THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Queer non-Nikkei figures in Japanese American history


Editor’s Note: This is the first part in an ongoing series.

Ever since I began writing “The Great Unknown” in 2007, I have had the pleasure of contributing an annual queer heritage column, which explores the nature of sexuality and the experience of lesbians and gays in Japanese American history.

This year’s installment recounts the linked stories of Monika Kehoe and Karon Kehoe, a non-Nikkei couple who worked at the Gila River War Relocation Authority concentration camp during World War II and who each made unique contributions to Japanese American history. Monika Kehoe, who held the position of adult education director at Gila River and who produced a set of wartime articles on the education of Japanese Americans, had a long and varied career that climaxed in her work as a pioneering gay studies researcher.
Karon Kehoe drew on her experience at Gila River in writing the 1946 novel “City in the Sun,” a notable work that has all but disappeared from the collective memory of Nikkei. It is not only the first full-length adult fiction about the camps to be published, but also stands as an early queer text that raises intriguing questions about alternative camp life.

Monika Kehoe was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1909. Her father was Irish Canadian, while her mother was French — both were in their mid-forties when Monika, their only child, was born. Monika spent her early years in Toledo, Ohio, and then moved with her mother to Terre Haute, Ind. following her parents’ divorce. Mrs. Kehoe spoke virtually no English, and Monika grew up speaking French to her mother and interpreting for her to outsiders. During her youth, she attended several Catholic convent schools. Seeking a respite from home, she spent a lot of time in the library (distressed by Monika’s absences, her mother tried destroying her library cards to make her stop going, to no avail). A top rated tennis player, Monika competed in national tournaments. She also rode horses and played on the school basketball team. During these years, Monika came to awareness of what she later (and facetiously) termed her “deviant” nature. She distanced herself from female identity, embraced androgyny, and dressed in men’s clothes. Although she had intense crushes — including on a nun — and had various physical contact with women, she did not identify herself as a lesbian (she later stated that the concept was all but unknown in her circle).

After graduating high school, Monika spent a year with her mother touring Europe, then enrolled in 1928 at Mary Manse College, a Catholic women’s institution in Toledo (the 1930 census listed her as living in Toledo with an aunt, Mary Tompkins, and the aunt’s two sons). After her graduation in 1932, she went on for her doctorate at Ohio State University, where she labored with such impressive speed that she received her Ph.D. in English language and literature in 1935. Her dissertation centered on the poetry of British Catholic writer Francis Thompson. After receiving her Ph.D., Monika hoped to obtain a doctor of divinity degree, and applied to the Pontifical Institute in Toronto. However, she was rejected on gender grounds, a blow that made her reexamine her interest in religion. Needing a job, she took a teaching position at a Catholic women’s college. However, the austerity of the conditions and her declining attachment to Catholicism, combined with her entering an intense love affair with a student, “Helen,” made her decide to leave and seek employment at a secular college.

In 1936, Monika was hired as a professor of English by Mills College in Oakland, Calif. She and “Helen” (who had by then graduated) left for Oakland. At first they lived in dorms, posing as “roommates,” then built a cabin in a nearby canyon (near the home of celebrated writer Henry Miller, whom they visited). After two years, however, Monika fell in love with a Mills graduate student, and Helen was forced to move out of the house. In return, Helen informed the dean at Mills of Monika’s lesbianism. As a result, Monika  was informed that her teaching contract would not be renewed, and she was saved from immediate termination only by the college’s desire to avoid the appearance of scandal. (As revenge she publicly announced a bogus engagement to a man — a closeted gay cousin — and cashed in the gifts that her colleagues offered).

In the summer of 1940, Monika left Mills, moved to Ottawa, Canada and joined the Canadian Air Force as a civilian overseas worker. After Pearl Harbor, she returned to the United States. Since it was the middle of the academic term, she did not try to find a teaching job. Instead, she settled in Detroit, where she was hired as an adult education director for the National Housing Authority. Her job was to provide education to older residents, mostly illiterate migrants. Her first assignment was to the Sojourner Truth Homes, a local public housing project designed for African Americans that soon became the center of racial conflict (After construction on the Homes was completed, white residents of the area facing wartime housing shortages demanded that the housing be reserved for them. When the black tenants arrived to take possession of their apartments in February of 1942, white mobs surrounded the project and erupted into riots, attracting nationwide attention).

