THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Queer non-Nikkei figures in Japanese American history (Part IV)

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final part of an ongoing series.

Monika Kehoe’s wartime position as director of adult education at the Gila River War Relocation Authority concentration camp led to a postwar career that took her around the world, pursuing interests in multiple fields and working variously as instructor, athletics coach, administrator, counselor and researcher. While Monika did not officially come out as a lesbian until she was a senior citizen, her homosexuality always informed, and sometimes determined, the life choices she made.

As noted, Monika Kehoe’s first job after working at the wartime concentration camp was at Brooklyn College, where she served for two years as assistant dean of women and instructor in the department of personnel service. During that period, she lived in Greenwich Village and went for the first time to gay bars. After being caught in raids on a lesbian bar, she was forced to give her name and address to police authorities, who compiled a dossier on her.

In 1946 the U.S. Department of War hired Monika Kehoe and sent her to occupied Korea as a specialist on education, in order to teach the newly independent country’s leadership class in English so that they could be trained for their new functions by occupation authorities.

She wrote about her experiences in an article, “Education in Korea,” that appeared in the February 1949 issue of “Far Eastern Quarterly.” Since Korea had almost no English speakers, Kehoe followed the same system that she had used at Gila River, hiring the wives of white military officials as teachers.

In 1948, she left Korea and returned to New York, where she got a job working the secretariat of the United Nations (then housed at the former Sperry Gyroscope plant in Lake Success, Long Island, outside the city), as a counselor on human relations. Her job was to deal with the personal problems of staffers. After a few years, Kehoe became engulfed in personal problems of her own. She began seeing a fellow staff member, and the two were caught together by police while necking in a parked car, whereupon Kehoe was summarily discharged (she joined a group from the United Nations Staff Organization in bringing a grievance against Secretary-Gen. Trygve Lie, but a three-man U.N. administrative tribunal refused to rescind the dismissal). By this time, the Korean War had broken out, and Kehoe found a job working as a civilian with the United States Army in Tokyo to teach English to prisoners of war (the United Nations staff did not inform the Army of her offense, and so she was not barred by anti-gay regulations). Kehoe moved into Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, and became actively engaged in studying skiing. However, she was once again investigated for her lesbianism — after she attended a public tennis match with one of the staff secretaries, whom she was seeing, investigators discovered that the woman had stayed over at Kehoe’s hotel.

It was the McCarthy era anti-communist hysteria, when homosexuality was popularly linked with subversion. Kehoe was not only discharged and repatriated, but was investigated by the FBI and interrogated about her lesbianism. After the inquiry was completed, Kehoe was barred from federal government employment for a period of three years. In fact, she had already found another job, working in Albany for the New York State Department of Education. (She later explained that there were few women with Ph.D.s in that period, so she never had trouble finding a job). During her time in Albany, she devoted herself to skiing, and even met a new girlfriend on the slopes!

In 1955, she accepted a position in Australia as director of adult education for the state of Tasmania. (Since the school term in Australia did not start until early 1956, she spent several months in between times teaching beginning skiing at the Mt. Waterman resort in California).

She soon thereafter moved to Sydney and worked for the Commonwealth Office of Education. While in Sydney, she met a woman 20 years younger, with whom she would live with for 18 years. The two returned to the United States, where the lover completed her doctorate, while Kehoe served a term as professor of psychology at Russell Sage College in New York. The two also lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Kehoe was dean of women and professor of English and psychology at Haile Selassie I University.

In 1965, Monika moved to Montreal, Canada. She was hired by Marianopolis, an elite Catholic women’s college, to establish the first-ever course to train teachers of English as a second language. She thereafter took on a similar post at the renowned McGill University, where she produced a detailed study of English-language learning for non-anglophones. Ironically, she arrived in the province of Quebec even as pressures by the French-speaking majority were becoming stronger. Even though French was her first language, Kehoe contended that English was spoken in more countries that any other language and needed to be taught. In a book she edited, “Applied Linguistics,” Monika discussed some of the mechanics — and politics — of teaching English as a second language internationally. Meanwhile, in 1967 Monika published a novel, “The Laurel and the Poppy,” a fictionalized life of Francis Thompson, who had been the subject of her long-past dissertation. The novel was written together with Margaret Gillett, a young Australian who had been her student. After six years in Montreal, Monika moved again, becoming professor of English at the University of Guam. She served there until her retirement in 1977.
Following her departure from Guam, Monika settled in San Francisco. There she worked as an English professor in community colleges, an ESL consultant (including directing a program at a Korean community center) and a tennis instructor. It was also in San Francisco that Kehoe, by then a senior citizen, went public for the first time as a lesbian and became involved with feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists. In 1980, the feminist-oriented Center for Women Scholars hired her as project director of a “Handbook for Women Scholars.” The “Handbook,” which appeared in 1982, documented instances of sex-discrimination in academia, provided information on women’s advocacy groups, and included both interview transcripts with women scholars of color and invited articles from such figures as feminist theologian Mary Daly. In addition to her editorial efforts, Monika contributed a brief conclusion, which expressed her longstanding rejection of sexual difference: “Perhaps if we can establish an androgynous (read gynandrous) society, it may prove to be the most realistic solution to the problem of discrimination, not only against women scholars but against all women.”

Meanwhile, she became active in LGBT studies, through the field of gerontology. Working as a research associate at the Center for Research and Education in Sexuality at San Francisco State University, she directed a study of “Lesbians over Sixty.” Her study of elderly lesbians, which appeared first in “The Journal of Homosexuality,” was published in book form in 1989 as “Lesbians Over 60 Speak for Themselves.” Another issue of the same journal that she edited was published as “Historical, Literary and Erotic Aspects of Lesbianism.”

In addition to her scholarly studies, Monika flowered in personal terms during these years. She began writing an autobiography, “The Making of a Deviant: A Model for Androgyny,” excerpts from which were published in Margaret Cruikshank’s anthologies “The Lesbian Path and New Lesbian Writing.” She remained an athlete, lifting weights, attending aerobics classes, and playing ball. (In 1994, when she was 85, she told a reporter that she was regretfully giving up tennis, as one tennis ball had started looking like two, and instead was learning croquet: “That ball’s big and white and still and I can see it.”). She taught various courses at SFSU, including the first-ever college course on LGBT elders. Her portrait and biography appeared in photographer Charlotte Painter’s book “Gifts of Age” (1985).

Although she was in San Francisco during the period, she seems not to have retained any contacts with Japanese communities or to have given public support to redress efforts. Monika Kehoe died in 2004, aged 95.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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