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Straight Guys Tell


I don't have permission to be on base, and I'm nervous, because when I told veterans what I planned to do, they all gave me pretty much the same warning: Any soldier I approach could call the Military Police, who would escort me to the gates and kick me out -- unless they detained me for questioning.

At lunchtime on a gray September Sunday, a retired officer drove me onto the Fort Lewis Army base in Washington, about 50 miles south of Seattle, and dropped me at the PX (military lingo for "post exchange"), which is basically a food court wrapped in a mini-mall that includes a GNC store, a barber shop, a video arcade, and a folding table where a friendly old guy sells wooden American flags he carves out of what he claims are 1,000-year-old logs. (A sign on the wall behind him reads, ask me how i know the logs are one thousand years old!) Until the cops come, I am haunting the food court, walking up to straight soldiers and asking whether they've ever been aware of serving alongside a gay soldier and, if so, what it was like.

I'm conducting this extremely unscientific survey in hopes that the straight guys will tell some stories that might shed light on the debate about repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the federal law and Pentagon policy on gays in the military, which will be the subject of a Senate hearing this fall. DADT is based on the proposition that straight soldiers cannot work with openly gay soldiers. Supporters of the ban argue that gays, if allowed to serve openly, would harm unit cohesion, troop readiness, and morale, largely because their presence would make straight soldiers self-conscious showering or dressing in front of them.

Yet some gay and lesbian soldiers are already serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. Although last year 619 soldiers were thrown out of the military for being gay, the policy is selectively enforced. According to a 2006 poll by Zogby International, 45% of service members suspect that at least one person in their unit is gay or lesbian, and 23% are sure of it. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans in battalions of combined international forces have fought under command of openly gay officers from Canada or the United Kingdom or alongside gay soldiers from 11 other countries (among the 25 worldwide) that allow known gays to serve: Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. Openly gay, armed military contractors serve alongside U.S. soldiers in combat theaters as well.

Such experiences have helped to move some veterans, including U.S. representative Patrick Murphy, a straight Irish Catholic Blue Dog Democrat from Pennsylvania, to work for DADT's repeal. Murphy taught constitutional law at West Point, volunteered for overseas deployment after 9/11, served in Bosnia, went to Baghdad as a paratrooper and Judge Advocate General's Corps attorney with the 82nd Airborne Division, and was awarded the Bronze Star. Along the way, he says, "I saw great officers, great leaders, who had to resign their commission because they wanted to live by Army values, and they feel that it's inconsistent with those values to live a lie." And he was deeply troubled when he saw talented soldiers being replaced by mediocre ones because of DADT: "My battle buddy in one of the toughest courses in the Army got kicked out because he happened to be gay. And the guy who took his place couldn't carry his lunch."

The first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress, Murphy is also the first veteran to be chief sponsor of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act. His personal history lends his position credibility, both in the Pentagon and in Congress. Murphy already has persuaded two dozen of his colleagues to cosponsor the bill, bringing the total to 172. He says he has assurance of at least 10 more votes, which still leaves him 36 shy of the 218 needed for passage.

It's impossible to predict exactly how the movement for repeal will proceed this fall. Kirsten Gillibrand, the freshman senator from New York, convinced Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin to hold that body's first hearing on the policy since 1993. At press time, a few weeks after the death of Ted Kennedy, who was chief sponsor of the Senate bill for repeal, rumors suggested that a new chief sponsor of the Senate measure would be announced. But Senate majority whip Richard Durbin was recently quoted as downplaying the chances for a change in the fall session: "It may not be now, but that doesn't mean it won't be soon." Whatever course things take, debate will be fierce, and probably ugly.

We should not be surprised if debate on DADT is shaped, as it was in 1993, by fearful, speculative raving. The far right will try to frame debate on repeal in hypothetical terms, asking what would happen if openly gay people were allowed to serve. Here's a preview: The leading conservative activist on the policy, Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, has written that repeal of the ban would make "incidents of misconduct increase threefold," including "male/male and female/female misconduct that undermines discipline and demoralizes the troops. These predictable consequences would harm recruiting and retention, and effectively destroy the volunteer force." Last year conservative columnist Robert Knight told The Washington Times that work to repeal the ban on gays in the military would jeopardize national security by leading to a "Pearl Harbor moment."

And this is polite compared to the blatantly homophobic rants on right-wing radio.

The question of what might happen when gays are allowed to serve openly is a red herring, and it must be called out as such. Experience already shows what will happen, even though those experiences are not widely publicized, because military leaders have succeeded in keeping them under the radar.

