MotherJones MA93: Boys in the barracks

Admitting gays into the military isn't about sex--it's about desire.

Each year, so Defense Department records tell us, the Pentagon spends some $40 million expelling fifteen hundred gays and lesbians from the U.S. Armed Forces. Homosexual desire, they say, is incompatible with maintaining good morale and discipline in the barracks, on the battlefield, or under the sea.

President Clinton, however, has promised to turn this around.

Like the integration of African-Americans into the military, the admission of gay and lesbian people to uniformed service is a matter of simple justice. There can be no justification for the exclusion of those of us who are homosexual from any of the activities our government performs. That said, I wonder if the well-scrubbed Democrat from Hope, Arkansas, really knows what he's doing. For admitting open, self-declared homosexual people into the barracks isn't just about civil rights. It's about bringing desire into the barracks.

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Not that desire has ever been far from a bunkhouse filled with young men or women. But desire in the ranks of Big Power armies is a carefully managed desire. Having a Betty Grable pin-up or a Madonna poster in the men's barracks, or a photo of Tom Cruise in the women's, has always been fine, not only because it's about straight sex, but because the object of desire is outside the command zone. But tack Tom up in the guys' quarters, where some people have bodies that could pass for his, and there's trouble. (Hanging Madonna up in the women's quarters may not be as big a problem, but more on that later.)

The dangers of "unmanaged" desire are plain in the case of naval midshipman Joseph Steffan. A reddish-blond, baby-faced fellow from Minnesota, Steffan was one of the most highly decorated student officers in the Naval Academy class of 1987. He was a star athlete with top academic standing who had spent a summer on a nuclear sub and sung at the White House with the Navy chorus. Everyone agreed that he exuded the confidence of command.

Then Joe Steffan made a mistake.

Midway through his final semester, he confided to a friend that he believed himself to be homosexual. The news reached an Academy officer, and six weeks before graduation Steffan was told to resign or be expelled. He left quietly, but sued for readmission eighteen months later.

General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained the military's position to the House Armed Services Committee in March 1992. "It's difficult in a military setting where there is no privacy," he said, "to introduce a group of individuals-- proud, brave, loyal, good Americans, but who favor a homosexual lifestyle--and put them in with heterosexuals who would prefer not to have somebody of the same sex find them sexually attractive." Seldom has a straight public figure put the essence of homophobia so clearly. The problem is not what homosexual people do with each other, but how their presence affects straight people, and particularly straight men, who no longer control the parameters of desire.

Consider the barracks where Joe Steffan would bunk if he were to regain his spot in the Navy. What happens when a hundred men walking around in their skivvies know that they are potential sex objects for some of their buddies? How will these men react when they no longer see themselves in their traditional roles as sexual aggressors, but are in effect "feminized" as the desired objects of other (homosexual) "aggressors" a bunk or two away? Could that barracks retain the same esprit de corps, the same homosocial bonding (or buddy love) that displaces desire with comradeship? Can the straight soldier keep his cool when he knows that the broad-shouldered private next door dreams about deflowering him (even if mutual respect will prevent it from ever happening)?

Citing the harassment of women in the Navy's Tailhook scandal, gay activists will answer, correctly, that heterosexual men are at least as likely to abuse women soldiers as homosexual men or women are to harass their same-sex buddies. But actual sexual abuse has not been the military's concern. Midshipman Steffan was not removed from the military for sex acts he committed. When he told his feelings to his friend, he was still a virgin. Steffan was driven out for confessing desire.

For the most part, the military brass seem not to care if their men screw each other. Their problem with homosexuality is not so much with the act as with the thinking and dreaming and scheming about it. Gay liaisons in the services have often been ignored so long as the soldier does not acknowledge homosexual desire. Loneliness, drunkenness, terror, and confusion have all been accepted as sufficient excuses for occasional sex between men. In his exhaustive study of gays and lesbians in World War II, Coming Out Under Fire, Allen Berube recounts the enormous amount of homosexual sex that took place on ships and in foxholes, almost all of it ignored by officers who saw it as occasional relief from the tension of combat. The secrecy of sex in a toilet stall, behind a gun turret, or in a foxhole may even strengthen official policy by intensifying a subjective identification with the mask of heterosexuality. For these reasons, sex acts are forgivable.

Midshipman Steffan's admission, on the other hand, forced his mates to see that the identity he had displayed--reserved, tough-guy commander--was only one of his masks. For Steffan to speak proudly to his subordinates of his craving to lie with another man--to be possessed by a penetrating male ego like their own--would threaten the whole arrangement of masks that makes the military's command structure work. More, it would disrupt the simple self-perceptions that the military relies upon to build morale and instill obedience in battalions of high-hormone twenty-year-olds. If hero material like Steffan is not a conventionally authentic male, then how can they be sure of their identity? And once they question who they are, can we be sure to whom they'll subordinate themselves?

Lesbian soldiers pose a different problem for the fundamentally male military. If a woman pastes a Madonna poster up in her barracks, it is unlikely to threaten the identity of her fellow residents; as an embattled minority in the battalion, women are relatively comfortable celebrating images of one another. The trouble with female homosexuality is that it "neuters" male soldiers through lack of interest in phallic power--both literal and symbolic. This total affront, though rarely acknowledged by men, is surely not supportive of male-directed discipline, authority, and morale. Q.E.D., kick out the dykes and any other women disinclined to listen to male entreaties.

No one in the top echelons of Defense any longer considers homosexual men and women less loyal or reliable than their straight mates. If they did, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams would have been sacked after being "outed" on the cover of The Advocate in August 1991. Far more worrisome to General Powell are those putatively heterosexual people whose sense of place, role, and identity relies on the denial of forbidden desire. In ending the charade, more than "morale" is at stake. Threatening the military's careful definition of "authentic" identity subjects its whole structure of authority to risk.

And yet that is exactly what is happening as the Evil Empire fades from memory and the coals of the New World Order cool with the passing of George Bush. The American Century is over, and the sort of military it required isn't on any party's budget proposals. The reconstitution of America at home and abroad has made us all reflect on the role and identity of the world's only superpower. The matter of homosexuality may be no more than a fillip to the discourse--or it may create the crystallizing moment. For surely the more an army makes its soldiers consider their own identities and the identities of others, the more it forces them to examine the multiple dimensions of the human face. That may not fulfill George Bush's dream of America as a global cop, but it may draw us closer to a genuinely kinder and gentler world.

Maybe, too, it'll let the straight world know just how many of the Marine Corps' few good men already slip home to bed with each other.

Frank Browning grows apples in Kentucky and periodically reports for National Public Radio. This piece is adapted from his new book, The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Life Today (Crown).