldn’t be asked that.”

I went back, and I waited. Nothing happened, and I got my top secret clearance. Off I went to Washington DC for language school at the National Security Agency.

 

1963: The Start Of A Five-Decade Love Story: “We’re Both Very Fortunate.”

When I left the Navy, I got a job at Ford Motor Company Aircraft Factory. It was a good job. My military record made it easy for me to get a job at an aircraft plant. My job was to tear down a small portion of a jet engine. Something about three feet wide. They would come by on conveyors and I had one hour to tear one down. It was easy, very easy. I could tear down an engine in 20 minutes, I didn’t need an hour. I was told I had to take an hour, because that’s the way the line moves.

I remember some of the guys on the line. Everybody knew I was gay. I just was gay, that’s it. They would actually say to me, “Oh, we got a guy for you.”

I said, “I don’t need anybody to pimp for me. I get my own guys. Don’t worry about me.”

One time they said, “There’s a guy two lines over.” He says, “He’s just your type, just your type.”

I said, “Oh, really?”

One day the guy said, “Here he is, here he is.” I look over and I see this tall, blonde, pink blonde bouffant guy walking by.

Anyway, we got together, and we turned out to be great friends. He lived here in Hyde park, John Fagen. A lot of crazy stories about him. We would go to the bars together all the time. Always had a good time with John.

The factory closed. They shut down, and there were 15,000 people. I wound up with a couple of little jobs that weren’t much. I decided to go back to school and get my degree, which I did. I graduated from Roosevelt University in 1963. Six weeks after my graduation, I was visiting John Fagen here in Hyde Park. I saw a guy walking down the street. He was holding a book like this and reading. He was gorgeous. I just went (whistling).

John said, “Darby, we don’t whistle at guys on the Southside.” I said, “I don’t give a shit. Look how good looking he is.”

He didn’t hear me and away he went. John and I went swimming, we came back, went to dinner. I had a motorcycle, a small Honda motorcycle. I was there, I was going to unchain my bike, and I saw the same guy walk by. This is it.

I went right over and said, “Do you have a light?” We all smoked in those days.

He said, “Yes.” That’s when I met Patrick. July 17, 1963. Which is 53 years, yesterday. Then six weeks we moved together, and we’ve been together ever since.

We’ve been together forever, it seems like. We were the ones who, Lambda Legal came and asked us if we would be the two people who would challenge the state of Illinois for-same sex marriage.

We said, “Of course.” We did challenge the state and we had a lot of TV interviews. They told us we were going to get a lot of publicity. I said, “Oh, good.” It was fine. We had some interesting times with the reporters.

I can remember one of them saying to me one time, “Why do you want to marry Patrick?” Lambda was standing there.

I said, “I want to get all my hands on his money.” They said, “No, don’t put that in the paper. No, no. Don’t say anything like that.” I was just tired of the same old answer all the time.

Our relationship is probably more luck than anything, because I don’t know what keeps people married and what doesn’t. Everybody says you make sacrifices, you do all this and you do all that, but it just happened. We’re both very fortunate.

 

1990s: Protesting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

It was a pride parade in Chicago, and it was 1991 or 2. I was at a booth and I met Sergeant Miriam Ben-Shalom. She is a lesbian who was kicked out of the military, sued the government, got back in. Probably back in for a day when they said, “Are you a lesbian?” she said, “yes”, and back out again. Under a different charge, I don’t know what they, between the first and second. Miriam was really angry and said that gay people should have just as much right to serve as anybody else. If we want to.

When I met her at the booth, I told her I was Navy, I was retired. I had the GI bill. She kept poking me and saying, “Well, don’t you think you owe a little bit back to your country?” I said, “I served four years.” She said, “No, you got your GI bill. You got your free college. There are a thousand people being kicked out every year, and they’re not getting anything. Don’t you feel guilty about that?” I said, “Well, not really.” By the time I was done with that conversation with her, I had already agreed to start the Chicago chapter of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America, GLBVA. That was 1991 and 92. Now this is 2016, 25 years later and we are still going strong in Chicago.

In 1992, before 92, President elect Clinton said he was going to lift the ban. We totally believed him. When he got in, he started waffling a little. He came to Chicago one time for some event. We were all lined up with waffles, frozen waffles throwing waffles at his car. Nobody knew what the hell the waffles were all about. He did not lift the ban. He was chickenshit, he was afraid of the military brass. He made this compromise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Harass, Don’t Pursue.

