Your Name: Helen Franziska Gerhardt
Your Age: 51
Your Pronouns: She, her,
Your County of Residence: Allegheny
How do you describe your identity? Bisexual
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? I was about eight years old when I met the woman from whom I received my middle name, Franziska Boas, daughter of anthropologists Franz Boas and Marie Krackowize.
Only when I began to write this response and explore my memory of that meeting did I finally research my namesake, discovering that in 1933 she had founded the interracial Boas School of Dance in New York, which brought people together across all defined lines of identity to practice creative expression, psychological exploration, and social activism for civil rights and interracial justice. When rising costs of living finally forced her to leave New York in 1950, she moved to Rome, Georgia, Franziska as Head of the Dance and Physical Education Department at Shorter College, where she taught dance to my mother. She became a member of the Georgia Council on Human Relations, which worked with worked with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the American Friends Service Committee, the YMCA, and the YWCA in the fight for integration and against discrimination in all of its forms. She also helped to found the Rome, GA Council on Human Relations.
I found this formerly unknown history of my namesake mindblowing, in light of my own central concerns and activism over the last eleven years. I was especially struck by how I have accidently followed in my namesake’s footsteps through my service on the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. My mother had only spoken of Franziska as her dance teacher and one of the strongest people she had ever known.
What I remember of the meeting with Franziska Boas is visiting her home, full of crafts and art from all over the world, being impressed with her friendliness and dignity and meeting her partner, Jan Gay. I remember that Jan told good stories and introduced me to goat cheese, which I thought was very strange at the time, as strange as I found my namesake Franziska being married to a woman. But along with that sense of strangeness for my eight-year old self, my remembered impressions of their home and their partnership are of beauty, friendliness, adventure, strength, generosity, and grounded, level-headed warmth.
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Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? I knew I was bisexual from mid-high school, but the best friend with whom I fell in love was decidedly heterosexual, and I never shared my physical feelings for her. In college, I loved, partnered, then married, with a dear friend, Dave, for over twelve years. After we divorced, I joined the Army National Guard in order to return to school without going deeper into debt and I met a woman in a nonfiction writing class at the University of Missouri with whom I fell in love, I was very lucky to have fully accepting friends and family, to whom I quickly broke the news.
But in 2001, Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was still in full force. Most of my fellow soldiers in my National Guard unit were fundamentalist Baptists from small towns in Missouri, many very homophobic, and Jean absolutely insisted that I stay in the closet, making me promise not to reveal any detail of our lives together. She had reason for her fear, since a few of my fellow soldiers had joked about giving a “blanket party” for the “fairy-boy” that they had found out about in our unit a few years back. Giving a blanket party means rolling up a fellow soldier in an Army blanket party so that they can’t move and then beating them with bars of soap placed in socks, the length of the socks giving more velocity to the swinging blows. Jean felt that I should trust no one, that even a whisper of a rumor could be dangerous.
But although I agreed that silence was basic self-protection, I found the closet very hard to live in. I generally am very open with friends and coworkers about my life and feelings and am not so good at keeping my mouth shut. So, like so many others forced into the military closet, when I went to my monthly weekend of service I tried to tell true-ish stories about my partnership by faithfully reporting the real basics of our lives except for my partners real gender, transforming Jean into John.
But when my National Guard transportation unit got news that we would be deployed to Iraq in 2003, that level of fiction seemed too dangerous to try to maintain through a year’s deployment. Jean and I concocted a virtual breakup with the fictional John and the Helen in uniform – and the private Helen, the private relationship with the woman Jean, became increasingly ghostly and fictional over the sixteen deployment months of silences, edits, and sometime outright lies.
When fellow soldiers shared news from back home, their griefs, their concerns for family, children, girlfriends, boyfriends – sometimes their sense of estrangement and fear of what distance was doing to their relationships – I could listen, comfort, encourage, but I could not share any of my own struggles, memories, concerns, hopes, and yes, my own fear and widening sense of distance from Jean, who wrote faithfully, tenderly, lovingly and who tried to provide for every possible practical or emotional need she could intuit or glean from our intermittent phone conversations (food, toiletries, books, music, the care packages were so full of caring.) But although she was ready to hear and comfort any fear or distress as it impacted by own personal well-being, Jean often did not want to hear the worst of what I was witnessing regarding the behavior of my own unit toward Iraqi civilians, an escalating pattern of dehumanization and abuse that was being enacted all across Iraq by U.S. military and private contractors such as Blackwater.
