Yesterday's news brought a strange little incident to light, and got me thinking.
Michael Guinn, a student at John Brown University
, a Christian college
in Arkansas, claims to have been dismissed
from the college for violating a pledge that, among other things:
• he would not to dress in women’s clothing;
• if he participated in sports, he would not slap other players on the butt;
• he would not hug or shake hands with other men for too long;
• he would not "broadcast" his lifestyle; and
• he would not tell other students he was gay until he got to know them well.
It seems to me that religious colleges should be free to create and enforce student guidelines consistent with their religious teaching, whatever anyone might think about that teaching, but the list of restrictions imposed on Guinn started me thinking about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the future of the military.
With the exception of cross-dressing -- apparently, Guinn has been known to do drag, which is a huge issue for Christians, who want to be able to tell the men and women apart, despite the Liberace-like appearance of most male televangelists -- the list is almost a parody of the behaviors gay men use to steer clear of trouble in the straight world -- don't look to obviously, don't touch too long, don't tell, don't talk, don't be obvious.
It struck me, after a snort about how silly it all was to regulate the length of a handshake -- I'm surprised that the guidelines didn't require Guinn to give a "firm, manly, handshake" -- how similar the list was to the ways in which gay military personnel are expected to behave on duty.
I served in the military for six years, in Special Forces, and the fact that a number of the men in my unit were gay was more or less an "open secret", understood and acknowledged, but unstated. Most of the men serving with them "knew", but it made no difference.
The gay men in my unit, like the straight men, acted and sounded like soldiers -- "military bearing" is a form of play-acting that operates by rules distinct from the rules of behavior applicable to civilian life, and gay men are as capable as straight men in playing the John Wayne role. As long as all of the men acted like they were supposed to, sexual orientation was not an issue.
But what of the future?
The United States will end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" within a few years, like it or not.
The polls make that clear enough -- Americans are not going to tolerate, much longer, a military that insists on removing men and women who are essential to its mission.
And from what I can discern from reading about current military culture, the military is not, by any means, ready for the transition to open service by gays and lesbians.
I think of the issue -- I suspect accurately -- in terms of male soldiers. The focus of the ban on gays and lesbians in the military is, culturally, based largely on the perceived reluctance of straight men to serve with gay men. Straight women in the military seem to have less perceived reluctance to serve with lesbian women, possibly because "military bearing", when applied to women, favors the kind of bearing and behavior commonly attributed to lesbian women.
The ban on open service -- put in terms of "small-unit combat efficiency" -- is based on the military's perception that morale would suffer if straights were forced to serve in close contact with known gays.
And that perception, in turn, is, as far as I can tell from reading military testimony before Congress over the years, largely based on the "yuk" reaction common among straight men -- the "Sleep and shower with a gay guy? Yuk!"
And behind the "yuk" is, I think, fear.
I am a member of a recovery support group that suggests that members of the group embark on a rigorously honest moral inventory, and then share that inventory with a trusted human being who is a member of the group. The idea behind the inventory and sharing is that "we are only as sick as our secrets", and that by admitting the things that we would just as soon take to the grave with us to ourselves and to another, we deprive our secrets of their power over us. A secret is no longer a secret after it is out in the open.
Over the course my time in the group, I've heard several dozen men, at least, share their moral inventory. And I've been struck by something -- the power of early same-sex experience by straight men on the rest of their lives. The sharing sessions typically take 4-5 hours, and cover the whole gamut of male misbehavior, varying only in detail and particulars from man to man.
And almost always, somewhere near the end, after a straight man has talked about a wide range of acting out, sexual and otherwise, we get down to the "uh, err" part of the session.
The man -- and this is more true of men under 30 than men over 30, although it applies to both -- falls silent, and then, after a lot of hemming and hawing around, starts to talk about the things he did with his friends as a young teen -- grabbing, unwanted erections, jerk-off sessions, mutual masturbation, oral sex and occasionally anal sex -- with a great deal of shame and confusion.
The shame, of course, stems from our cultural biases. Straight men are not
supposed to have sex with other men, ever, no matter the age.
The confusion, however, seems to stem from two more personal factors.
The first is that whatever the particulars, "It felt good, and I liked it ...", and straight men are taught that they should not. The second is the question of "What does this mean about me?", which really asks the question, "Am I gay and don't know it?"
The sessions are a two-way street -- the man sharing the moral inventory does that, and the man hearing the moral inventory often shares experiences from his own life or comments in one way or another. When we get done with the "uh, err" part of the inventory, I usually comment about two things: first, that the "uh, err" story seems to be everyone's story, in one way or another -- boys will play with boys, and that's a fact -- and second, that "It is okay for straight boys to have had experience with other boys -- it doesn't mean you're gay."
I believe both those things. But I also know that the lingering fear -- "What does this mean about me?" -- stays with straight men for a long time. The question is more acute with younger men than with older men, of course, but it festers.
