Homoeroticism In The Ranks

"Myself personally, it would make me sick to see two guys holding hands or touching each other. It would just make me sick."

--Sgt. Stan Ronell, Fort Ord, Calif.

Sigmund Freud observed half a century ago that men seldom live comfortably with their manhood; they are stuck with constantly having to prove it. For young armed-forces recruits who are still uncertain of their footing in the male world, the gruff camaraderie of barracks life may provide a reassuringly masculine setting. For some, it may do the opposite.

That human truth, never publicly acknowledged by the top brass, may be one reason the Pentagon so bitterly resisted President Clinton's campaign promise to drop the ban on gays in the military. The administration is offering a compromise this week that would allow gays to serve as long as they did not advertise their sexual preference. It remains unclear how this "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy will actually be implemented in the ranks. But no solution can do more than paper over an uncomfortable reality of life in the trenches: that the male bonding so prized by military commanders--the willingness to die for one's buddies--can engender another kind of closeness as well.

Many GIs recognize homosexual leanings for the first time in the all--male surroundings. Author Steven Zeeland says that more than half the soldiers who appear in his just-published book, "Barrack Buddies and Soldier Lovers: Dialogues With Gay Young Men in the U.S. Military," didn't come out until they joined up. "A lot of them felt the military served as a catalyst, by forcing them to confront their feelings for other men," he says.

Military men seem to fear that those feelings could turn the barracks into seething love nests. "With openly gay and heterosexual personnel together, sexual tension would fester 24 hours a day," says a recent New York Times op-ed page piece written by Bernard E. Trainor, a retired general, and Eric L. Chase, a reserve colonel of the Marines. "Romantic interests, even if unconsummated, would shatter the bonds that add up to unit cohesion." The authors thus invoked a reigning myth of the current debate, which sees the ideal of virtuous male bonding threatened by ungovernable homosexual lusts.

The truth is much more complicated. Homosexuality remains exotic and forbidding terrain for most servicemen. Many have never known a gay man or woman and can barely imagine what their lives are like. Yet their own off-base conduct may not be that different. Zeeland's book, for instance, describes an informal network of gay American GIs and civilians based in Frankfurt, Germany, shortly before the gulf war. In the accommodating embrace of the city's teeming red-light district, gay and straight GIs pursued separate but equal satisfactions, and crossover experimentation was not unknown. "They were young, lonely, and sometimes desperately horny," writes Zeeland, a civilian employee of the army in Frankfurt for eight years and himself gay. "It is not surprising that they would seek out...pleasures they might not even have dared think of [back home]."

There is, in fact, an undercurrent of homoerotic tension in the shared latrines, shower rooms and sleeping quarters of barracks life. GIs get used to the loss of privacy soon enough, but not, perhaps, to the enforced physical intimacy. "if I'm in the shower," says Mike Tuttle, a specialist at Fort Bragg, N.C., "I like to know I'm not being ogled over by some guy." It's an unaccustomed worry for men. By imagining themselves objects of homosexual lust, they unwittingly place themselves in the feminine role-which may explain the vehemence of their objections. "Part of it is the idea that, 'Maybe [gays] are seeing something in me that I don't want to admit is in me'," says University of Mississippi psychologist Dan Landis, who has worked with the military on equal-opportunity matters over the past 20 years.

The military exalts masculinity in ways that are frankly or implicitly sexual. A formfitting dress uniform can make a leatherneck look like a peacock. Back in the prewar 1930s and '40s, a popular feature of theatrical newsreels was the tumultuous "arrival of the fleet," a kind of stateside version of the annual running of the bulls, showing ostensibly sex-starved sailors racing pell-mell down the gangplanks in pursuit of female prey. The photo cps were presumably arranged, if not to say staged, with the full cooperation of navy public relations. Carole Burke, a former instructor at the U. S. Naval Academy, recalls witnessing the year-end freshman ritual of scrambling to the top of a greased 21-foot obelisk, "a monument that in all its phallic splendor, marks for many an exclusive male rite of passage." But Burke, now an associate dean at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, couldn't help noticing that some of the hazing rituals seemed fixated on the male buttocks. The traditional spanking-or "paddling"-punishment for infractions was not so much in evidence anymore. But cadets might get a scarlet letter, or rather a "W" in shoe polish, branded on their behinds for dating women at the school. One midshipman who suffered that indignity later gathered the plebes who inflicted it to congratulate them on their teamwork. "It's pretty complicated to understand what's going on psychologically," Burke says. "It's a version of order, congratulating one's tormentors." There did seem a need for a kind of ritual humiliation, perhaps on the notion that it toughened a man up.

Afloat, some of the rituals are even more bizarre, like the Dionysian initiation rites, including simulated acts of sodomy, that sailors may undergo for their first equator crossing. There is a more ingenuous transsexual tradition, almost as old as the military itself, of drag shows put on by GIs for the entertainment of GIs. For some, the shows afford a creative outlet, for others, perhaps something more. At the Academy, Burke notes, male cadets often gussied up for the shows with undisguised zeal.

Freud said men are engaged in a constant struggle against what he called their "feminine or passive" side. Hazing may be a way of repudiating the feminine side by a direct act of aggression. "You wipe out some part of yourself that's undesirable," says Gregory Herek, a research psychologist at the University of California, Davis. Military leaders insist that homosexuals threaten the bonding that is vital to "the military culture." But gays are simply incorporated into that culture as useful foils for masculine self-validation. Seldom merely shunned, suspected gays often run a gantlet of macho bullyragging. The roommate of Seaman Allen Schindler, who was beaten to death by one of his shipmates in Sasebo, Japan, last October, said he himself endured "a living hell" of threats, taunts and physical abuse aboard the Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault ship.

It's not easy to figure out just what is going on in the sometimes erotic, often violent rituals young sailors and soldiers practice. But when the army proffers its invitation to potential recruits to "be all you can be," it may be taking on more than it bargained for.