I knew that if both of us had been safe back in the States that Jean would have been distressed and concerned about such military brutality, but she did not want me to make waves in my unit. She was terrified and outraged with me when I reported a young man for crashing into an Iraqi car “for fun,” a report that led to no consequence or accountability and resulted in only resentment toward me. She saw me as already being at physical risk because of our relationship, because of our secret, and because of the increased dangers she rightly saw as connected to the pervasive stress, fear, and anger of the other men and women in my unit who were facing death and injuries, multiple deprivations as the most basic supplies were not provided by the Army, and the realizations that their own government had so fully lied to them, used them, abused them. She felt that those very legitimate angers would be displaced not just onto Iraqi civilians but on on me and any other group that had been dehumanized by long-entrenched prejudice and bigotry.
Jean desperately wanted me to keep my head down, stay silent, stay safe. She argued that if I put myself at risk, that I was also risking her basic well-being, happiness, mental health, even her ability to keep functioning in her own daily life as fear would debilitate her. Jean argued that based on a few pointed comments and jokes by fellow soldiers, we were fairly sure that a few others in my Guard unit had guessed my secret (all those care packages!) and that if I reported their behavior (ratted!) they would reveal our relationship and invite counterattacks of all sorts.
So, my letters to Jean began to fill up with the negative spaces of all she did not want to know. Our phone conversations began to fill with my silences, silences that she tried fill up with news from back home that she wanted to lift my spirits with, with all that she felt I should be striving to return to. My closet began to fill with darkness, blindness, deafness, dumbness not only for my own reality and full humanity which needed open air and light and communication, but for the Iraqis whose lives we were shattering. Being in the closet began to mean not just protecting my own personal safety and Jean’s emotional well-being and our future together, but also to mean cowardice for others who I perceived to be in far graver danger, suffering truly deadly dehumanization. My silence meant tolerance, complicity, and enablement of the darkest sides of men and women that I did indeed care for, suffer with, struggle to survive with, side by side.
I began to feel like my body and mind had been shot full of Novocain, numbness, grayness, living death. A zombie got up from my Army cot every day, climbed the steps up into my 18-wheeler truck, looked out the windshield at dust and desert that we traveled across to deliver supplies, looked out at the wide stretches of gray deadness and emptiness as reflections in a mirror.
Finally, on May 1, 2004, just back from a week-long transport mission to Mosul, I sat in a military recreation tent in southern Iraq and watched the TV on mute as it flashed photographs of men with sacks over their heads, their nakedness smudged by the fig leaves of digitized blur. Text marched across the bottom of the screen to explain the hoods, the pyramid of human bodies, the man’s neck in a dog collar, the hand that held the leash emerging from a uniform bearing our American flag, the smiling faces, the thumbs-up sign, the electric cords trailing from the outstretched arms of a man standing in the shape of a cross.
Those horrific images of Abu Ghraib appeared to me as another mirror, a distorted horror show mirror that showed the future that I and my unit had been driving toward, into – I saw that we were traveling along a twisted J-curve that led to the images at the prison, the hell that we had created for the flesh, blood, hearts, and minds, whose eyes and faces were covered by black hoods.
The next day I went to the female lieutenant of my platoon, who knew nothing of what happened out on convoys. I sat with her in a Humvee and shared what I had witnessed or heard about in my own unit, the thefts, threats, and escalating use of our Army trucks to crash into civilian vehicles, the boasts by one man that such a crash had killed a van full of women and children. I told her that my one attempt at reporting such behavior had been ignored by her higher chain of command, but that I was determined not to remain silent any more. I would begin the process of reporting outside my unit if need me, and that if that didn’t work, that I would write to the media back home, that I would tell the stories of the brutality that I was part of, complicit in, partly responsible for.
My lieutenant was a fundamentalist Christian who very much tried to live up to her own ideals – she was horrified to the point of nausea by what she had heard about Abu Ghraib, horrified by what she heard from me about the behavior of our unit. She went up the chain of command and demanded a change. She demanded that the unit commander and NCOs lay down new rules and accountability structures. She demanded that she be allowed to go out with us on convoys to make sure that the new rules were followed. And she followed through, coming on every convoy from that point on that I remember, the only officer I ever served with who shared the dangers of our daily work, the only officer I knew that demanded that we follow the the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Geneva Conventions that were meant to protect civilians.
My action was the beginning of coming back alive, but also the beginning of the slow death of my relationship with Jean. When I returned to the States, I struggled with PTSD and deep depression. Jean wanted me to put Iraq behind me, to look forward not back, and to stay in the closet with her in numerous ways, where she felt I would be safe, could have time to recover, could move toward healing with her protective care. She had graduated with her PhD while I had been in Iraq and had gotten a professorship in the deep South of Georgia, in a highly homophobic and conservative community. She could be open with her colleagues in the English department, but to our neighbors she wanted me to pretend to be a cousin who had come to live with her after service in the Army. I could not do it. I told her that although I would maintain my silence and not tell the full truth, that I could not live with any more such fictions.
