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Sweet land of libertines? Fearmongering over gays in the military.

Fearmongering Over Gays in the Military

. . . Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mount. --William Shakespeare

When the president of the United States and commander-in-chief of all the military forces declares homosexuals may serve their country in uniform and his own Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously threaten to resign over it, one begins to better understand Groucho Marx's assertion that "military intelligence" is a contradiction in terms.

My perspective is, admittedly, from the straight side. But while I've never been intimate with another man, I did spend three educational years in the U.S. Army (1965 to 1968) as a volunteer. This experience leads me to certain views on the subject that do not reflect those of the Joint Chiefs. (Well, we disagreed over the Vietnam War, too, so this is nothing new.)

Statistics say that I probably lived and worked with at least a dozen or so homosexuals during those three years of barracks life. I wouldn't know. No one in those days ever "came out" of their wall locker (what passes for a closet in a barracks). The fact that I was unaware of their presence demonstrates to me that there should be no intrinsic problems with President Clinton's desire to lift the ban on gays in uniform; all anyone should care about i's getting the job done.

Yet, some otherwise well-spoken, supposedly level-headed men of rank, power, and influence have practically gone into screaming hysterics about it, raising issues of such monumental national importance as, well, dating, dancing, kissing, tent, sharing, and showering with little or no privacy. You know, all the stuff that soldiers are routinely trained for.

To be sure, the inclusion of openly gay soldiers in the ranks will force some people to alter their prejudices and jettison some stereotypes, but this is rarely ever a bad thing, even in a general or admiral.

Standard of Social Etiquette

Soldiers and sailors don't like to take showers with those who like to take showers with soldiers and sailors. --Admiral Thomas H. Moorer

Senator Sam Nunn publicly touched on some trivial socializing points when he protested the president's plan at the end of january. He brought up the subject of formal military social events such as dances. He was serious about this. (Really.) Apparently the concept of same-sex couples tripping the light fantastic at some general's soiree sent a shiver down his spine. Perhaps he envisioned generals Grant and Lee slow-dancing together at Appomatox beneath a disco ball.

Nunn was also clearly shaken by the possibility of public "displays of affection" out of uniform--presumably because things like hand-holding, hugging, kissing, exchanging Valentine's Day cards, or using silly pet names for each other would somehow give the military services a bad image. Apparently, real men don't call each other "sweetie" in ice-cream parlors.

But if the image presented by soldiers out of uniform poses a problem, one must ask: do drunken brawls in bordellos or heterosexual rampages like Tailhook give the military a good image? Or is that something we've just gotten used to?

While I was unaware of the gays around me in the army, the same cannot be said for some of the other "life-style choices" and "orientations" of my fellow freedom fighters. I lived and worked with a wide assortment of men--ranging from gung-ho, jingoistic right-wingers to liberal-minded, well-read, thoughtful professionals. I also served with drunks, deadbeats, dullards, religious zealots, and wife-beaters. Not exactly great tent mates.

Check the military police reports for any given weekend and you'll soon learn that men in uniform are not all saintly choirboys who need to be protected from the unexpected shocks that flesh is heir to. And they often hold some of the most narrow-minded, chauvinistic, antiquated notions this side of a televangelist. They are not persecuted for their mindsets, and when their behavior is such that it appears on police blotters they are held personally responsible and accountable for it and are appropriately disciplined. Just like in the real world.

So, given the normal spectrum of intellectual, political, ethnic, moral, and ethical diversity to be found in a barracks--let alone a regiment--why is there such heavy resistance to the addition of one more element--sexual preference--to that spectrum?

A big clue to the motivation is in Senator Nunn's worries about social events, and in Admiral Moorer's fearful statement about communal showers, and in the photo-ops the frightened Marine Corps recently provided, where cameras were invited to peer into the close confines of a pup tent built for two, and into the bustling activity of a barracks latrine, as if these were some, how relevant. The real reason these men don't want to share living and sleeping and showering space with admitted homosexuals is because they're afraid of them.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

I am the Love that dare not speak its name. --Lord Alfred Douglas

The correct term is homophobic. But that is clinically distancing. I think bluntness is called for at this point, and afraid, scared, frightened, cowardly, and trembling in their boots are far more expressive of the situation than homophobic. Of what exactly are our brave, uniformed defenders of this diversified democracy afraid? No one in Congress or the Pentagon has yet voiced these particular fears, yet they exist deep in the minds of all men and may even be at the core of all the resistance. But it's the kind of core that everyone talks around rather than exploring directly--a core surrounded by a mental minefield of inculcated beliefs and narrow thought patterns where everyone is afraid of making a misstep for fear of having their often-tenuous sense of identity and gender security blown sky high. Here it is:

Based on their own libidinous and unrelenting pursuit of any woman within sight, and assuming gay soldiers will behave in the same undisciplined manner but following their own tastes, straight soldiers are fearful that (a) a gay man will find them attractive (as if there's nothing being sublimated already with all that horseplay and towel-snapping in the showers going on); (b) that said gay man will make a pass at them, especially in those cute little pup tents on a dark night in the woods; and (c) that they might even find it tempting--even if fleetingly--a culturally forbidden thought which so flies against all their stereotypical male self-images that over, reaction to this natural human curiosity erupts into furious denial, the kind of ignorant response that believes homosexuality is catching," that one can turn gay merely by proximity.

