On the Chartreuse Couch: Gene Elder Interviews Nancy Russell

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Russell

Gene: Nancy, so nice to have you here on the Chartreuse. There is certainly a lot of military history we want to talk about. But of most importance to us is your project to have a gay monument installed in Washington, D.C. Tell us about that.

Nancy: Thanks for having me. I have looked forward to visiting with you on your famous Chartreuse Couch. I am especially grateful to you for asking about our National LGBT Veterans Memorial Project. It is something we think should be important to everyone in our community, whether they served or not, and to our straight allies as well. So many of us here in San Antonio have served or have friends and lovers who served in the military. We started the project just before Congress repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on LGBTs serving openly in the military. We strongly believe that those who served in silence from the Revolutionary War to the present deserve to have a memorial located in our nation’s capital to memorialize their sacrifice for our country’s freedom while they struggled to win their own freedom to be themselves.

Gene: That is very true, and “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” is something we have all wondered about. And what will this memorial be? Is this a statue? Will there be something to read?

Nancy: It is not a statue. It is virtually impossible to portray gender identity in a statue. Although, being an artist, you may have some ideas on how to do that. The design we settled on consists of three granite panels 11 feet tall, placed in a triangle with a flagpole in the middle. Each panel will have two of the six service emblems on it. The photo shows what it will look like except that it will also have a rainbow flag waving under the American flag. There will also be a plaque identifying the monument as the National LGBT Veterans Memorial. On the base of the monument, encircling the flagpole, will be the words: “We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Gene: Interesting that you chose a quote from Franklin. Have you considered any others?

Nancy: “It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed” is a quote from President Obama, when the repeal passed, that we might consider. We are open to considering other quotes if anyone has one they wish to suggest.

Gene: Maybe you should have a contest and let veterans vote on a quote nationwide. You can stir up interest that way. Well, as you know, I love political art. And I do consider this political art. And where will it be?

Nancy: Since it will be a long time before Congress will consent to letting us place a monument on the mall with other national memorials, we are placing it in the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which is a private cemetery owned by Christ’s Church. There are many members of Congress buried there as well as John Phillip Sousa and former gay FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. It is also the site of many gay burials.

Gene: All the more interesting. And right there with J. Edgar. A personal hero of mine, since I like to keep files on everyone too.

Nancy: In that case, you will be interested to know that for Hoover’s birthday, members of the gay community in D.C. decorate his headstone with such things as a boa, red high heels and other gay-related decor.

Gene: Hahahaha! Well I know the FBI loves that.

 

A rendering of the National LGBT Veterans Memorial

Nancy: For gay service members, the cemetery is perhaps best known for the grave of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich. Matlovich was discharged in the ’70s for being gay. His quote on his tombstone reads, “They gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” It is a very gay-friendly cemetery and their board is very anxious for us to build the memorial there. We are under contract with them for the ground on which it will be built. It is a space 15-feet deep by 16-feet wide and is costing $25,000.

Gene: And the autobiography by Leonard Matlovich is one of the first I ever read when I came out. I have a file on him, too. And how are you raising the money?

Nancy: We are using a number of ways to raise the money. We are using social media, letters to gay-friendly businesses and corporations, booths at the San Antonio Pride and Washington, D.C. Pride events, etc. We also offer pavers that will be placed on the memorial grounds. The pavers may be engraved with the name, rank and service of a veteran or active-duty service member. There is also the option for a veteran to have their ashes interred on the site.

Gene: And the cost of a paver?

Nancy: Pavers come in three sizes. They are priced relative to the cost of the plots that we purchased on which the memorial will be built. Each burial plot cost us $2,500 and at 10 plots that is $25,000. The monument itself is estimated to cost between $100,000 and $150,000. So, the pavers cost $600, $900 and $1,200.

Gene: Can I buy a paver as an artist? I would think this would get a great deal of support.

Nancy: The intent of the pavers is not to recognize donors but to recognize those who have served. We believe that friends, family members, lovers, or the service members themselves should have the opportunity to memorialize a service member on the grounds of the monument.

