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Returning Home, Valley LGBT Veterans Fight Another War

Ezra David Romero
Valley Public Radio
John Coffee and his partner Brock Neeley at the Rotary Veterans Park of Porterville, Calif.

This report is the first in the Valley Public Radio series "Common Threads: Veterans Still Fighting The War."Support for this series comes fromCal Humanities, as part of the War Comes Home initiative. 

For some veterans, returning home from one war has meant the start of another fight, one for equality and civil rights at home. FM89's Ezra David Romero brings us the stories of two Porterville area veterans who have done just that. And in a community that made national headlines last year when the Porterville City Council revoked a proclamation declaring June LGBT Pride month, coming home and coming out have been equally challenging.

“To be honest in Porterville I pretty much stayed in the closet until I met Brock. You love who you love and it’s no choice,” says John Coffee who served time in the Army during the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1971.

“Between my service time and through schooling I went on to become an E5 in five months and then when I came home out of the service I got involved in my union and rose through the ranks,” Coffee says.

Coffee is retired from Porterville Unified School District where he worked in shipping and receiving for 41 years.  He lives in Porterville with Brock Neeley, his husband of five years.  He wasn’t out during his time in the military.

“In 1968 you definitely stayed in the closet,” Coffee says. "Tell me about that experience was it hard?" “Yeah, because there’s a lot of good looking people that are in the service. There are some that are dogs, just like in life, but there’s really good looking people too, but you stay in the closet and you keep your thoughts to yourself and you just don’t do all that much.”

The two were the first male-male couple married in Tulare County in 2008.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Coffee and Neely at their home in Porterville, Calif.

“Well as you can tell I still get emotional about it, because your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life,” Coffee says. “Just make the right choice. Don’t rush into it, but don’t be afraid. Things will work out. Do we have difficulties like any other married couple, well yeah. There are days I love him dearly and other days where I’d dearly love to kill him. And I’m sure the shoes on the other foot.”

From their suburban three bedroom home, Coffee and Neeley took me to what they consider a sacred space in the city: The Rotary Veterans Park of Porterville.

“You can see the medevac chopper here in front of us,” Coffee says. “There’s a plaque that lists the fatalities that Porterville had in Vietnam. Porterville had the highest death rate per capita in any city in the United States in Vietnam. I can’t stand to look at the plaque because way to many of those people are people I went to school with.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio

But even though Coffee made it back to Porterville alive, he says he was emotionally subdued for way too long.

“I knew who I was when I was in fourth or fifth grade, but when I was willing to accept and not be hiding it I was in mid-50s and a lot of that is due to this community,” Coffee says.

He says strong “Christian values" in the region kept him from coming out.

“By and large the Central Valley is considered the bible belt of California, Tulare County is the buckle of the Bible belt,” Coffee says. “Porterville is made up of very good people, but there are just enough of the homophobes that you just don’t walk holding hands down main street with your husband unless you’re heterosexual.”

When he came home in 1971 Coffee says Porterville was a welcoming place for Vietnam veterans. So why would Coffee come back to this place where he knew where he knew a gay lifestyle wouldn’t be accepted?

“I knew I was going to be safe here as a Vietnam veteran,” Coffee says. “You can’t say that about everywhere in California." “Would you have felt safe if you were out at the time?” “No,” Coffee says. “That one I can answer very clearly. But as a veteran I knew I’d be protected.”

Over 40 years later, Coffee says he is rarely afraid anymore to show his true colors.

“There are those few people that you have to interact with that you think well how are they going to react,” Coffee says. “Well maybe because I am almost 67, almost 68. I just don’t care how they are going to react anymore. I just have to be who I am. If they have a problem with it’s their problem not mine.”

Living Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

More than a decade after Coffee served in Vietnam Connie Wilson enlisted in the Navy. Her five years in the military weren’t cheery, but full of inner turmoil.  It wasn’t combat, the sound of artillery or fear of death that troubled her. Her greatest fear was of being found out as a bisexual.

“When I was in boot camp I had a gal that was also from Georgia,” Wilson says. “We ended up in A school together and that was probably the first time that I ever had anyone make any moves on me and it scared me, because I know in the military you know you don’t talk about it, you don’t do it.”

Credit Connie Wilson / https://www.facebook.com/Connie.A.Wilson/photos
Connie Wilson during her time in the Navy.
"Around here nobody wants to say it, because nobody wants be associated or affiliated because those people aren't what we expect them to be."

Wilson was eventually stationed in BeeVille, Texas. A few months later her friend from Georgia followed her there. But fear of coming out kept them apart.

“Apparently she went on a cruise with a few other ladies and word got back and they did a major investigation on her,” Wilson says. “They were pulling everyone from the squadron—anyone that had anything to do with her. I saw what she went through and I thought there is absolutely no way I was gonna say anything and come out.”

Wilson’s fear drove her into isolation. It was so real that it took her 18 years after her stint in the Navy to embrace her sexuality.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Connie Wilson, seven years after she came out.

“Being able to be who I am for the first time was actually quite liberating in all directions,” Wilson says. “Because it kind of like was breath of fresh air and you absolutely don’t care anymore. You finally start realizing that you can ignore the people that don’t accept you.”

But despite her new found boldness, Wilson found that the hardest person to confront about her sexuality was her father.

“I recently told him and he sent me a very beautiful letter,” Wilson says. “Because we’re from the south, from Georgia and there is still a lot of hatred for a lot of things. He told me that he loved me no matter what and whoever I was with and that he is absolutely fine with it.”

"He told me that he loved me no matter what and whoever I was with and that he is absolutely fine with it."

Wilson moved to Porterville from Tulare four years ago where she worked in corrections to work for the state and says even though the city has a long way to go when it comes to accepting the LGBT community, she sees signs of improvement. Last year she walked in the city’s first gay veteran troop during the annual Veterans Day Parade in Porterville.

Credit Gay Porterville
Coffee among others in Porterville's first LGBT veterans troop in the Porterville Veterans Parade.

“Towards the end of the parade there was a gentleman that could barely move, I mean he was an older, older retired military veteran and he actually stood up to salute us even though he could barely stand up,” Wilson says. “Obviously he didn’t have an issue and I think a lot of people aren’t gonna have an issue. But around here nobody wants to say it, because nobody wants be associated or affiliated because those people aren’t what we expect them to be.”

And in this city that takes pride in their patriotism, Coffee and Wilson agree they wish the city would respect their civil rights, just like their service. 

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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