Yes, they're afraid that gay men will hit on them the same way they have been hitting on women ever since puberty. The irony is delicious. Perhaps that's why little or nothing has been heard from straight women soldiers about this issue; they're too busy snickering.

(Or could it be male soldiers are afraid that they won't be considered attractive by a gay man and therefore want to avoid rejection? The male ego, for those not in the know, is a tremendously fragile thing--as shaky as a Bosnian ceasefire.)

Mention gays and barracks in the same breath these days and immediately the question of privacy pops up--as if no one ever considered it before. No one ever disputed it: there is no privacy in a barracks and even less out in the field. So what? Grow up and get past it. Did these heroic military volunteers think they were signing up for a chaperoned church social?

It's not a cushy life and there are expectations of sacrifice up front--one of which is sharing close living quarters with a lot of other people, including people who will not be of your race, religious or political persuasion, or geographic background, and who will probably get on your nerves (and you theirs) until normal acculturation and socialization takes place. With the president's plan, this richly varied melting pot of people merely acknowledges one more element which is already present in any event--that is, differing sexual orientations.

It's not the end of the world, men! And as earlier generations of soldiers have found: once you get beyond the differences existing between members of the same outfit, once you train together and work together, you will discover similarities and mutual common ground for trust and respect without having to change, compromise, or threaten anyone's personal principles. Lack of privacy actually accelerates the process, and that is a good thing.

At one time, before the individual achievements of minorities got to be commonly recognized (following the removal of institutional barriers), even racists would be heard to say of someone--a General Colin Powell, for instance--"He's a credit to his race." That was a first, faltering step toward acceptance. As President Clinton's plan is put into effect, and as attitudes gradually, grudgingly, inevitably begin changing about gay soldiers, until it, too, becomes a nonissue, perhaps we'll be treated to a period in which barracks homophobes will be heard saying, He's a credit to his life-style."

Reality Check

The presence of such members adversely affects the ability of the armed forces (1) to maintain discipline, good order, and morale; (2) to foster mutual trust and confidence among servicemembers; (3) to insure the integrity of the system of rank and command; (4) to facilitate assignment and worldwide deployment of servicemembers who frequently must live and work under close conditions affording minimal privacy; (5) to recruit and retain members of the armed forces; [and 6] to maintain the public acceptability of military service. --Military policy, 1981, quoted in Gay Ideas by Richard D. Mohr

I never expect a soldier to think. --George Bernard Shaw

Unbending attitudes--particularly an unwillingness to see beyond religious convention and a profound insecurity with the varieties of human sexuality--are what appear to lie at the heart of the organized resistance to President Clinton's plan. All of these attitudes are essentially irrational and boil down to this: men who are ready to face anti-personnel minefields, tanks, missiles, bombs, booby-traps, grenade launchers, snipers, flamethrowers, and the biggest bouncers in any of the world's most notorious red-light districts are afraid to share a tent or a shower with a man who doesn't chase after women. What courage these soldiers of ours must have! And now that it's no longer a secret, enemy armies will know how to exploit our one great weakness and turn it to their advantage. They will fill their ranks with the swishiest cross-dressing Judy Garland--impersonators, pitch pup tents on the battlefield, make come-hither gestures, and send our macho troops running in a fearful panic in the opposite direction--and all without firing a shot!

Let me clue you in, Senators Nunn and Helms, the Joint Chiefs, and all the other vocal resisters: the ones who have the real courage, who have demonstrated the most bravery, are those gays in uniform who have openly proclaimed their sexual preferences. They know full well that they are making themselves the targets of opportunity for all the fear and bigotry and ignorance that a closed society like the military can bring to bear--from hazing and harassment to physical danger and even death.

Coming out while in uniform is the equivalent of sticking your head up out of a foxhole in hostile territory. Surely the Joint Chiefs can relate to that. It is voluntarily facing the same vulnerability and loneliness as the corporate whistle-blower, as the black children who ran the gauntlet of jeering hatred when first entering all,white schools; it is as gut-wrenchingly frightening as taking the point in a pitch-black jungle crawling with enemy troops.

Going against the prevailing groupthink and insisting on equality and respect in the face of the virulent animosity of your fellows is the kind of bravery most people are incapable of emulating. If gays in the military can publicly show that kind of courage, they should be saluted instead of vilified. They just may be the bravest soldiers we have.

Leo Miletich is a freelance writer in El Paso, Texas. His articles have appeared in Playboy, Reason, Library Journal, and The Humanist. His book Broadway's Prize-winning Musicals will be published later this year by Haworth Press.
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Author:Miletich, Leo N.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1993
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