Gene: How much is the memorial going to cost?

Nancy: We are not talking about a huge sum of money. We would like to raise $300,000 so that we can not only build the memorial but also have enough to provide a computerized database for recording the background, data and experiences of any LGBT active duty or veteran who so desires. In addition, we want to have some funds to set up a foundation to oversee the future needs of the memorial. And it also includes the $25,000 for the plots. There are enough gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender veterans and active-duty to make this project a reality if each one would donate just $2. But we know everyone won’t, so we ask everyone who believes this is a good idea to donate what they can. Donations can be made on our website (nlgbtvm.org) or by mail (P.O. Box 780514, San Antonio, Texas, 78278). It is a way of preserving our history. It will be educational for those who visit it. I think it will be tragic if 20 years from now there are few reminders of what we went through, in silence, to gain the right to serve our country openly and proudly.

Gene: Well, this next looming question, like a pink elephant in the room, is the matter of Trump. What do we expect from him in the gay arena? And do you find him being president a problem?

Nancy: Yes, I have a “yuge” problem with him. I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I fear he will try to tamper with our rights at some point. As far as any impact he might have on our project, I have no concern. Since we are not using federal ground, he has no authority to interfere.

Gene: Actually, I think he might be supportive, but time will tell. Well, moving right along. Let’s talk about the Stonewall Democrats. I believe you founded the San Antonio chapter, didn’t you?

Nancy: Yes, I was the principal founder. I think you found a copy of the notice I sent out announcing the first meeting to see if there was sufficient interest in starting a democratic political club, one similar to the Log Cabin Republicans. I had been a founding member of the earlier nonpartisan political caucus known as the San Antonio Equal Rights Political Caucus (SAERPC). In the early 2000s, I think many felt that our future was with the Democratic Party. At least that was true for me. I had served as a Democratic Precinct Chair for years and had been an out delegate to the Democratic National Convention twice. I went a third time as a member of the Credentials Committee. So, avid liberal that I am, when I heard that Congressman Barney Frank had called gay Democrats to Kansas City to attend a meeting to form a democratic equivalent to Log Cabin Republicans, I was off to Kansas.

Gene: Well Dorothy!

Nancy: It was decided to call the organization Stonewall Democrats even though Barney Frank wanted to name it Gay and Lesbian Democrats. There was a large contingent of transgender attendees who objected to that name, and rightly so, because it was not inclusive. So, Stonewall Democrats won out. The late Roberto Flores and I were elected the first co-chairs. From the very beginning, candidates for local, state and national office competed for our endorsement. I am very proud to have had a part in creating our local chapter. Dan Graney, Robert Flores, Lynne Armstrong, Olga Hernandez and other fine community leaders have provided strong leadership to make Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio one of the most effective Democratic groups in the city. While I was co-chair of the group, I was selected to the National Board of Stonewall Democrats and then to the Texas Democratic Executive Committee, where I served the Texas Democratic Party for almost five years as the Stonewall representative.

 

A modern-day portrait of Nancy Russel

Gene: And they still meet and have been very helpful in focusing on the many concerns of our community. What do you think we in the Big Gay Tent should be concerned about now?

Nancy: Frankly, I think we should be concerned about Republican attempts to roll back the gains we have made over the past eight years. The Trump win has reinforced Republican dreams of imposing their will in many areas that are of concern to us — from LGBT rights to immigration policy and a woman’s right to choose. The Texas “bathroom bill” and the rights of cities to determine their own local policies are reflections of the move to the hard right.

Gene: And of course, your time in the military. What was that like for you?

Nancy: I enjoyed my 20 years in the Army. It stretched me and taught me responsibility and confidence. I am a totally different person than I would have been if I had remained in small-town North Carolina. That is not to say that I didn’t find it difficult living in the closet — I did. You pay a price for living in the closet for 20 years.

Gene: Do tell! And you have been instrumental in organizing a gay, lesbian, trans, military group. We need to know about that.

