Gay men and lesbians serve in the military. They always have. After needlessly discharging almost 14,000 men and women, humiliating them and outing them, the U.S. Senate is finally on the verge of repealing ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’
Allan Bérubé wrote about gay soldiers during World War II in his book Coming Out Under Fire. It was sparked by a box of letters he found from a dozen gay G.I.s who met in Missouri and wrote to each other from different bases all over the country. It moved Bérubé, who said that although the army barred gays from 1942, they still enlisted.
For many small-town gay men and women, the army was their chance to get away, to not only serve their country but also, ironically, to meet other gay people.
It was like going to the seminary but with push-ups.
Now that ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ is on the verge of repeal, gay people won’t have to hide their sexuality.
But can they kiss?
The question now is not whether the military can tolerate gay people but whether it can tolerate gay relationships. America has long moved into a realm of gay tolerance. Television did that to us thanks to Ellen and Will and Grace.
But while we are okay with the gay best friend, the gay neighbor, there is still tremendous discomfort around the gay couple. Heterosexuals have families. Gays have sex. That is still the overriding discomfort zone for Americans when it comes to homosexuality.
It’s not just Americans of course. When the High Court in New Delhi overturned India’s sodomy laws, several people filed motions to reinstate the laws. One of the litigants said if the sodomy law was repealed, it could lead to a national security problem. Apparently soldiers in the Indian army, stationed in the freezing glaciers near the contested borders with Pakistan in the Himalayas, would be more interested in keeping each other warm than in guarding the borders. Perhaps that is the “great damage” John McCain is worried about.
Gay, it seems, is just another three-letter word for sex. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why Prop 8, the ban on same-sex marriage, eventually passed in California and Prop 1 passed in Maine. In her new book Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Chinese American novelist Yiyun Li says the title refers to a Chinese phrase for a made-for-each other couple, the beautiful girl and the handsome boy. In the fight for same-sex marriage, advocates have tried to find their Gold Boy-Gold Boy and Emerald Girl-Emerald Girl couples – long committed relationships, solid jobs, excellent references. When you see them you shouldn’t think sex, you should think green bean casserole.
For the army the great challenge will be not for the lesbian and gay men and women who serve. It will be for the soldiers who serve with them.
Forget the digs about dropping the soap in the shower. Can they deal with the girlfriends and boyfriends? Robin Chaurasiya was recently outed and discharged because a fellow service member, a man she had briefly dated, got jealous when he found out she was dating a woman.
Barney Frank had it right in this week’s New York Times when he told Maureen Dowd that it would be one thing to have an openly gay presidential candidate. It would be another to have that candidate kiss his partner after winning the New Hampshire primary. Will America avert its eyes then?
‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was in many ways not just about the military. It was really America’s own evolving relationship with homosexuality. We are fine with it as long as you don’t display it, don’t talk about it at dinner. At least we are not lobotomizing it or electro-shocking it. The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ is going to force these issues out into the open.
The unspoked fear is that in this new army, the Lawrence Oliviers will keep asking the Tony Curtises whether they prefer snails or oysters. The Greeks and Romans obviously knew a thing or two about that. Achilles’ real heel was his love for Patroclus. It didn’t make Achilles any less a warrior. The Army is probably not worried about gay men shooting straight. The hidden worry is that the U.S. Army could become the new Troy, and in this version. Achilles and Patroclus have their pictures all over Facebook.
The real test will be when the next war ends, if the iconic photograph will be of an American marine kissing another marine in Times Square. Two men. Or two women. And both in uniform.
But as we look at that image, we’ll have to remember that 14,000 men and women paid with their careers for that kiss.
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