Friday, September 30, 2011

Flashback Friday: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Pictured above is Stephen Hill, a soldier currently serving in Iraq who revealed on television that he also happens to be gay, when his question was selected by a Fox Network moderator at the last Republican debate. His question was for Ricky Santorum, who has a history of equating homosexuality with bestiality and earned the ire of sex columnist Dan Savage, who got the best form of revenge, ever. If you Google search "Santorum", the number 1 listing you'll find is the definition of "Santorum" that is credited to Savage. Its the kind of definition that makes you go, "ew!" I think that was the point, though. Savage wanted people to think "ew!" when they think about Ricky Santorum.

When I interned in the U.S. Capitol building in 2000 for the Office of the Vice President for Legislative Affairs, we received regular requests from then-Senator Ricky Santorum to use the Vice Presidential Ceremonial Office for a weekly Bible Study group among conservative Senators (I believe my own Senator, Max Cleland was also part of the group). Before I knew anything about Santorum, I accepted his requests and put him on the schedule, until someone in the office told me why they did not want him to use the office. I thought it was petty, though. If its not in use at the time Santorum wanted to use it, why not allow him that? This was a few years before his last name was defined by Savage.

During the debates, I don't find Santorum to be a bad guy. He seems likable enough. He is a conservative, no doubts there. However, he looks very boyish and it is difficult to imagine him as presidential material. He looks like he needs to wear short pants and a beanie on his head. The question posed to him by Stephen Hill was perfect for tripping him up.

Last week, the Clintonian "compromise" policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (the original name was actually: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue") officially ended and now, gay servicemen and women can freely admit their orientation without fear of investigation or being discharged before their contract ends. This is a long time in coming, yet still not without controversy. Santorum promised the social conservatives in the Republican Party that if he becomes president (which is about as likely as Sarah Palin becoming intelligent), he will reverse this new policy though he will allow those who have come out of the closet to remain until their terms are up.

It amazed me that an active duty servicemember was willing to reveal himself on national television in a political debate. But seeing how muscular the guy is, I doubt that anyone with a problem with his sexuality would mess with him. He certainly defies the stereotype of gay men being sissy or effeminate. He looks like he'll kick your ass if you insult him or try to blanket party him. It is actually cool to see such a guy defying stereotypes people have.

Under this change of policy, I actually submitted my novel to an independent publishing company that promises to read the entire manuscript to determine if a book is right for them or not. They are looking for novels with a social message. I'm hoping that my novel will impress the reader(s) enough to publish my book, even though they seem to only publish in paperback (which many newspapers won't review books that are not published in hardcover first) and there is likely to be no advance or potential for a bidding war among the big publishers. I just want to see the novel published and released to the public. I think the message is timely. Essentially, my novel is about an idealistic young man who joins the Navy to see the world, and in the process, he finds himself under investigation when a gay sailor ends up missing at sea. The novel covers all the major controversies: Tailhook, sexual harassment, cross-dressing, homosexuality, bisexuality, false allegations, homophobia, misogyny, prostitution, transsexuals, bigotry, and what it really means to be a man. Basically, the novel says everything I wanted to say about my Navy experience.

I was in the Navy when Clinton won the election in 1992. I was there when he promised to end the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. I heard all the controversies. I saw all the cartoons that were posted around the ship. I heard the jokes, the fear, the homophobia, the allegations. From what I've read about the red-baiting scare of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, I saw a similarity in the military environment in the 1990s. The obsession of others in finding and rooting out potential homosexuals in our midst, the strange lengths guys would go through to prove their heterosexual manhood and if you did not participate, you found yourself being suspect. So, just because I had no interest in going to a whorehouse, of spending money on "buy-me-a-drink" bar girls, of watching porn, or even eating at Hooters, my sexuality came under question. Since I didn't feel a need to prove anything to anyone, I couldn't care less.