Nancy: Before I left Virginia for Texas in 1990, I was active with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Veterans of America (GLBVA), a national organization established to speak for those on active duty who could not speak for themselves. We organized, we marched, we lobbied Congress, we connected service members with legal defense and much more. When I arrived in San Antonio, I started a chapter here. Over the years, I served as National President of GLBVA, which later became American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER). During the Congressional hearings on Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, I testified before the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight. I was honored to have that opportunity.

Gene: Well, I know AVER speaks on this matter with an averring confidence. And your rank?

Nancy: I retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Gene: What are your favorite restaurants?

Nancy: There are so many good restaurants in San Antonio. It is hard to pick one. It depends on what I am hungry for.

Gene: And have you ever seen a UFO? I have it on a reliable source that these aliens are lesbians and they eat Republicans.

Nancy: May it be so.

Gene: Oh, I see we have a caller. Let’s go to the phone. It’s our lawyer Bill Goodman.

Bill: Hi Nancy, long time no see. Glad you’re doing well and still kicking up the dust. Back to Trump, there were some rumblings that he wants to roll back on allowing women in combat roles. What’s your take on that? Have we heard from Stonewall, Log Cabin, HRC, etc., on that?

Nancy: No. Women are serving just fine in combat roles. I have always believed that there are men who should not be in a combat role and there are women who are very capable of serving in a combat role. We recently had three women qualify as Army Rangers. There isn’t a difference between being wounded or killed driving a supply truck or driving a tank. If you are dead, you are dead. In my opinion, the reason for not allowing women in combat is less about chivalry than it is men not wanting to compete with women for combat decorations and awards. Those are the things that qualify one for promotion to the higher ranks.

Bill: Also, what about the nude pics of female marines? Is this being addressed appropriately?

Nancy: I have heard many of the photos were taken without the knowledge of the subject. I think this is just another issue for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congress to address with the military brass. I believe that this is just one more form of rape and the military has not handled sexual exploitation cases well over the years. Senator Gillibrand has tried to hold commanders to account on sexual harassment but the ranking male officers have fought her tooth and nail to not lose their control over military justice.

Gene: Tell us about the space that is created with these panels.

Nancy: The panels create an intentional triangle and the openings to the interior of the triangle create a sacred space. Also, on the interior around the base will be the quote by Franklin Roosevelt.

Gene Elder on his famous Chartreuse Couch

Gene: Thanks for your questions, Bill. The monument looks very military and appropriate for the space. But I also think that this should not be the only art dedicated to the GLBT community. Every city should consider an idea. How many gay men and women do you think there are in the military and that have retired in San Antonio? I suppose there is no way to really know.

Nancy: I think it is safe to say that the ratio is much the same as in the general population. As for San Antonio, as a military city, I believe we have a much higher percentage of retired than most. I would expect the same for other military cities across the country. There are a lot of benefits to living in a city with a military base and a military hospital.

Gene: Any last thoughts about your project?

Nancy: Help us make this memorial a reality. It as a way of preserving our history. It will be educational for those who visit it and it will provide a place for family, friends, and lovers to go to remember and pay tribute.

Gene: Well, I think that pretty well covers it. I let my guests ask the last question.

Nancy: Do you think the Happy Foundation Archive will ever get its own building where it can display the many treasures you have worked to preserve over the years? I know there’s a lot of GLBT history stored at the Bonham and it seems a shame it is not more accessible to the public.

Gene: Well, as I tell everyone: George Washington didn’t win the American Revolution all by himself. Everyone needs to be helping with this project by saving our history. It really has to be a community/nationwide project in order to complete the big picture of who we are. A future generation of researchers will be disappointed if we don’t. An archive can be as simple as a shoebox in the closet. I can only do the job of one person. Pictures are important, as are personal handwritten love letters — something that people no longer do with the internet. All that will be lost when the electricity goes out.


Gene Elder is the Archives Director of the Happy Foundation.  To schedule a visit, email [email protected]

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