And I suspect that the lingering fear has a lot to do with the "yuk" factor -- the "Sleep and shower with a gay guy? Yuk!" -- that seems to be at the heart of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". The one thing that straight men do not
want to be confronted with is anything that brings up or reopens the question, "What does this mean about me?"
We read, from time to time, about the "gay panic defense". The rationale behind the defense is that a straight man can become so offended or outraged by a sexual advance -- by being thought to be homosexual -- that he is driven temporarily insane and commits an act that would not otherwise commit. The "gay panic defense" is, although unsuccessful for legal purposes in almost all cases, the penultimate example of a straight man's discomfort with being confronted with the question "What does this mean about me?"
"Don't ask, don't tell" is designed to reduce the "yuk" factor -- which gets down to the problem of straight soldiers being confronted with the question "What does this mean about me?" -- by rendering gay soldiers invisible. Gay men can serve in the military as long as strict secrecy is maintained.
Underlying it all, I think, is the idea that gay male sexual attraction is a time bomb: if a man wants to have sex with someone, sooner or later he will try, or at least say or do something that will be unnerving to the straight soldier to whom he is attracted -- something that will raise the question "What does this mean about me?".
The fear that gay male sexual attraction is a time bomb is all born of misplaced anxiety and cultural misunderstanding, to my way of thinking.
If straight men, who are notoriously uncivilized in this regard, can learn, to keep their eyes, hands and mouths to themselves around women soldiers while in military service, why isn't that true for gay men, who have had a lot of experience and training in high school locker rooms, showers and so on?
Of course, gay men can. And gay men do, in the civilian world and in the military. Right now.
That is what needs to be understood by straight soldiers if integration of openly gay men is to succeed in the military.
Straight soldiers would learn it in time, of course, as openly gay men served and there was no trouble, and about half of them probably know it already from high school, where gay teens are often "out" and share locker rooms and showers with straight teens.
But the military needs to think about the question, because "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a policy largely based on a guesstimate, accurate or not, about what the rank and file think. “Morale” is almost always the primary justification for throwing out openly gay members of the military, and barring the gate to gays who are unwilling to serve in secrecy.
If it turns out that morale won't be affected, or that straight male discomfort with the "What does this mean about me?" question can be defused, then "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is based on nothing. Conversely, if it turns out that morale will inevitably be affected, and nothing can defuse it so long as our culture remains as homophobic as it is, presently, in many of the populations from which the military draws its personnel -- the rural South and the urban African-American populations -- then the country should take that into account when considering what to do about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".
I am not suggesting that the country should keep, or delay repeal, of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". The policy is unworkable, destructive, and runs counter to a basic foundational principle of our country's social compact, the principle that the risks and burdens of citizenship should fall upon all equally.
But I do think that we need to consider how to implement a decision to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".
My view is that the military needs to start a discussion within the ranks, well in advance of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". The discussion has to bring the fears of straight soldiers out into the open, and deal with the fears honestly and forthrightly. Straight soldiers need to know that the assumption behind "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- the assumption that if a gay man wants to have sex with a straight man, sooner or later he will try, or at least say or do something that will be unnerving to the straight man to whom he is attracted -- is both inaccurate and, to the extent that some gay soldiers will, of course, act out, the military can handle it.
Many thoughtful people disagree with me, I suspect.
Many believe that a top-down solution arrived at by senior officers can resolve the issues. The solution put forward by those who believe that is forced integration of openly gay service members. The argument draws upon the military's experience with racial integration, which was
successfully implemented during the days of civilian segregation despite insistence that it would upset soldiers from the South.
The comparison between forced racial integration and forced integration of openly gay service members seems plausible. In both cases resistance to integration began with a “yuk” factor -- "Share my foxhole with a black man? Sleep under the torpedoes of a sub next to a gay man? Yuk."
But my view is that the forced integration of African-American soldiers is not, past a certain point, comparable to the possible forced integration of gay soldiers.
Racists who said “yuk” to sharing a meal with a black man got used to it. White soldiers who did not want to be led by black officers and noncoms got used to it. And, I suppose, straight soldiers would get used to eating, sleeping and sharing showers and bathrooms with openly gay soldiers.
But I think that there is a difference between the two integrations.
Resistance to racial integration was based almost solely upon cultural prejudice. Resistance to integration of gay soldiers is based on cultural prejudice, to be sure, but also upon fear of being confronted with the "What does this mean about me?" question.
In that sense, integrating openly gay soldiers into the military is fundamentally different than racial integration. Whites and blacks may not like each other much, but white soldiers don't fear that black soldiers will "do something". My guess is that straight soldiers do
fear that gay soldiers will
do something, even it if only to ask.
And, I suspect, it goes beyond just the question of "doing something". My guess is that more than a few straight men are unnerved by the idea that gays might want
to do something, even if nothing is done.
I don't think that a whole lot can be done about desire, but I think that straight soldiers can come to understand that gay soldiers have had years and years of experience in "don't look, don't touch" when it comes to straight men.
I think, in short, that straight men can come to learn that they have nothing to fear but fear itself.