When I was in the Navy, I found myself solicited by two different sailors. It was quite an uncomfortable experience. The first one occurred in 1991 / 1992. I was drunk and foolish. One sailor wanted to make sure I got back to my barracks safely. Even though I was drunk, I still had some semblance of logic. The sailor who helped me back to my barracks room hung out for awhile and kept complaining about his need to get laid. At first, I ignored him, but when he kept harping on it, I told him to go to Olbia to find a prostitute. Of course, that was not a convenient thing to do. It would require a car and taking a ferry from the island of La Maddalena to the mainland of Sardinia and driving on a winding road for about an hour to reach Olbia, which probably had a population around 50,000 or so (it was the nearest "city" that had an airport and a ferry to mainland Italy). That advice just wouldn't do, and the sailor said something that sent a chill down my spine. He said to me, "I'd rather do you than do a prostitute." Even though I knew what he was implying, I played dumb and in a roundabout way, mentioned that I was tired and needed to sleep, so he needed to leave. After he was gone, I was scared about how vulnerable I was, because I was drunk and he was a bigger guy. This was just one more episode that confirmed for me why my cautious approach with people works. I don't trust people easily and they have to earn their trust. I swore to myself that I would never allow myself to be in such a vulnerable position with anyone.

According to Navy regulations at the time, I was expected to turn in the names of suspected homosexuals. However, I did not want to ruin someone else's Navy career. I've always been a "live and let live" kind of person. I kept my distance from the guy for the rest of the time he was stationed in La Maddelena. When he transferred back to the states, I was relieved. However, there was another incident involving him in my barracks room. He was talking when the Chaplain came around to visit guys in the barracks. He wanted to hide in my room, which I thought was ridiculous. I don't know why he was afraid of a Chaplain. Anyhow, I honoured his wishes and let him hide in my wardrobe when the Chaplain came around to my room. I talked to the Chaplain for awhile. At another time, the Chaplain asked me who was hiding in my barracks room. I denied that there was anyone hiding, but he said that he had seen the guy hide from the window and my eyes had betrayed me when he talked to me. The Chaplain was a snoop and I didn't like what he was implying, so I admitted that the sailor said that he did not want to talk to him so he asked if he could hide and I thought it was ridiculous, but allowed him to do so. I did not understand the big deal. People are strange.

In 1993-1994, another sailor took an interest in me and kept inviting me over to his apartment. Once, when I had some groceries from the small NEX on the island, this sailor offered me a ride back to the barracks, which saved me time and the expense of a taxi. Before we approached my barracks, he said, "Since I've given you a ride, you should return the favour." I did not like the conditions he sprung on me, for I would have never accepted a ride if he had an ulterior motive. He said that I needed to come over to his place and let him cook dinner for me. I declined because I got a weird vibe from the invite.

When I worked at the Palau Community Center, there was a bulletin board where people could post flyers offering to babysit or giving rides or whatever else. There was one from a lady offering to give massages. This sailor looked at that ad and said that he would like a massage. I told him that the lady offering them was supposed to be pretty good and that he should give her a call. Then he said to me, "I'd rather get one from you." I freaked out and changed the subject. Over the months, he kept finding subtle ways to get to me and I was getting tired of it. However, I tend not to be direct in confronting people, so I found a roundabout way to bring up the issue. I mentioned supporting the ban on gays serving in the military. At the time, I did support the gay ban. I did not know anyone who was gay and I believed at the time that gay men were obsessed with sex and were likely to be predators. We had arguments about it, which was odd, because the sailor was conservative. When he transferred back to the states, I was relieved.

What I learned from the two sailors is that they speak in codes. Because of the fear of being turned in for investigation, gay sailors had to talk in a roundabout way, thus allowing them to cover their tracks if the person they approach gets angry and / or violent. They can claim a misunderstanding and move on. I had asked a high school friend of mine why she thought gay sailors pursued me. She said that they probably felt safe with me, that I would not kick their ass or turn them in when it turned out that I did not swing their way.

On my last ship, an aircraft carrier, I often ate my meals alone, with a book. This, I learned, is an invite to others to sit by me and strike up a conversation. One sailor did so. Because of my previous experience with the roundabout way that gay sailors pursue their prey, I was cautious at the start. Here we go again, I thought. The sailor went through what appeared to be a checklist of questions to gauge me. I was so nervous that it was yet another gay sailor with an interest in me, but was actually relieved when it turned out that he was pushing religion on me instead of his homosexual inclinations. Funny how that would be a relief! Also funny that religious and homosexual sailors had similar approaches. They both spoke in coded terms and in a roundabout way. I prefer the direct route, though. I've never liked hidden agendas. When meeting new people (even today), I tend to be stand-offish and skeptical, wondering if the other person who approaches me has a hidden agenda. I don't trust friendly people who strike up a conversation with me. I wish it was just a friendly conversation because people are interested in you, but more often, it seems as though the friendly person has an agenda (to sell something, whether a product, service, or religion; or to ask for money).

