Thursday, October 27, 2011

Remembering Allen Schindler

Nineteen years ago on this day, U.S. sailor Allen Schindler was brutally murdered in a public restroom at a park just outside the U.S. Naval base in Sasebo, Japan. His death sent shockwaves throughout the Navy. He was murdered for being gay. I don't remember if the news of his murder played into the 1992 election, but one of the issues in that election was then Governor Bill Clinton's promise to end the ban on homosexuals serving in the United States Military. This made Clinton very unpopular with the military (along with his being a Democrat and avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War). I was in the Navy, stationed in La Maddalena, Sardinia. At the time, I supported the military's ban on homosexuals because I believed what the government stated was the reason for the ban: homosexuals were a blackmail / security risk and they affected unit cohesion.

However, news of Schindler's brutal murder was one of two incidents that caused me to question the ban. I did not really know any homosexuals, so it was easy to fear and even demonize them. Guys often made jokes about gay people or situations that might appear gay. It was all in good fun. Basic Training was full of sexual innuendos and insinuations. For example, the Company Commanders told us that the front flap on our Crackerjack uniform pants was called a "Marine dinner plate." This got a lot of laughs from everyone in the company. Also in Basic Training, when we were told to drop and do pushups or just to hold the up pushup position, guys would arch their backs so that the derriere is the highest point, which seemed to put less pressure on our arms than maintaining a flat posture. Whenever the Company Commander saw this arched position (in Yoga, I believe its called "Downward Dog"), they would ask the sailor if he was "advertising." During our evening shower when 40 guys were huddled around two shower trees, there were nervous jokes about dropping the soap. So, in such an atmosphere, its easy to understand why most guys would have an intolerant view of homosexuals in the ranks.

I did not know any gay people at the time (well, except for one sailor who propositioned me when I was drunk, which scared the crap out of me because I was in a vulnerable position of being smaller and alone in my barracks room) and I did not care to know any. I even had the view that I would end a friendship if I learned that any of my friends were gay. Though I was of the view that I did not want any gay people in my life (mostly it was based on the fear that they were obsessed with sex and would rape me if they had the opportunity), I was more of the live and let live variety. Thus, I was shocked to hear some guys views of wanting to commit acts of violence on any gay person. I did not understand this mentality, either.

The murder of Allen Schindler put a human face on the issue. Though I did not know him, the location of his death helped me to find a "connection" with him. In Yeoman "A" School, I had scored high enough on the first two tests to get second choice in a class of about 23 sailors for our duty stations. The way the Navy gave us duty stations was determined by a billet sheet in our "A" School class. If we had 23 students in class, the billet sheet had 23 duty stations. The person with the highest GPA got to pick first and it went down from there. So basically, I had my choice of duty stations. The person with the lowest GPA got what was left over. I studied my ass off to make sure that I got to pick first. My score was actually tied with another sailor and the tie-breaker was the date we entered the Navy. The other guy was in an earlier Boot Camp company than I was, so he got first choice. He picked a stateside shore duty billet. On the list were four overseas assignments. When I joined the Navy, I wanted duty in Hawaii or Japan. However, Hawaii was not on the billet sheet, but Sasebo, Japan was. I would have picked it if there was a better ship. I did not want to serve on a "Gator freighter" (the derogatory term for any Navy ship that has a large population of Marines on it, such as a Tank Landing Ship, which is what the duty station in Japan was). There were three duty stations in Italy (Naples, La Maddalena Sardinia, and Sigonella Sicily) and I leaned heavily towards Naples, but another guy who had a GPA below mine really wanted it and my parents emphasized that I should pick Sardinia because people actually vacation there and they heard good things about it.

