LGBT+ History Month: Fannie Mae Clackum, U.S. Air Force

Video of Women in the Air Force for Women’s History Month

b. June 10, 1929

d. August 16, 2014

Fannie Mae Clackum was the first person to successfully challenge her discharge on the grounds of homosexuality from the U.S military.

Clackum served as a U.S. Air Force Reservist is the late 1940s and early 1950s. In February 1951, she was ordered to active duty and stationed at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, at the rank of Corporal in the 301st Air Base Group.

In April 1951, Clackum was called before her commanding officer and the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) for questioning on “matters of homosexuality.”

According to research into the case, the OSI had reportedly set up a sting operation designed to substantiate the Air Force’s suspicions that Clackum and Grace Garner, another female servicemember, were lesbians. At the time of the April 1951 interrogation, Clackum stated she had no knowledge of allegations of homosexuality. What followed were months of interviews by the OSI.

In October 1951, Clackum was informed that some action was being contemplated against her and she was offered the opportunity to resign. She refused and demanded to be tried by court-martial in order to require the Air Force to confront her on the basis of accusations made against her. Also, to allow her the opportunity to present evidence in her own behalf.

A court martial was apparently denied. On January 22, 1952, the Air Force demoted Clackum to the grade of Private and discharged her under conditions other than honorable under A.F.R. 35-66, dated January 12, 1951.

Reportedly, Clackum and Grace Garner, both demoted and discharged, lived together in Marietta, Georgia. They spent eight years fighting their discharges in the U.S. Court of Claims on the basis of denial of due process when the Air Force denied a court martial following by discharge.

In 1960, Clackum and Garner prevailed when their respective discharges were invalidated and they were awarded back pay for the remainder of their enlistments.

Historically, Clackum’s case, along with Garner’s, were the earliest known instances of successful appeal of discharge from the U.S. Armed Forces on grounds of homosexuality but was not the basis on which the case turned. The turn came on due process claims because the U.S. Air Force largely kept Clackum unaware of the allegations and proceedings prior to her discharge. Summarily, she finally found out what had happened after she’d been summoned, demoted, and discharged in 1952.

American historian Lillian Faderman wrote the following on Clackum’s case, it is a remarkable observation and insight into the life of lesbian women in the military in the 1950s.

“Almost never did they have the energy to protest what had been done to them, although one woman, an Air Force Reservist, Fannie Mae Clackum, actually did win a suit against the government in the U.S. Court of Claims in 1960, which suggests that in somewhat saner times an objective court could understand how outrageous the military’s tactics were. Clackum demanded eight years of back pay, complaining that she was accused of homosexuality but given no trial or hearing and no opportunity to know the evidence against her or to know her accusers. From April 1951 to January 1952, she had been repeatedly questioned by an OSI officer regarding lesbianism. She was asked to resign, although she was never informed of specific charges. When she refused, she was demoted from corporal to private and ordered to take a psychiatric examination. She was finally discharaged (sic) as an undesirable at the beginning of 1952. The court found that her discharge was invalid, but Clackum was an isolated instance of a woman who dared to carry out a challenge to the reigning powers in the 1950s, since everything – the psychiatric establishment, the military’s demoralization tactics, the government, popular wisdom – militated against the lesbian believing that she had the human right to expect justice.

“A major effect that military life of the 1950s had on lesbian subculture was to confirm even further that for the outside world love between women was a love that dares not speak its name, that it would certainly not be treated with common decency and respect. But at the same time the military experience strengthened the bonds between women who chose to be part of the lesbian sisterhood; it showed them how to network and how to guard against the forces that were enemies of women who loved women. Such knowledge was also to become very useful in life outside the military. “

Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America (1992)

Fannie Mae Clackum passed away on August 16, 2014 at age 85 in Marietta, Georgia. Her obituary makes no mention of her case, Fannie Mae Clackum v. United States.