LGBTs Share Home Front Stories from WWII
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.