THE WOMEN WHO DON'T FIT IN (Air Force Lesbians)
From the April 27 San Francisco Chronicle:
THE WOMEN WHO DON'T FIT IN
Air Force lesbians feel scorn of the men they won't date
(This is the second of five excerpts from "Conduct Unbecoming:
Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military" by Chronicle national
correspondent Randy Shilts.)
Mountain Home Air Force Base
Mountain Home, Idaho
The news that a contingent from the Women in the Air Force was
being assigned to the remote Mountain Home Air Force Base sent
thrills through the enlisted ranks. Finally, some action.
With her slim, athletic build, Airman Penny Rand proved an
immediate hit with the guys. Before she had walked 20 feet from
her car toward the barracks, one of the first 35 WAFs to be
assigned to Mountain Home, three airmen were at her side, asking
for a date. They seemed genuinely incredulous when Penny ignored
At chow, more enlisted men hit on Penny and the other WAFs. "If
you're not going out with me, who are you going out with?" one
airman asked Penny. Penny said she wasn't going out with
anybody; she just didn't want to go out with any of them.
"What's wrong with you?" another man asked. "You don't like men?"
Within days, the tone was more surly. "You're just a f---ing
dyke," an airman concluded. And that was the word that went out
among the 3500 airmen, many of whom were profoundly disappointed.
The WAFs were a bunch of dykes.
From the time women first entered the U.S. military during World
War II, there was a truism among male GIs that classified all
uniformed women into one of two camps: those who would provide
for a man's sexual needs and those who would not. The former
were whores; the latter were dykes. As the saying went, "They're
either dykes or whores."
That aphorism, more than any other, waas the malediction that
military women faced as they began enlisting in larger and larger
numbers during the '70s. As with most stereotypes, there was
some truth behind the assumption that an inordinate number of
women in uniform were lesbian. The military's stringent criteria
for admitting its female members ensured this. Married women
were not allowed to enlist, and women who got pregnant were
immediately discharged. This almost guaranteed huge numbers of
WACs, WAVEs and WAFs whose sexuality leaned toward the
nonbreeding side of the street. By some counts, lesbians made up
80 percent of the women who served in World War II. Well into
the 1980s, the top echelons of the WACs and WAVEs came largely
from this group.
The assumption became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Young lesbians sometimes joined up specifically because they
expected to find other lesbians in the military. This was the
major reason Penny Rand had joined the Air Force two months after
graduating from Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The daughter of a telephone lineman, Rand knew in junior high
school that she wasn't like the other girls -- that her
friendships with her girlfriends were far deeper and more
meaningful, crushes, really. She didn't have words for what she
was or what her attractions meant. She didn't even know there
were words for it. She fulfilled her peers' expectations by
dating men, though she always sensed that whatever long-term
relationship she found would be with another woman.
When she was 15 or 16 and riding in her parents' car in Tulsa,
they pulled alongside a woman alone in her car; she was wearing a
blue uniform. Penny fantasized about the attractive, independent
woman who, she dreamed, was like herself, and it struck her that
she might meet other women like herself in the military. A
recruiter promised opportunities that women were hard-pressed to
find in the civilian world: equality and more than 150 jobs to
choose from. Penny signed on the dotted line.
From the first days of Penny's initial assignment in Idaho, it
was clear that the Air Force, like the rest of society, had not
understood what women's equality really meant. Yes, there were
150 different jobs women could choose from, but they were
basically 150 different types of clerical jobs. Or you could be
a cook or a nurse. Penny had wanted to go into photography or
illustration -- she had some commercial-art training in high
school -- but these jobs were not open to her. Instead, she
became a secretary in the office that handled the base's
During her lunch breaks and evenings, she fended off the sexual
advances of the male airmen, who had taken to hooting and
hollering at the small, frightened cluster of WAFs as they made
their way around the base. At night, the women shoved broom
handles through the push bars of their barracks doors to keep the
men from trying to break into their rooms.
It was around this time that Penny began to read about women's
The Women's Strike for Equality provided "Freedom Trash Cans" at
demonstration sites across the country, where women could deposit
their bras and lipsticks and other accoutrements of their
cosmetic subjugation. Women should dress for comfort, feminists
argued, not to please men. Their substantive demands were so
elemental that, years later, it would be hard to imagine they
were ever contreversial: equal pay for equal work, a chance for
traditionally male jobs, and more participation in the political
decisions that shaped their destinies, such as abortion and
The message made a lot of sense to Penny. She saw the severely
restricted Air Force job list as a preview of her life and she
was not enthusiastic. She was just 18 years old, but she knew
there would be no man supporting her. Without a college degree,
she could look ahead to 45 years of low-level jobs at pay more
than 40 percent less than what a man would earn for the same work.
Rather than offer a solution, Women in the Air Force seemed a
part of the problem. As the size of the WAF contingent on the
base grew, so did the seriousness of the problems with men,
including rapes. Barracks meetings, however, consisted not of
serious advice to help women cope with the pandemic sexual
harrassment but of makeup tips from a perky little lieutenant
fresh from ROTC. It was important always to look one's best, she
Many women dropped out of the military rather than take the
constant harrassment. Penny's closest friend was one who went to
her chaplain to confess she was gay and wanted out. The chaplain
seemed understanding and referred the young woman to the Judge
Advocate General's office. There, lawyers asked her for the
names of other lesbians, but she refused to give any.
While other women left, Penny rebelled. She stopped wearing
makeup and, in the ultimate act of feminist defiance of that
time, stopped shaving her legs. When she was counseled that WAF
members shaved their legs to look feminine, she smiled warmly but
refused to shave.
When she was ordered to shave her legs, she disobeyed the order.
No sooner had she gotten her promotion to airman first class than
-- even before she had sewn on her stripes -- she was busted back
These acts of insolence, her refusal to date male airmen, her
outspoken belief that she deserved the same opportunities that
men had, all contributed to certain suspicions.
Rand recalls being called into the JAG office and being greeted
by two young male lawyers, both captains. One opened by saying a
terrible sickness was spreading among women on the base --
lesbianism. Lesbians had been harrassing the other women, he
said, and they wanted to put a stop to it.
Penny didn't believe a word of it. She had seen plenty of sexual
harrassment, all right, and it all came from heterosexual males,
not lesbians. But the lawyer wanted to know who in the barracks
was lesbian. "We're doing this to protect you," he said.
Penny said she didn't know any lesbians.
She must know some, he said reasonably. All she had to do was
give him their names. Nobody would ever know.
When Penny refused again, the other lawyer took over, in a far
nastier tone. "What about you?" he asked. "We have suspicions
that you probably are, too." Rand laughed. "Are you a lesbian?"
Rand laughed again without answering.
The second lawyer said that they would find out who the lesbians
were, and they would get them all, and if Penny did not come out
with it right now she would get a dishonorable discharge. "You'll
never be able to find a job," the first lawyer pressed. "You'll
be the same as a felon in some states. You'll have no benefits,
Penny still refused to talk, and the lawyers finally let her go.
For all her bravado during the interrogation, she was terrified.
She was only a few months out of high school, and she had already
done something that could follow her for the rest of her life.
And then in the weeks that followed, one after another of her
friends -- heterosexual and homosexual women who didn't fit into
traditional female roles, the ones who wouldn't go out with the
guys, the women's libbers -- began disappearing.
Further excerpts (part three being on "The interrogation of gay soldiers")
will appear in the Chronicle in the next few days. I probably won't get ahold
of a copy to post ... you'll have to find the book.