Harrington Park Press, $19.95, ISBN 1-56023-874-7
My methodology has not changed: I befriended servicemen, sometimes in an intimate way, in part to win their trust so that I could ask them terribly personal questions, and in part just because I liked them. The interviews included here represent those Marines I learned the most from.
It was 1987 when I entered the Navy at the age 24. This is actually pretty late in the game for someone to decide to “join up” but from a combination of unemployment and watching my small circle of friends die or go back home devastated by the AIDS crisis. I figured I was already feeling like I was isolated and depressed so why not do that in a constructive way and get the hell away from the San Francisco Bay Area in the process. I had been raised an army brat, I knew the score and I figured I could handle not only “joining up” but in some ways I wanted to prove to myself and maybe my own father that even being gay, I could “make it”.
After deciding that this was the path I was going to take I immediately started to seriously cover some of my tracks from the past 5 years. I proceeded to tell everyone that I was going to use as people who could be contacted for any background checks explaining that yes, I was going to lie about being gay and would they cover for me etc etc. Interesting discussions, but you would not believe how agreeable and supportive people can be when you’re honest about being dishonest to the government. I eventually would obtain some pretty damn high clearances and I still believe someone had to know I was gay.
A night right before I was sent to the Navy boot camp Great Lakes near Chicago, I and a group of new recruits being shipped out and the recruiters got together for what can mostly be called a drunken night out with the guys. Now mind you, a few of these guys were a bit underage to be drinking but we conveniently met on a now defunct Naval airbase nearby. Anyway, I got a little too drunk and ended up crashing at the hunky (why do they always pick good looking recruiters), married, head recruiter’s apartment. I remember him later that evening when we crashed, standing over me in his tighty whiteys eyeing me laying there like he was deciding to make a come on or not and asking me what a good looking guy like myself was doing “joining up” at my age. That was one of my first memories of what would be a rather interesting career choice. I of course being the experienced some what freaked out gay guy, did everything I could to act totally out of it to diffuse the situation because the last thing I was going to do was start that routine so early in the game. Yes, the game.
Steven Zeeland has written three books out of interviews he has done with relatively young military personnel who were also gay. Barrack Buddies and Soldier Lovers was published in 1993, Sailors and Sexual Identity in 1995, and The Masculine Marine in 1996. Now I personally could group all three of these books despite the forced attempt to supposedly explore different subjects into the same review because in reality they cover the same territory with the same style and structure and use some of the same individual’s stories. Talking about one book would be the same as talking about any other book in the series.
Steven starts each of the books setting up the various subjects with some off topic, mumbo jumbo and intellectually suspect reasons he wrote them. To summarize that reason is simple; basically he did it to justify his military fetish of only dating young, stupid, inexperienced, military guys. How’s that for a kicker? My point being, that even with a few exceptions here and there for the most part you are going to run into interview after interview of young good looking guys just really getting the hang of being young and gay in the military, afraid of getting caught or bent on just that, and figuring out who they really are now in this new context of discovery. Pretty depressing stuff to say the least.
In my opinion Steven Zeeland through these books is providing nothing more than yet another myth, another highly selective image, another porno anthology disguised as interview, another shallow surface view of gay military personnel as salacious and exploitative as that of any of those gay pornographers that feed upon the young and naïve from the local military posts and then litter the Internet with supposedly “straight” military guys “gettin it on!” This collection only represents the type of people Steven Zeeland liked, by his own admission. They represent the type of people whom Steven Zeeland would bed, by his own admission. It’s the shallow end of the gene pool here people!
These books are not even of value as an example of HOW to survive being Gay in the military because quite a few of the guys get out almost immediately after these interviews take place. Or, they are kicked out leaving you wondering about their bias and how negative their personal accounts were by their bad experience in the military. I’m no perfect example myself due to the simple fact that about a third of the way through my illustrious career I contracted HIV. Well, maybe I am a good example because that did put me under a microscope (more of a microscope than I was already under being a submariner!) and showed me a hell of a lot of bad examples of bigots running around in uniform.
The secret to my success was pretty much that I kept to myself, which is not easy and I feel I missed out on a lot of closeness with my fellow shipmates. I refused a lot of invitations to go to parties or celebrate holidays with my shipmates off base. I lived off base the first moment I could arrange it, living in the barracks I quickly found out puts you in view for other people to inspect your personal life out of uniform. I was very very careful, not about going out to a gay bars in public or even dating local civilians, but about whom I got close to in the military. Everything I did was done at arms length and with the utmost professionalism I could muster. In uniform on base or on my boat was the safest most secure spot to be. I knew what was expected, who expected it, and how they expected it to be done. It was when you got out of uniform… that was the scary part.
The biggest “could have been” relationship I look back on was with a fellow Submariner Fire Control Technician whom I dated despite my personal rules and I fell madly in love with for about 6 months. We understood each other and shared that isolation we felt. He eventually was shipped out to another post and we consciously decided to end it quickly instead of dragging it out in some type of long distance nightmare of a relationship. He went boomers and I was fast attacks (those are submarine types, and yes sub sailors lead very different lives) and it was just not gonna happen. When I talk about personal sacrifice just being in the military as a gay man, this is an example of a personal sacrifice I feel most straight guys would never put up with. It’s not like you can get married and leverage base housing for your other half when you are gay. We, meaning us military gay guys and gals, made those sacrifices constantly. Living a schizophrenic life that isolates you at every level no matter how comfortable you are with yourself and your sexuality.
What you will not see in these books are interviews with the type of people I ran into, as an older more experienced gay man, in the military who continually chose not to be predatory (not to date or mess with people in my own boat or unit), who consciously decided to maintain professionalism at all times, and who eventually met other gay people who succeeded in having very long and very successful military careers following that same premise. People who, to this day, have my complete and utmost respect for making such a huge personal sacrifice to our country even in times of peace and who exemplify the best aspects of dedicated gay military personnel and are virtually unknown despite how much they have contributed to the US military.
I think that’s the image I would really want to leave with you instead of the seedy one that Steven Zeeland seems bent on showing you. That would be just the image of the Gay Master Chiefs and the Gay Senior Chiefs and the Gay Captains and the Gay Lieutenants I ran into who loved their jobs and honestly, with a straight face, believed in their service to our country so much they would hack off major portions of their personal lives in doing so and devote it to the concept of “We Protect Our Own”.
On numerous occasions especially when I was stationed those final years of my enlistment in Washington DC and my civilian lover was dying from AIDS; paperwork would materialize out of nowhere approving leave time or phone calls would be made to excuse me from duty. It just happened, not because I asked for it, not because I expected it, not by this secret networked organization (although we had some great parties), but from a core of concerned individuals who all served for various reasons but towards the same purpose and who also understood our minority status in the organization they had dedicated so much of themselves to. Sailors and Marines who protected their own and who did so in some cases at risk to their own careers.
Change, from my experience, is taking place in the military regarding gay people serving, change is slowly happening; it has to happen with so many gay men and women in charge. It is just not going to come easily from some Executive Order or from some legal victory but from the inside like it probably should.