Had there been a better ship in Sasebo (like a Guided Missile Cruiser or Frigate), I would've likely went to Japan instead of Sardinia. I'm so glad I did not have that choice, because I met so many great people in Italy and can't imagine my life without them in my life (especially the friends I made in France). However, had I went to Sasebo, I might have crossed paths with Allen Schindler. Would we have been friends? He was a Radioman, which meant he was fairly intelligent (I learned in the Navy that the AFQT score on the ASVAB test is a good measure of intelligence and who I would get along with. Certain rates require a high score and Yeoman and Radioman were among those). Schindler did some dumb things, though, such as broadcasting an unauthorized radio signal throughout the Pacific Fleet announcing that he was gay (remember, this was during the outright ban, which automatically got you processed out).

In 1994, Esquire Magazine had an in depth article about the murder and the guys who committed the murder. It was a gruesome read, especially the abuse suffered by the murderers when they were children (I remember reading that one of them was locked in the closet by his dad and if he soiled himself, he would be beat up by his abusive father). The abuse suffered by the murderers is no excuse for the brutal murder they committed on Schindler, but it does make you think about the ripple effect. We never know how people will act to others and what responsibility we might share in pushing them one way or another. You can read more about the incident on Wikipedia's entry.

What the murder of Schindler did for me was show me the ugliness of homophobia. As I wrote above, at the time (I was 20 in 1992) I wanted nothing to do with homosexuals. I didn't want them as friends or to know any, but I also did not the kind of hatred that other guys had for homosexuals. I was more neutral. What was it about gay people that made some men go violent? As I learned psychology years later, there are concepts such as projection, or where the thing that most annoys us in another person is something that we are neglecting to deal with in our own actions or beliefs. If someone can trigger a passionate reaction in you, that means its an obvious issue for you. Perhaps its no surprise, then, that the Navy portrayed the murderers of Allen Schindler as repressed homosexuals themselves. Who knows if they are or not, but you do have to wonder about the intensity of their hatred to do what they did to Allen Schindler. Its sad to contemplate that his life ended at 22 years. He barely begun to live life. His murderers deprived him of a full life.

The murder of Allen Schindler was enough to inspire the direction of my novel (which I am hoping will find a publisher soon since the zeitgeist seems to be manifesting the ideas I present in my novel), which deals with the questions of what it means to be a man in a world where women expect equality and homosexuals challenge the notion of masculinity / femininity. For centuries, homosexuals were thought to be effeminate and any man who was less than masculine was often suspected of being gay, even if they might not be. Did the murderers of Allen Schindler feel more "manly" after they ended the life of the detested homosexual in their ranks?

The second incident that influenced a change in my views regarding the ban on homosexuals serving in the military happened on a luxury bus waiting at the pier in Naples, Italy. In front of me sat two guys and I overheard their conversation. One of them mentioned that some of the streetwalkers in Naples were really transsexuals or transvestites. The other offered the suggestion that they should go looking for them so they can beat them up. I was stunned to hear that comment because here we were in Naples, with opportunities to see many different tourist sites (Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii, Capri, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, outdoor markets in Naples or even day trips to Rome by train), and these sailors wanted to go out of their way in search of some person they don't even know minding his own business and "teach him a lesson!" I did not understand this mindset at all. One thing that has also been true in my life, when I see someone acting ugly, I run the other way. If this was what homophobia looked like, I did not want to be like them. I guess I just never saw the point in targeting a hated minority group to deal with one's anger issues. Thus began the long process towards tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals as human beings who don't need to change their behaviour.

So, thank you Allen Schindler for being one of my teachers from afar. Its heartbreaking to read about your last night on earth and how brutally violent it came to an end. I hope your passage to the spiritual realm was swift and painless. When my novel finds a publisher and appears in bookstores, I plan to mention how your story influenced me in a good way, how I saw the ugliness of others and did not want to be like them. We never got to meet and be friends, but the memory of your existence will never be forgotten. Nineteen years after your death, the military no longer has a ban on homosexuals. It was a long process, but a sign of progress. As people feel more secure about their own sexuality and not threatened by those who are different, there will be less controversy and resistance. The world is getting better, inch by inch. Rest in peace, good sailor.


Trish and Rob said...

I don't remember this story. But how horribly tragic.

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