I was still traveling back to Missouri one weekend each month to drill with my Army National Guard unit, also using those trips to spend time with my friends and family back in my old home town, the only people with whom I still felt I could be fully open and myself. Then, in the winter of 2004, our transportation unit merged with another. During our first December drill ,I was assigned to work very late one night with a member of the other unit. After hours of open, increasingly honest and personal conversation, I began to hear the same pattern of silences regarding his private life that I had long maintained. I could not bear all that we were not saying to each other. I broke my promise to Jean and told him that I was bisexual.
I had been right – my fellow soldier was gay, but his closet had been far darker than mine. His former partner had also been in the military. And he had been beaten to death by fellow soldiers when they had discovered him in drag at a gay bar. I was appalled by the story. I was appalled that this man had continued to serve in the military after the brutal murder of his partner. I was appalled by my own silence and my own continued service in the face of all the lies and ugly realities I had been part of, both as regards my own identity and the military’s treatment of Iraqis. Yes, this man’s story described exactly the death that Jean had feared for me. But all of our silences had led to this man’s death. had led to the injury and death of many, many soldiers. My research showed that incidents of violence – including sexual violence – had only increased with institution of Clinton’s DADT policy.
I decided that I couldn’t keep hauling my load of a lie anymore, that I could no longer remain in silence that was complicit in such violence, even murder. I wrote my story of my long lying about my sexual orientation for the New York Times in the spring of 2005. When my lieutenant called me up to tell me that she would wanted to treat the essay as a fictional piece, I told her that I would not be calling it fiction if asked by anyone in our unit or chain of command. Then I decided to do more – I knew many of my fellow soldiers wouldn’t ever see the story, so I went and visited many of my fellow soldiers in Missouri and told them the truth face to face. Some of them had guessed of course, but many of those fully surprised by my revelation also surprised me by their forthrightly expressed acceptance and commitment to continued friendship or comradeship. No one in my unit or chain of command instituted proceedings to discharge me. None of my fellow soldiers ever told me, but my belief is that my lieutenant and others that I served with fought for me to stay in our unit.
For Jean, my revelation in the New York Times was in many ways a betrayal. I understood her anger. I had broken my promise to her. Although I had not used her last name or revealed where we lived, I had risked her well-being. But silences were killing the heart of who I was. And not just the silences about my identity. Jean had cared for me in innumerable ways, but what I needed most was not to look away from what I had been part of in Iraq, not to deny how much damage I had helped to do, but to accept and declare both who I was and what I had been part of in Iraq, my shared responsibility for the damages done to Iraqis.
After a year of continued breakdown in Jean and I’s relationship, I applied to the University of Pittsburgh Creative Nonfiction program where I was determined to write the story of my deployment and begin to take responsibility for both my inactions and actions by telling the truth of what I had observed and been part of. We ended our relationship and I moved to Pittsburgh in August of 2006.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? I am fully open about my bisexuality, with friends, family, co-workers, and with fellow volunteers and activists.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? Pgh Lesbian Correspondent, twitter, FB, and other general media sources online
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. Lily Tomlin, for her forthright humor and groundedness.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. No response.
Describe your geographical community. No response.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. Not since leaving the Army.
Tell us about your access to health care in Western PA. Has it been LGBTQ competent (or not?) Yes
Describe your community in terms of being LGBTQ friendly (or not) In general, I’ve had no problems in any professional setting, but then in Pittsburgh I’ve pretty much been employed as a TA at UPitt, (where GLBQTIA+ identity often opens the doors of academia rather than closes them) or as community organizer for very progressive organizations that are committed to diversity.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? Yes, perhaps especially violence against trans members of our communities and the homelessness of GLGBTQ youth, who are often kicked out of their homes and experience hunger, cold, sexual predation, violence, and deep trauma.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? Passage of PA Fairness Act (HB1510 / SB974) Help provide safe housing and support systems for LGBTQ youth. [Sue, the AFFH Task Force is working on recommendations to address many of these concerns and I would like to provide more information soon.]
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. No response.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? No response.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? No response.
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? No response.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Full acceptance and active, open, equitable participation in all aspects of our communities, with full access to all basic needs: jobs, housing, safety, etc.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Fight for our political rights and equitable access to basic needs
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Commit to learning from each other and creating cultures of mutual caring and responsibility.
What motivated you to take part in this project? Your own activism and service to the community, Sue.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. No response.
Thank you, Helen.
Read the entire AMPLIFY LGBTQ Q&A archive.
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AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices.