Venice

The Wages of an Inner War

Liz Gilmore Williams

Though my father survived World War II, he lived only twenty-five years after leaving the Air Force. He died three days before his fifty-second birthday, repressing his sexual identity to the end. What toll did this take on him?

He referred to his secret in a wartime letter to my future mother: “It would be easier for you to understand me if I told you a secret about me that would clear up all your misunderstanding. But I shall never tell you because if I did our life would not be so happy.” This, along with other evidence reviewed decades after his death, provided clues to my father’s existence as either bisexual or gay.

The pressure to repress his proclivity came from two fronts: familial and societal. My father, Herb Gilmore, had two older brothers who succumbed to deadly diseases before his birth. A third suffered brain damage from diphtheria and needed lifelong care. No wonder Herb felt a need to please his strict Protestant parents.

The military banned gays outright in 1943, two years after Herb enlisted. As a soldier in the Army Air Corps (later, the Army Air Force), he knew the consequences of engaging in gay sex: a court-martial and dishonorable discharge, not to mention possible physical harm and contempt. “He would never have disgraced his parents that way,” said my mother. 

After the military, living a straight life seemed a necessary adaptation. Homosexuality offended most Americans and violated social norms. The Judeo-Christian tradition considered homosexuality a sin; the law, a crime; and the medical profession, a disease. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association’s first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatrists’ bible, declared homosexuality pathological behavior. Ten years after the war, many Americans demonized homosexuals, along with Communists and any other nonconformists. Herb read the newspapers. He must have known about the Miller Act, which criminalized sodomy in our nation’s capital, investigations of homosexuals in other states, and suspected gays naming names to ease their predicaments.

Even practicing gays conformed to the mainstream of American life. Gay organizations endorsed conformity in gender roles for gaining acceptance by “normals.” Gays themselves saw their “condition” as a problem. Herb may have felt hopeless when marriage didn’t “fix” his sexuality, a common belief in decades past. A married man who loved his family, he could not risk losing his job or going to jail. 

And after years of marriage, he most likely felt loyal to my mother and would not want to hurt her. Besides, he had no way of knowing whether he’d be happier without her. Living alone could be worse. As he got older, he probably felt he couldn’t attract a man or that it was too late to start anew. He may have felt trapped. To vent his rage, he regularly blew his top as if someone pulled the pin in a grenade in his head. Did his explosions derive from years of repressed urges? 

Sunday dinners at our house gave Daddy the perfect stage on which to pick a fight and storm off, as the hearts of my sisters and me pounded away. One time, before dinner, he took a piece of beef out of the pot in which it was cooking, tasted it, and threw it at my mom. It missed and splatted onto the kitchen window, a note sliding down the glass in steady decrescendo. 

After Daddy got home from working the night shift at a printing company on most Friday nights, my parents argued. Daddy fished for a fight to provoke Mom, and she tried not to take the bait. Still, my mother always felt that he loved her: “Your father left that life behind when he married. I really think Herb was faithful to me. . . . He never gave me a reason to distrust him or his word. I always knew where he was. There were never any suspicious phone calls or letters,” said Mom.

Though Mother defended Daddy years later, our household gave new meaning to the phrase “war on the home front.” Mother overate to soothe her emotions. My older sister April rebelled and started smoking and sneaking out at night. I chewed on my thumbs and forefingers until they bled. My sister Gwen stuttered and struggled in school. And my sister Jeanne became Little Miss Perfect. We all paid a price for Daddy’s anguish.

His artistic side mitigated the temper tantrums. The pride of our family, Daddy’s oil paintings graced the living room walls of my parents’ Cape Cod, my girlhood home. The still life of a brown jug spouting a rhododendron branch next to a dish towel hung over Mother’s secretary. The landscape of the covered bridge in Amish country adorned the mantel. This painting, now in my living room, conjures one of my earliest memories: I played beside the gurgling stream as a toddler while Daddy sat in a lawn chair and dabbed paint onto the canvas in the easel before him. 

Each Halloween, Daddy got out his pastels and drew an evil-looking witch, with a hooked nose and warts. He hung the poster-sized drawing on the top half of our front door. My sisters and I loved the pictures but they frightened some neighborhood kids, who wouldn’t knock on our door. 

Did my father channel his sexual longing into art, an acceptable pastime? Many feel Tchaikovsky, the gay Russian composer who ultimately committed suicide, did just that. Daddy didn’t kill himself but did his torment give cancer a foothold?

On some weekend afternoons, Daddy took my older sister and me to the Philadelphia airport to watch the planes take off and land. We stood at a chain-link fence bordering the airport, our fingers gripping the wires and pulling us closer to the taxiways. The aviation fuel-scented breeze cooled our faces and whipped our hair. As we covered our ears, the engines’ roar vibrated in our chests and sounded like buzz saws inside our heads. Beaming, Daddy must have felt as he did as an Air Force signalman in the Pacific, watching Flying Fortresses and Liberators take flight and bring his buddies back to base, when they all worked to win a war. 

Or maybe watching the airplanes had another meaning for him. Maybe the idea of flight, the freedom to escape time and place, captured his imagination. Maybe he wished to fly away—from parental expectations or societal pressure or family obligations—to a realm where he was again movie-star handsome and where anything was possible.

Liz Gilmore Williams worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., for two offices of the U.S. Congress and other organizations. Her book, No Ordinary Soldier: My Father’s Two Wars, was a Finalist in the 2018 International Book Awards contest in the military history genre. As a speaker for South Carolina’s Humanities Out Loud Program, Liz travels statewide to speak for meetings at sponsoring organizations that promote discussion about human values, traditions, and cultures. Liz earned an MA in American studies from the University of Maryland and belongs to the South Carolina Writers Association.