It’s a typical October Friday lunch hour at the American Legion’s Owen Coffman Post 519, located on Belardo Road in downtown Palm Springs.
The mostly older, mostly male crowd is enjoying tasty dishes such as burgers, sand dabs and deliciously crispy fish-and-chips, while sipping on drinks from the inexpensive yet fully stocked bar.
I’m here with my good friend Jim McDivitt; this is the second time I’ve had lunch with him at the American Legion hall. McDivitt—some of his friends, myself included, lovingly call him McDiva—first invited my partner and me to lunch at the hall over the summer. He thought the place and its people would make for a good story.
He tells me why he joined this post of the American Legion.
“The food and drinks are cheap,” McDivitt says, laughing. “I’d been going as a guest of a friend, and I finally joined because I felt stupid not paying the $55 membership fee.”
The topics of conversation on this day at this table include a great deal found on a washer and drier set at Revivals, old telephone party lines, and a recent fall from which one of the attendees was recovering.
The Owen Coffman post looks, feels and sounds exactly like you’d expect any American Legion post across the country to look, feel and sound like—except for one difference.
About half of the veterans in attendance are gay.
McDivitt introduces me to Pete Pilittere, the post commander, who gives me a tour of the hall. (Both are pictured to the right.)
About 1,200 members—including Sons of the Legion (for relatives of veterans), Women’s Auxiliary and Legion Riders members (a motorcycle/charity group)—belong to the post, Pilittere says, as he shows me around. First, he explains the “table set for one,” which can be found at every American Legion post. (See a photo at the bottom of this story.) Every element of the small table—from the color of the tablecloth to the pile of salt on the plate—represents the various sacrifices a soldier and his loved ones make when that soldier goes off to war. For example, an explanation of the chair reads: The chair is empty. They are not here.
Outside, a “fallen heroes” plaque honors the local residents who gave—and, sadly, continue to give—their lives in combat. Earl Coffman, the son of the founder of the Desert Inn Hotel, was a World War I veteran who started this post. His son Owen was killed during World War II while he flew a B-17 bomber over England. This building, housing the post that bears Owen’s name, was dedicated in 1948.
We take the stairs onto the stage, and Pilittere explains something else that sets this post apart: its history. We’re looking at a booth where luminaries like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Jack Benny did radio broadcasts in the 1950s. The post’s members are working on restoring the booth to its vintage appearance, Pilittere says.
He then takes me into the back area, where a newly renovated smaller room—complete with its own bar—is ready for use. Pilittere would like you to know this room and the rest of the hall is available for rent; after all, rental fees, along with the bar take, donations and other income—keep the post afloat.
But the post, first and foremost, is there for its members.
I ask Pilittere, a Navy and Vietnam veteran who’s in his second one-year term as the post commander, about the members. Is he concerned that the member base is aging, and therefore unsustainable in the long term?
“We’re doing our best trying to get young guys in, who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says, adding that the post has been offering a dues-free first year of membership to veterans of these 21st-century wars.
Have there been any takers? “A couple,” Pilittere says, adding that some posts have blinked out of existence due to declining membership. “This post, though, I’m not concerned about. We’ve got enough things in place right now.”
Then there’s the fact that so many members of the post are gay. Pilittere, who is straight, estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the members are gay. McDivitt puts that number closer to 50 percent. One of the longtime lunch servers put the number higher than 50 percent when asked.
Pilittere says he served with men he knew were gay. I asked him if he cared.
“No,” he says. “I was born pretty progressive. On an aircraft carrier, if you have 4,000 people, how many people are going to be gay? What are the odds?”
I mention “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the thankfully now-vanquished policy that allowed the military to get rid of men and women who were openly LGBT, or who were simply exposed as LGBT.
“That was bullshit, by the way,” Pilittere says.
I asked him if anyone involved with the post has had an issue with the fact that so many members are gay. Not really, he says.
“Look, this is Palm Springs,” Pilittere says. “Here, it’s accepted. It’s a way of life in Palm Springs.
“If you can’t accept it, you’d better get out of town.”
Today, the military is much more accepting of gay and lesbian service members, thanks in part to the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
However, most members of the Owen Coffman Post 519 served—and have lived much of their lives—at a time when being openly gay was very much taboo.
Post member Robert Rogers, 81 (right), was one of the lucky ones: He says his sexuality did not cause him any problems when he was in the military
“I was out when I was 3 1/2 years old,” he smiles.
He was drafted and served in the Navy in San Diego from 1956 to 1958.
“I was a corpsman”—in other words, a medical specialist, Rogers tells me on the Owen Coffman Post’s patio, several days after McDivitt introduced me to him at lunch. “They put me in as a corpsman because I was an art major and I taught art, and they said, ‘That’s where you belong.’ Well, I found out real quick that I didn’t want to be in medical.”
Rogers, a former florist who lived much of his life in Oroville, Calif., and still spends four months per year there, says he knew there were “a lot” of other gay men in the Navy from the moment he started boot camp. The topic of homosexuality once came up with a commanding officer when Rogers went to ask for a liberty pass.
“He said, ‘I don’t care if they’re cherries or not, as long as they do their job,’ Rogers remembers.
McDivitt, 74 and turning 75 in November—he calls his upcoming birthday his “diamond jubilee”—was not so lucky. He joined the military after his parents found out he was gay; he was doing poorly in school, so it was inevitable that he’d eventually get drafted anyway, he says. He jokes that he enlisted the Air Force because of that military branch’s superior fashion sense.
“I like blue better than Army drab,” he quips, before clarifying that he actually joined the Air Force because he thought the odds were better that he’d get a desk job.
He became a Morse intercept operator from 1961 to 1963, and was stationed in Scotland, where he listened to Soviet communications. He had top-secret clearance—but that meant the government was keeping tabs on him, too.
“Little did I know they would read my mail,” McDivitt says.
He had mentioned in a letter that he found a fellow serviceman attractive. He was honorably discharged due to the “inability to adjust to military life.”
McDivitt is publically and happily open about his life, his military service and his sexuality—but not all of his and Rogers’ fellow American Legion members feel the same way. I tried to talk to several other gay post members for this story, and they either flat-out refused, or never returned my calls or emails.
Upon reflection, this isn’t so surprising. After all, many of them spent their entire military careers, and much of their lives, unable to talk about being gay without fear of repercussions—so why would they want to talk now?
One thing is clear: The members of the Owen Coffman Post 519—gay and straight—love the hall because it gives them a space where they can be comfortable and enjoy the company of people who have been through similar experiences.
“It’s a place for veterans to meet and talk with their families and guests. It’s a place to relax,” says Pilittere. “They can come in and have a great lunch, or Friday night dinner with entertainment, or Sunday brunch.”
Pilittere says Sunday brunches often have 150 or so attendees, and that lunches—offered Monday through Saturday—can attract 20 to 30 people in the depths of summer, and 100-plus people during the season.
Rogers emphasized the word “acceptance” regarding the Palm Springs American Legion post.
“It’s the atmosphere of friendliness and acceptance all of us, no matter what we do or where we live,” he says.
While McDivitt—only half-joking, perhaps—says he joined the post for the cheap food and drinks, he’s a regular at the post because of the camaraderie.
“(We) get together and tell war stories,” he says. “Most people join for the social aspect and to be with people of like kind.”
Does McDivitt know of any men who met and fell in love at the hall? Alas, he says he does not—although it would not surprise him if it had happened.
“Palm Springs is unique in so many ways,” he laughs.
For more information on the American Legion Owen Coffman Post 519, visit www.americanlegionpalmsprings.org.