Ken Thompson—alias ‘Ida’—recalls a gay life at sea back before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ became official
Kenneth Thompson, dressed in cargo shorts and a yellow polo shirt, sat in his Citrus Heights home and pulled out a half-dozen photographs. In one, young sailors, shirtless or stripped bare, strutted along a ship’s deck. In another, a sailor reclining in a skimpy skirt, outfitted with enormous breasts, gleefully threw his legs into the air. These photos, and other memorabilia, are graphic reminders of Thompson’s two terms of service with the U.S. Navy. Thompson now hopes to share some of his materials with the Smithsonian Institution, which manages a collection of military memorabilia.
As a gay sailor in the 1970s and ’80s, Thompson experienced a military environment hard to imagine now. While serving on the USS Enterprise—the same ship shown decades later in Associated Press photos carrying a bomb decorated with the words “high jack this fags”—Thompson enjoyed the relative safety of a gay-friendly community. Long tours of duty were punctuated with disco dances, movie nights and homoerotic versions of traditions like the “shellback initiation,” in which young sailors, called “pollywogs,” crossing the equator for the first time were transformed into toughened “shellbacks” after a hazing ritual.
During one such ceremony, from which Thompson’s photos were taken, King Neptune stopped the ship and searched the decks for a maiden. Each department dressed a sailor as a woman, and the fairest of them all was spared the initiation ceremony. Smeared with aged eggs and grease, his mates crawled on their hands and knees through homemade tunnels while shellbacks slapped them with tubing.
The ceremony also is detailed in a chapter in Conduct Unbecoming, Randy Shiltz’s well-known book on the gay military experience.
Shiltz’s account of life aboard the USS Enterprise was taken from a former sailor named Kelly Kittell, who served with Thompson. The book explains that Kittell also produced a gossip column in a newsletter called the “Family Gram” that gay sailors shared among themselves on board. Sitting in his living room, Thompson produced a worn seven-page copy of the newsletter, its edges tattered. Thompson claims that he was both the editor of the Family Gram as well as the anonymous gossip columnist “Ida,” who was responsible for generally goodhearted items about sailors referred to by code names such as “Super Lady” and “Miss Ross.”
Labeled on top as the “premiere edition” of “The Big ‘E’s’ Mother-Ship Connection,” the newsletter includes items about sailors spied on deck in their underwear, ads for lubricants and lip gloss available through the pharmacist (Kittell), and the addresses of gay-friendly bars in various international ports. And gossip. One item was addressed to “all you closets … I can understand you not wanting to be very noticeable with a lot of the flaming ‘Q’s,’ but we know who you are.” Code words, like “Q” for “queens,” were familiar to gay sailors, Thompson explained, but undecipherable to others. The newsletter also included warnings: “What up with … all the new Massage Parlors opening in Reactor Berthing. Don’t get caught!!” and “after reading, please destroy or put away.”
The newsletter was meant to be disposable, said Thompson. He only has one edition in his possession, though he said the publication, which began as a single page, was produced once every two weeks. It lasted for a number of months and was even distributed abroad by sailors who visited the ship and took copies with them.
Thompson believes that officers knew of the newsletter but chose to let it continue because it improved morale among the sailors.
Eventually, the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) found copies, and the mood onboard darkened. When fingered as a “faggot” by officers, Thompson said he hid behind his early marriage to a woman friend.
Among his memorabilia, Thompson keeps two certificates of honorable discharge.
Thompson graduated from Marian College with a degree in art in the early 1970s. After an argument with a roommate over money, Thompson said he marched down to the Naval recruiting office and joined up.
“They never had an aircraft carrier sink in World War I or World War II,” said Thompson. “I didn’t think there would be one sunk in Vietnam.”
In a floating city of 5,000 people, Thompson could concentrate on becoming, as he put it, “the social hub of the ship.”
Serving as a repair technician for micro-miniature components onboard, and using his administrative skills to gain access to a large office with a good television and a beta video player, Thompson began holding small parties.
“When I went in, there were a lot of gay people but not much going on,” said Thompson. When the USS Enterprise went out for an extended tour without port calls, small parties grew into big events. “At the high point,” said Thompson, “I had 200 people in my floating disco.”
Although Thompson’s memories are hard to corroborate, Aaron Belkin, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said by phone that on some ships, commanders were tolerant. “I wouldn’t make a global observation that [gay sailors] were visible, but there were pockets where networks were able to thrive.”
Shiltz’s book also includes an account of a floating dance party. “On aircraft carriers, out-of-the-way storage rooms became informal gay discos. By 1987, such a disco on the USS Eisenhower had evolved into a sort of community center where as many as 200 sailors congregated every day.”
On board, Thompson explained, sex wasn’t hard to find. What was hard to find was entertainment. At that time, Thompson explained, gayness wasn’t a lifestyle; it was a brotherhood.
The brotherhood, Thompson remembers, really became important when a gay sailor on another ship was raped. When news got from that ship to the USS Enterprise, and was published in the Family Gram, higher-ups had to admit that a network of gay sailors was communicating freely from ship to ship.
Thompson remembers being called to a confidential meeting with one of the higher-ranking officers. “They’re worried the gays are engaged in mutinous activity,” the officer told Thompson. Thompson assured him that there were no plans for mutiny.
Thompson recently noticed that the Smithsonian Institution was collecting memorabilia illuminating the lives of American soldiers. He and Kathy Golden, museum specialist for the Division of Military History and Diplomacy, are now negotiating to see whether Thompson’s last copy of the Family Gram will join the institution’s research materials. So far, said spokeswoman Valeska Hilbig, the museum has no research materials devoted to the gay military experience—only a poem that was written by a soldier who later was found to be gay.