Meanwhile, Monika met Karon, who had also been assigned to the Sojourner Truth Project. Karon was born in Michigan in September of 1919. Little in the way of information can be garnered about her early life, for the simple reason that her birth name is not listed in the available record. Within a short time after she met Monika, the two became lovers. Both in tribute to her lover and because she did not much like her own birth name, Karon legally changed her family name to Kehoe. Soon after, as a result both of the racial tension surrounding the housing project and the general dreariness of the work there, Monika and Karon each requested a transfer. The two were reassigned to the Wilmington Houses, a housing project in the Los Angeles district of San Pedro, Calif. Once in Los Angeles, Monika established evening classes for war workers (especially “Okies” and other Midwestern migrants) while Karon worked as recreation director organizing activities for young, mostly Mexican American residents.

In the fall of 1942, a few months after they arrived in Los Angeles, the Kehoes were recruited by the War Relocation Authority to work at the Gila River camp. Why did they agree to move to the Arizona desert? Monika later stated that the WRA job allowed her to concentrate on English as a Second Language training, which was closer to her training than standard adult education. Presumably the work paid better as well. Monika later claimed that she opposed from the start the government’s action in confining people, but she needed the work and rationalized her employment by the thought that at least she was giving people skills to resettle outside camp effectively. For Karon, it was a chance to escape from another site of racial tension — she later noted that she was in Los Angeles a the time of the “Sleepy Lagoon” case, in which a group of young Chicano gang members were accused without evidence of killing a young man, and in the process she witnessed the onset of the rising hostility against Chicanos that would flare into the “Zoot Suit” riots a year later.

Monika and Karon arrived at Gila River in the fall of 1942, not long after it opened. Monika was given the job of vocational advisor, and also worked as a student relocation specialist. In September of 1943 she was named director of adult education at Gila. She thereby became one of the few women administrators in the male-dominated WRA, and possibly the highest placed. As director, she was responsible for everything from English as a Second Language to dressmaking, auto repair and cattle ranching. To deal with escalating demand for training courses, Monika recruited all the wives of white staffers she could find as teachers. Karon also took a job after arriving at Gila. However, since she was just 23 and had no academic background, she was engaged not as a teacher but as a switchboard operator and secretary to the chief of internal security (In late 1943 Monika had her transferred to the Adult Education department).

While in camp, Monika and Karon lived together in a small staff apartment, and shared a bedroom. To conceal their relationship, the two Kehoes passed themselves off as half-sisters, and did not reveal Karon’s change of identity. Monika later stated that it was not difficult for them to hide their connection, despite their physical and emotional closeness, since even in private the two never discussed their relationship or played the role of lovers.

Because of the desolate conditions in camp and the oppressive heat — daily temperatures regularly climbed to 120 degrees Fahrenheit — Monika spent much time during her stretch in camp looking for other jobs so that she could transfer out. Finally, in winter 1943-44, Monika was able to secure a job on the East Coast, at Brooklyn College. In February of 1944, she and Karon left camp and drove together cross-country to New York City, where they took an apartment. They were accompanied by a young resettler: in order to help out a Japanese American family whom she had befriended in camp, Monika agreed to serve as sponsor for their underaged son so that he could move out immediately. (It was presumably Kenneth Masaichi Shimizu, a teenager who was recorded as leaving for Brooklyn the same day as the Kehoes). For the first months after they left camp, the Nisei lived with the couple — Monika later stated that she was quite sure that their teenaged housemate did not perceive that the two women were lovers. Some time after settling in New York, however, the two Kehoes separated and Monika found another lover. Ken Shimizu moved to upper Manhattan (presumably joining relatives), and entered George Washington High School.

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

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