I think in some ways, it did help some people. They couldn’t totally go after you. Some people managed to escape because they could deny it. They were not caught in flagrante or anything. That helped a few people, but it encouraged all the witch hunts, which got much worse in 94, 95. It was a thousand people a year. I think one year it was 1,500 people kicked out.

I went to DC for the big march in 1993. It was a million people. As far as we could see in the Mall was gay people. Subway, stores, restaurants, anywhere you went. We had agreed to sit down in front of the White House and protest the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. We were not going to move. Miriam and a guy from New York, I’ll think of his name in a minute, and me. We’re the only three veterans. There were 20 other people. They wouldn’t sit on the ground on the concrete because they didn’t want to get their clothes dirty or whatever.

The three of us are sitting there. The police came along and said, “Are you going to get up or do I have to pick you up?”

I looked at him and I said, he was really good looking and I said, “Oh, honey. You can pick me up anytime you want.”

They picked us up and handcuffed us and threw us in the paddy wagon and took us down to the station. I remember they said, to the guy in front of me, “Do you have an alias?” They were filling out his form.

He said, “Mary.” The place went up for grabs. He didn’t know what was so funny.

Then the second thing he said is, “Okay, all the men in one cell, and all the women in the other cell.” Everybody’s, “Yah!” It got to be chaos. Fifty dollar fine, out you go.

 

1990s: Gay Man Fights For Inclusion And Representation In Chicago’s Veteran Community.

I had already agreed to start the Chicago chapter of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America, GLBVA. That was 1991.

The camaraderie that has been built up with the people – we have members for ten or fifteen years. We get involved in, we’re involved in the Memorial Day parade. We did some wreath laying in Chicago and different places. Once we were doing a wreath laying in Daley Plaza downtown. We had just a pink triangle of flowers. The American Legion runs – it used to run that event.

John Mahoney was the commander, and when he saw us do that, he said, “Why don’t you come and see me, and I will include you in the program next year.”

I said, “Good.” He gave me his card and all his cards fell on the sidewalk, and I picked them up and gave them. I went to see him a few weeks later, and I had my stationary in case he wasn’t there, and my card, which said, Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America.

He said, “What is this and what do you want?”

I said, “I want to be part of the program like everybody else.” I said, “You invited me to come down here.”

He said, “I never saw you before in my life.”

I said, “You’re a fucking liar. You gave me your card. I picked up your cards on the sidewalk, don’t you remember that?” He denied it.

It took a while. I kept calling and writing. One day I got a call from the director of Veterans Affairs in Chicago and I knew him from activities. He said, “Darby, will you stop bothering the American Legion?”

I said, “No.” They called his office to complain about me writing them letters and phoning them.

I told them, I said, “They do not control Daley Plaza. If we want to lay a wreath there, we’ll do it.” He said something like, “As the director of Veterans Affairs…”

I said, “What is that anyway?”

He said, “Well, this is 21 veterans that meet once a month from all different veterans groups.” I asked him who was the gay person.

He said, “Nobody ever applied.”

I said, “What time do you meet?”

He said, “Tomorrow at 3:00.”

I said, “I’ll be there.”

He brought me in, 21 of them in a big circle. He said, “Mr. Darby is a gay veteran and he would like to join the counsel. How many people would like a gay veteran on the counsel?” Ten hands went up, ten hands didn’t go up. One guy said, “I don’t think we should be taking the vote while he’s standing in the room.” I had already seen the hands. There all on one side for some reason. I went out in the hall and one more veteran came in while I was there. He came in and he said, “The vote is 11 to one to accept you.” I became a part of the council, and I became the secretary the first year. I was secretary for 20 years.

That enabled me to get a salute to LGBT Veterans, downtown Chicago. Every veterans group does a wreath laying for, not only, either on Memorial Day or Veterans Day, but also for any special occasion. We get Daley Plaza for a whole hour. We have somebody doing the National Anthem. We always have a speaker. We have a color guard. We have wreath laying at the eternal flame and we have two ladies that play taps every year. It’s really a wonderful ceremony. No thanks to John Mahoney because he desperately tried to keep us out.

For us, it is a salute to LGBT Veterans, to their service. To recognize that. Here we are as out as you could possible be in downtown Chicago, and this huge plaza. It makes a big difference to us.

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