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An officer in the Marines, a gay man, and a porn star--the three faces of Rich Merritt

He was a compelling symbol of the effects of the Pentagon's repressive policy toward gay service personnel. "R.," a marine identified only by his initial in a June 28 cover stow in The New York Times Magazine, gave a personal account of the toll the enforced closet takes. When R. stepped forward after his retirement and came out in the January 19 issue of The Advocate, a face finally emerged from the shadows: Capt. Rich Merritt, a 12-year veteran of the corps.

But Merritt's stow of fear and hiding was not entirely complete. In addition to his secret life as a gay man in the Marines, Merritt had yet another, more surprising secret, one he concealed from the press. Under the screen name Danny Orlis, he also starred in no fewer than five gay porn videos while on active duty in the mid 1990s.

Merritt does not acknowledge or confirm that he and Danny Orlis are one and the same. "It's something I'd rather not discuss," he says. However, several people who worked with Orlis confirm that he is indeed Merritt. In addition, The Advocate has acquired a copy of a standard release form for video work signed by Merritt as well as a copy of his driver's license given to an adult-video production company as proof of age.

While not disavowing the evidence, Merritt argues that the revelation poses dangers to the status of gay service personnel. "I'm not sure why you'd want to run it," he says. "If it's true, I'm not sure how anyone gains from it.... Readers may find it sensationalistic, and it may sell more magazines, but to the cause in general it does nothing but harm."

Yet in coming forward to seek publicity, Merritt invited press scrutiny. The New York Times, The Advocate, and, subsequently, the Los Angeles Times recounted his story with only partial knowledge of the facts. The latest revelation only serves to underscore that even the most ideal symbol can in fact be flawed by behavior that does not meet the military's code of conduct. And Merritt's story now looks like a far more complex tale of one man's inability to respond in a unified way to the conflicting pressures of sexuality and duty in his life.

It was to further the cause of gay service personnel that Merritt volunteered himself to the media in the first place. By detailing the psychological agony that gay personnel endure, The New York Times Magazine article, titled "The Shadow Life of a Gay Marine," provided a devastating portrait of the horrors of "don't ask, don't tell." In the piece Merritt was quoted as saying, "I'm fed up with having to hide."

However, apparently unbeknownst to the Times, Merritt was, at least in one sense, far from hidden. He was a featured performer in several widely available films released by the gay adult-video production company All Worlds Video, including Bad Moon Rising, Bullseye, and Reflections in the Wild. All Worlds, based in San Diego, is just down the freeway from Camp Pendleton, where Merritt was stationed.

Michelle Benecke, co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington, D.C.-based group that provides counsel to military personnel targeted under "don't ask, don't tell," says the group was also unaware of Merritt's past. Merritt came to the attention of The New York Times indirectly through SLDN.

"Rich was not an SLDN client, so there was no reason for us to be aware of it," Benecke says. However, she emphasizes that the basic facts of The New York Times Magazine stow remain unchanged. "The stow was about the terror and panic that service members experience because of 'don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue,'" she says. "That situation unfortunately is as true today as when the article was printed. That kind of fear remains a constant fact of service members' daily lives, then as now."

Merritt, who received an honorable discharge on October 1, said in his coming-out interview that he received little flak from his commanders after The New York Times Magazine stow appeared, although they apparently suspected he was R. However, in general, advocates for gay service personnel prefer the least amount of scrutiny on these troops. Not only does press attention catch the eye of investigators itching to throw gay personnel out of the services, but it can also unleash a wider investigation--a witch-hunt--that can harm gay and lesbian personnel unconnected to the original story.

Merritt isn't volunteering how he became involved in porn films, but two aspects of his work stand out as unusual. First, while many young soldiers satisfy their curiosity about the industry by appearing in one film and earning a few hundred dollars, Merritt stuck with it for several months, working for different companies and forging something of a career in the business. Second, those involved have historically been enlisted men, not officers.

"I know of no other officer who ever voluntarily appeared in such things while on active duty," says Rolf Hardesty, who wrote a two-part series on the military image in gay porn for Manshots magazine in the early 1990s. "There's no mistaking the guy, with that telltale tattoo. He's there, and he's there voluntarily as an active-duty marine, and there's something quite historic about that." Hardesty contacted The Advocate with information about Merritt's porn past after reading the former marine's coming-out interview.

From all accounts within the industry, Merritt was indeed a natural, and the closetedness of his military life didn't hold him back on video sets. "One did not think of him as an actor," recalls Bullseye director Michael Zen. "He never pretended to have sex, which I think is kind of a rarity. He truly got so excited about what he was doing that he never played the character ... he was literally having sex. We had to work fast just to capture what was happening. We didn't want to break into this real sex."

"We thought he was wonderful," added Dak King, an associate of Zen's. "Everybody wondered why he just disappeared."

Any marine risks consequences in such a situation; as a captain, Merritt risked even more. It could all have blown up with something as simple as an acquaintance stumbling upon the wrong video in any of San Diego's many adult bookstores. That, in fact, is exactly what triggered a similar scandal involving now-defunct Brentwood Studios in 1978.

Indeed, there has been a long connection between the military and the porn industry. Camp Pendleton has in the past been a pipeline to the industry for amateurs intrigued by the prospect of having sex on film. A 1993 scandal in which marines stationed at Pendleton were discovered to have worked for All Worlds piqued public interest and catapulted that company into the upper echelon of adult-video producers.

