Yesterday I polished the case that holds Norma’s American flag. NORMA COLEMAN: 1932-1998. Nicki had presented the enormous cotton stars and stripes to me at the funeral. Karen, in uniform, blew “Taps” until she broke down in tears, then the mechanical bugle at the V.A. Cemetery took over. Norma’s lover of twenty years, Phyllis Ann, a Marine, had been interred just up the hill thirteen years earlier. Norma had been so proud of being in the Navy in World War II.
Were Norma and Phyllis Ann anachronisms, militant dykes marching not for gay rights but for democracy? Does a butch dress in uniform not for erotic but for patriotic reasons? Why were they willing to risk being booted out of boot camp for the illusion of belonging somewhere?
And what am I, a lefty-liberal pacifist effete queer, doing honoring a flag on my dresser?
It isn’t because the propaganda of the military-industrial complex suddenly made me see the light. Menopause hasn’t awakened nascent testosterone and produced a cheerleader for rape and pillage and Tom Clancy. No, it’s because while I may have been appalled by them, I respected Norm’s fervent convictions.
I don’t believe for a minute that the fiasco of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell inspired a movement of Don’t-Enlist. No, we signed up by the thousands knowing full well that the service was a queer booby trap. So, what else is new?
Sure, more baby dykes are flagrant these days, declaring themselves to Mom and Dad and the whole damn high school. But of the one in ten kids who are gay, the flagrant children are only one of their own ten. The other nine are still trying to pass like Norma did and lying their asses off about who they’re seeing, what they’re doing, and why they wear Melissa Etheridge t-shirts.
I thought of enlisting when I was a kid. I liked the idea of not worrying about what to wear, of living a Girl Scout kind of life. I was so lost and felt so different I thought if I looked and acted like everyone else maybe I’d belong somewhere. But I was an independent cuss even back then, a night person who knew reveille would be beyond torture. “Yes sir” were not words I was capable of saying without a smirk. Plus, worst horror of all, they made you wear skirts.
Privilege saved me. My father, a veteran, had gotten high enough in the civil service to be able to afford to send me to college. It was the lesser of two evils. Not every young woman has that choice. Not only does the military promise three squares, a bed and a paycheck, but a girl can go to school, travel, look forward to a pension and be sequestered with other like-minded girls. Not an easy package to turn down. Once I looked on eager soldiers as incomprehensible mutants; now I know the women in my dormitory had, like me, one choice more than some of their peers in barracks. And that other servicewomen choose their vocation because they believe in it. The patriots may be the children of hawks or military brats or even yuppie progeny disgusted with money worship. Maybe a beloved mentor served in Viet Nam. Or maybe the kid’s itching to come out and she knows Aunt Hattie, who flies the flag every sunny day and wouldn’t vote for Clinton because she thought of him as a draft dodger, met her lady love on a Korean base. Close quarters can be an aphrodisiac.
In the sixties and seventies I hated war and therefore those who waged it. I wanted to ban poppy-selling veterans from public spaces.
I still abhor people who glorify war or make big money from weapons. The causes of bloodshed are incomprehensible to me. Yet these threats exist and in a world of mad men I can’t argue that a peacetime army’s a stupid idea, even if it’s not always used in what I consider to be a responsible manner.
As long as the threat’s there—and the military’s not likely to go away—then I support the young women who envision their tomboy days going forever on in a fighter plane or on the high seas. What courage it must take to shut the lid on a tank going across the desert. I never want to see a baby dyke go down in a flaming chopper, but Norma would have done it for her country without a second’s hesitation.
Something in me says the whole dyke community should have been at Norma’s graveside although she scorned longhairs, commies, dykes with pierced noses, and probably only forgave me my peace-marching days because she thought I’d been young and foolish.
I honor Norm’s flag and her sister keyboarding, gun-slinging, humvee-driving soldiers for marching for their beliefs just as I march for mine. I understand that camouflage uniforms are not so different from my denim one. I no longer look down from my white barely middle class height at the dykes who choose to earn the very benefits that enabled my father to offer me an option other than the military.
The handful of us at the cemetery had grown to know and love one hell of a woman, a military dyke who fought for my right to protest war and demand equality for queers. My question is, would I join her to fight for this flag on my dresser?