Tuesday 11 March 2014

Remembrance : Three Centuries of Heroes

The role that women had in wartime can often be overlooked. It was just as vital to the war effort and keeping the country going as that of any soldier. As such there are fewer accounts of women’s experiences, during the First World War in particular, that survive. Accounts of lgbt women even less so.

With this in mind I want to bring forward some lgbt women who fought for their country and whose lives during times of conflict are just as worthy of remembrance as that of any male soldier. I’ve selected 4 lesbian war heroes to represent this under-researched group.

Ulrika Stålhammar (1688-1733)
Ulrika was born into a military family, as both her father and grandfather served in the Swedish army. As a child Ulrika pursued masculine activities, so enlisting in the Kalmar Regiment in 1713 under the male persona of Willem Edstedt was just a natural progression. Posing as a man would have put Ulrika under threat of death if discovered, but she successfully served her country for 13 years.

At that time Sweden was at war with Russia, Denmark and Poland in what is called the Great Northern War. By 1713 Russia had grained the upper hand. The Swedish king fought back and invaded Norway in 1718. Ulrika is sure to have fought in this campaign.

In 1716 Ulrika fell in love with a maid called Maria Löhman and they married. Maria, reportedly a rape victim, was content on a marriage without sex, also believing her “husband” Ulrika/Willem was impotent. Even after Ulrika revealed her true sex Maria stayed with her, stating years later that she fell more in love with her after the revelation.

Ulrika’s gender was discovered and she was convicted of posing as a man. She appealed for leniency from the king of Sweden, citing her war record, and she was successful in having her death sentenced repealed.

Jenny Hodgers (1843-1915)
Jenny arrived in the USA from Ireland as a child with her parents, perhaps escaping the Potato Famine that was decimating the Irish population. She was dressed as a boy by her stepfather in order to find him work and provide an income. Jenny continued to wear men’s clothing for the majority of her life.

In 1862 Jenny enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry on the Union side of the American Civil War. She adopted the name of Albert Cashier. She proved to be a particularly brave soldier. Once, after being captured at the Siege of Vicksburg she escaped by grabbing the gun from her guard and ran back to safety behind Union lines, being chased most of the way there. On another occasion she climbed a tree with sniper bullets whizzing around her to fasten her regimental flag to a branch after the Confederates had shot it from the flag pole.

Jenny served her full term in the army and her colleagues never suspected her true identity. When they did, many years later when Jenny was accused of fraud for claiming an army pension, they all rallied to testify to her bravery and she was allowed to keep her pension.

Henny Schermann (1912-1942)
During the Holocaust many lesbians were persecuted as well as gay men. While they weren’t labelled separately in concentration and labour camps the Nazis arrested thousands of lesbians. Most of them were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Many were labelled prostitutes or anti-social (because they refused to provide baby Nazis to further the cause) and were forced to wear the Black Triangle of anti-social prisoners, an emblem later used extensively in the post-war lesbian community.

One intern was a Jewish lesbian called Henny Schermann. A Nazi decree of 1938 demanded that all Jewish women add “Sara” to their name on all official papers. Henny refused. In 1940 Henny was arrested as a “licentious lesbian” and sent to Ravensbruck. Two years later she was sent to Bernburg psychiatric hospital where she was gassed.

Donna Johnson (1983-2012)
In the 21st century gay and lesbian couples in the military are more visible and acceptable. Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson was living openly with her partner Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice. Both were enlisted in the North Carolina National Guard. Donna was attached to the 514th Military Police Company serving in Afghanistan when, on 1st October 2012 Donna, while on foot patrol in the market area of the town of Khost with 2 other army colleagues and a translator, a motorcycle suicide bomber drove straight into them, and the explosion killed all of them and 12 others.

Donna and Tracy were legally married in Washington DC in 2011. The American Military Partner Association believe they are the first same-sex married couple to have suffered the loss of one partner since the repeal of the Don’t Tell Don’t Ask regulation were repealed.

1 comment:

  1. Today it is reported that Donna Johnson`s widow qualifies for a partner`s benefits. Read more here - http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/us-lesbian-becomes-first-receive-equal-military-death-benefits200514