Newspaper clippings trumpeting the scandal are still featured today on video boxes for the company's The Few, the Proud, the Naked series, which depicts military-style guys masturbating. Whether they're actual military personnel is something the company professes not to know. "When a person comes in to apply for a [film] job, we don't ask their occupation," says Rick Ford, the company's president.

There's no denying, though, that the military image has been lucrative for All Worlds and many other video producers. The company's eight The Few, the Proud, the Naked releases have consistently been among its best-sellers, and a related line, Dirk Yates Private Collection, boasts a staggering 124 volumes. The success of these series has spawned countless imitators, and military imagery, both authentic and faux, has never been more prevalent in gay video.

Why the enduring popularity? "I think the instant answer is always because these guys are so authentically masculine," suggests Steven Zeeland, whose fourth book on gay sex in the armed forces, Military Trade, is due out in March. "But if you look more closely, you find a lot of other things going on. There's a fantasy of this kind of homoerotic brotherhood, where there's this intensity of male bonding that's at once erotically charged ... and somehow purer than the more easily available sexual pleasures we find in gay life."

Zeeland, a longtime acquaintance of Merritt's, has traced the history of military men appearing in gay erotica back at least half a century, to the early photographs of Bob Mizer and the Athletic Model Guild.

"There's this very complex relationship between military men and the porn industry, especially involving marines," he says. "They've always been the most sought-after by producers as ... the epitome of masculinity, at least as seen by many gay people.'

The tension hanging over gay service members from "don't ask, don't tell" may lead them to take risks they otherwise would not. Not only do they have to hide their homosexuality on duty; they also must positively affirm that they are straight--by dating members of the opposite sex, for example. Given the chance to break out, they may choose to do so, no matter how unwisely.

"A lot of people are attracted into the service ... because they're insecure about their masculinity," says Hardesty. "And guys with potentially ambisexual or bisexual tendencies are drawn to the Marine Corps ... far more so than to the Army or even the Navy. Secondly, there's a degree of exhibitionism involved. These are guys who train hard, work out, and are very vain--the Marine uniform is a peacock's uniform. The kind of guy who gets into this is acutely aware of his good looks and loves to be admired, so he's a natural for that kind of thing."

Zeeland agrees. "I think men who are attracted to the Marine Corps are interested in living up to the image of that poster marine. Having built themselves up, they're eager to ... have an audience, especially of other men."

Whether the revelation of Merritt's video background will have broader ramifications is unclear. However, supporters of gay service members insist that it should not.

"Certainly it's not helpful" to the cause of gays in the military, says Nancy Russell, vice president of the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Veterans of America. "[But] how much damage it will do is really questionable. Most military personnel do not get involved in pornography, so he's not representative of most gays and lesbians who serve in the military.... He's certainly not reflective of most service members, gay or straight, who serve their country with distinction."


Former Soldier of the Year Zuniga says Merritt's story could hurt but won't derail the cause of gays in the 'military

Rich Merritt, a marine with more than a decade of distinguished service, proudly came out of the military closet in the January 19 issue of The Advocate, sans the initial "R." he was forced to use when The New York Times Magazine featured him in a June 28 cover stow about gay marines. "Who is 'R.'?" was the lingering question throughout the summer. With revelations (published exclusively in this issue of The Advocate) that Merritt allegedly filmed a series of all-male porn videos while on active duty, the $64 question now is: How will this revelation affect the cause of gays in the military?

This disclosure will no doubt start tongues wagging. However, the truth about the discrimination gay service members endure, about the witch-hunts, about the bashings of suspected gays, and about the hundreds of individuals who have been drummed out under "don't ask, don't tell" is as true today as it was before this shocking revelation.

In going public Merritt told a not too uncommon story about a closeted homosexual adhering to "don't ask, don't tell" by negotiating mine-fields, securely hiding his sexual identity behind a government-required lie. As many gay veterans have done before him, he exposed the "just be quiet and don't wave it in our faces" policy meant to pander to America's general discomfort in dealing with homosexuality. Merritt's actions--while inappropriate for a service member of any sexual orientation and in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice--negate neither his distinguished military career nor that of countless other gay service members who have served their country with distinction. Nor does this revelation make more palatable President Clinton's untenable, politically expedient "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Publication of this bombshell poses yet another dilemma for me as a former soldier and journalist, one in which it is difficult--but not impossible--to root for either side. On one side is a decorated Marine officer who threw caution to the wind and has, unwittingly, provided additional fodder for those who wish to quash any movement on this issue. On the other side is The Advocate and its subscription to the '90s journalistic doctrine of publishing "all the flews that's fit to print." Caught in the middle are gay service members like those I knew in my Army years, men and women who reflect a cross section of America, have sworn to defend their country, and want only to do their jobs without the risk of losing their careers because of a personal characteristic that is irrelevant to military service.

Zuniga, who was the Sixth U.S. Army's 1992 Soldier of the Year, is now deputy director of the Chicago-based International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care.

Erich is editor in chief of Freshmen, Men, and Unzipped magazines.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on effect of story on gay military personnel; former gay military officer apparently also starred in pornographic films
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 16, 1999
Previous Article:A Philadelphia tragedy.

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