What changed my view about the Navy's policy towards members who are openly gay was two incidents that happened in 1992 and 1993. One incident occurred in Sasebo, Japan (which was one of the duty stations I could have chosen during the duty station selection process in "A" School), the other on a liberty bus on the pier in Naples, Italy. The incident in Sasebo made the news. A gay sailor, Allen Schindler, was brutally murdered in a public restroom in a park by two homophobic sailors. The incident on the liberty bus in Naples was one I personally witnessed. It was actually a conversation between two sailors I did not know who sat in the seats directly in front of mine. One of them mentioned that some of the streetwalkers in Naples were actually men. The other sailor suggested that they should go out and find them to beat the shit out of them. I was stunned by their aggression. We had all been briefed regarding the prostitutes of Naples and warned to stay away from them. It struck me as odd that some sailors hated those with alternative sexuality so much that they were willing to go out of their way in search of them to commit acts of violence. Here we were in Naples, with so many things to see (within Naples and beyond: Capri, Sorrento, Pompeii, Rome, Mt. Vesuvius, etc.) and yet, these sailors wanted to go out of their way to find the prostitutes that were men pretending to be women and teach them a lesson. That was the essence of what homophobia is about. I wondered what would be accomplished if they did the deed. Would they feel more manly after beating up a transvestite prostitute?

In Ricky Santorum's response to the openly gay soldier's question, he actually said that there is no place for sexual activity in the U.S. military. Instead of causing audience laughter at the ludicrous comment, the audience actually applauded. One of the frustrations I have with conservative church members that I know is that they seem to worship the military. They believe that people who serve in the military are noble and have pure motives. The worship of the military members always offended me, because most enlisted people don't deserve such flattering worship. Why do most people join the military? Its a pretty safe / secure job, has great benefits (free health / dental care and 30 days vacation a year. How many companies offer that to new employees? Even my last job only offered 15 days vacation after five years of employment), and you'll get to travel far and wide at someone else's expense. If you're irresponsible with money and get broke after payday weekend, you don't have to worry about being homeless or starving to death.

When I was in the Navy, I saw a lot of drunken debauchery. Guys going to whorehouses. Guys committing adultery with their shipmates' wives. Even a bunch of guys sitting around in a darkened lounge on board a ship watching a porn movie (I had to walk through the lounge to get to the head to brush my teeth / shower). Guys spending a lot of money on bar girls in the hope of obtaining a blow job. Most enlisted men are in their late teens / early 20s. Sexuality is a natural part of the life of a typical young adult. To expect our military members to be saints is unrealistic. Thus, it was always strange to me that while conservatives speak out / condemn sexuality, they worship the very young men who engage in such conduct. This disconnect was one of many reasons why I have moved further and further away from my natural conservative nature. I live by my own code of conduct, which most people are likely unable to live up to. That's okay, though, because they don't have to live my life and I won't hold others to my moral stance. I just don't like the dishonesty. So, if you are a conservative moralist who says "support the troops" on one hand while condemning co-habitation, sex outside of marriage, adultery, homosexuality, prostitution...well, I think you should open your eyes. You're condemning the very things that many enlisted people engage in. Why should military members be placed on some kind of pedestal, anyway? Just allow them to be human, but also understand that joining the military is not a morally superior decision than going to college or serving in the Peace Corps or any other choice that a young person makes. It is simply one path a young person can make. That does not make them more moral than the rest of us who choose another path.

As for Stephen Hill, his willingness to be open about who he really is shows more courage than anything we've seen from members of the Bush regime or the eight candidates for the Republican nomination for president. It would be a great tragedy, indeed, if the military processed Hill out just because of his sexual orientation. Our country needs people like Hill who are willing to serve, especially since we are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a sign of our evolution as a country that the ban and the compromise ban are now assigned to the dust heap of history.

If my novel gets accepted for publication, I would love to promote it with television, radio and print interviews and bookstore lectures / signings. I would love to share about my experience in the Navy and how my views have changed because of what I personally witnessed. The conservatives who fear that the end of the ban will result in an increase in rapes or homosexual activity need to get real. Sexual misconduct has always been a problem in the military and dealt with by the commands. I see no reason for that to change. It has long been past the time when people finally accept that gay people are simply individuals who happen to be gay. That's not their only identity. It is merely one aspect of their lives. Let us allow each person the full expression of their being and stop obsessing over the most private aspect of their lives.

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