Nikki never dreamed that she would be buying a house in Salem, Oregon with a loan from the VA: “At 72, I didn’t think I would ever see the day that I received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force. In 1967, I was outed as gay and given a ‘general discharge under less than honorable conditions.’ It took them 48 years to recognize the contributions of this bisexual, bigender veteran.”
Nikki had been the internal information officer who was in charge of the Air Force base’s weekly newspaper and coordinating the commanding general’s monthly “Commanders’ Call” bulletins and speeches. She* received accolades from the Pentagon for this monthly work.
One night in 1967, she was pulled into a dark hallway by two members of the Air Force Office of Special Investigation. They threatened Nikki, telling her they knew she was gay and trying to pressure her to admit it. These psychological games continued, and Nikki was terrified of what would happen to her.
When it came to a head, her commanding general gave her the choice of being officially charged with being gay, facing a court martial, and having that be on her permanent record, or signing a paper that resigned her commission “for the good of the service.”
Despite the fact that Nikki’s commanding general recommended her for an honorable discharge, it wasn’t granted. Because she was discharged without honorable conditions, Nikki couldn’t receive funding for a master’s degree to teach journalism and wasn’t able to get a mortgage from the VA for her house.
Nikki and her wife eventually made their way to Oregon. Her journey to accept herself for who she is has been long and difficult, due in part to the emotional and psychological pain she experienced while in the service.
Now, Nikki wants to help other people get there more quickly than she was able to: “I went through a nightmarish wringer that inevitably tarnished my self-esteem. Learning to appreciate myself again was a long process, and it made me want to help others overcome their own devastating histories and believe in themselves.”
After meeting representatives from SAGE Metro Portland (Services & Advocacy for GLBT elders) at a Pride event in Vancouver, WA in the early 2000s, Nikki got involved as a volunteer who helps educate people about the needs of LGBTQ seniors.
SAGE also provided a space where she could be around other LGBTQ people.
“It’s like I have brothers and sisters I didn’t have before,” Nikki said. “I have people who understand what I’m experiencing—and know I’m okay the way I am.”
This feeling of community has helped her be truer to herself, and feel better about who she is—enabling her to help others.
Nikki’s case worker at SAGE also supported her in successfully petitioning the military for an upgrade on her discharge status. Like many veterans, she started this process several times, but the PTSD she experienced as a result of the way they treated her was too severe.
“Even thinking about it sent tremors of fear through my mind—I didn’t want to be judged again,” Nikki said.
Knowing she had a community of people in her corner who believed in her gave Nikki the courage and support needed to start the process again, this time determined to complete it: “I didn’t want to get to the end of my life without having fought like the dickens to have my government recognize that I served, and served honorably.”
Forty-eight years later, Nikki was finally approved for the honorable discharge she deserved. She is still waiting for the official paperwork, the “DD 214” separation form. The VA loan that she was eligible for made buying a house financially feasible, and just this month she and her wife moved into their new home in Salem, Oregon.
*Nikki identifies as bigender and uses both she/her/hers pronouns as well as he/him/his pronouns. For the purpose of clarity, this article uses she/her/hers when referring to Nikki.
SAGE Metro Portland is a Pride Foundation grantee.
Katie Carter is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Oregon. Email Katie.