How does a straight soldier cope with knowing there's a gay person in his unit? That's what I've come to Fort Lewis to find out. I prepare for my afternoon on base by doing background research with help from Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the Palm Center, and Servicemembers United, the leading organizations in the fight for repeal; through another activist, a retired officer who teaches an ethics course on base, I've contacted and spoken with a half-dozen active duty soldiers, reservists, and recent veterans who oppose the ban because they've served with gays and lesbians whom they believed to be great soldiers.

A few of them, and another former soldier that I met at a coffee shop near the base, told me that some units have an open culture of extreme antigay harassment -- one that goes far beyond the friendly banter of homophobic slurs. ("Everyone in the military says 'faggot' and 'homo' every 10 minutes. It's like a synonym for 'buddy,' " one explains.) One straight soldier told me he was beaten up, ostracized, and abandoned by his unit (en route to Iraq, his unit convoy left him behind in Kuwait) after he told one of his friends that he didn't think it mattered whether gay people got the right to marry. The most outrageous story I heard was set on an Army base in Germany, where an enlisted man ended up in the hospital after being beaten by a gang of fellow soldiers because he had effeminate mannerisms. When he returned to his unit, walking with a cane, his face covered in bruises, the soldiers who had previously beaten him proceeded to strip him, lay him facedown on his bed, bind him with tape, and put a hot dog between his glutes. Photographs of him in this posture were printed out and posted in the barracks common areas. Eventually, that soldier was dismissed under DADT.

Stories like these give me qualms about walking up to random soldiers and asking them to talk about their gay colleagues. I'm doing it anyway, because I think the most reliable data about the way straight and gay guys get along in the military is going to come from soldiers who have no connection to advocacy on this issue, and ones who have no idea whether they're talking to a reporter who's for or against the ban.

In the interest of eliciting the troops' candor, I've decided to obfuscate a little. For camouflage, I got a fresh buzz cut. When I approach a soldier I'll tell him that I'm writing for "a magazine" (only one soldier asks which one, and The Advocate does not seem to ring a bell with him). I refer to gays in the third person plural, not the first. I don't identify myself as gay (and they don't ask). If the soldier I'm talking with says "fag" or "homo," and if he seems nervous about it, I tell him we're in a P.C.-free zone; he doesn't have to worry about offending anybody.

During my afternoon on base, I've decided to talk only to men, because rightly or wrongly, I expect them to be stronger supporters of the ban, and I want to hear the most critical argument against gays in the military that's out there. I'm not approaching family units, to avoid triggering the "Daddy, what's gay?" conversation. I avoid groups of guys together (the same way I steer clear of pro-gay posturing by not interviewing activists, I avoid antigay posturing by abstaining from situations where peer pressure could create a contest to see who's the most gung-ho homophobe). I decide to approach only guys in their 20s, since any change in policy will affect them disproportionately: Almost 50% of those in the enlisted force are under 25 years old, and more than 80% are in their 20s and 30s.

And I offer everyone the assurance of anonymity to forestall anxiety about exposure. Officially, service members can give interviews as long as they are not in uniform and do not purport to be speaking on behalf of the armed forces. But several active duty soldiers I contacted through friends or other sources declined my interview requests, explaining that they requested permission to speak with me from their superiors, who discouraged them from giving interviews on this topic, even anonymously.

For all of these precautions, I arrive at Fort Lewis expecting to get stonewalled, at best. Punched, at worst.

I could not be more wrong.

It takes me about 45 minutes to screw up the courage to talk to anyone. Everybody seems to be on his cell phone or holding hands with his little kid or surrounded by five of his best buddies. Finally, there's a guy alone. Mid 20s, earnest-looking, scrunched brow, with deep lines permanently and prematurely plowed into his forehead. He's pushing a shopping cart full of the stuff you buy when you move into a new apartment: mop, bucket, trash cans, paper towels. He finished his first combat deployment in Iraq last week, he says, and he's setting up his new place.

I tell him what I'm doing here and brace myself for the brush-off, a lip-curl, some kind of politely disgusted dismissal, but the guy does not flinch. Doesn't blink. Just breathes like normal -- it crosses my mind that I am far more frightened of talking about this with him than he is of talking about this with me -- and "Yeah," he says, "I've known a couple of homosexuals. One in my unit in training and one in Iraq." These guys didn't actually tell him they were gay, he says, but "I think everybody knew. They were pretty stereotypical, like into their appearance. One guy took, like, really good care of his fingernails. It was not a problem, them being homosexual."

"Is that true?" I ask. "People must give them shit about it." I ask about the rumors of hazing that I've heard.

He says he's never witnessed anything like that. "There's really no harassment that means anything," he says. "You call people 'faggot' and 'homo.' No big deal."

I ask what he thinks would be the biggest potential problems if gays were to serve openly, and he mentions showering and sleeping quarters, though the more he talks about it, the less sure he sounds: "Maybe you would need to have four sections -- gay, straight male, straight female, lesbian. For the different genres, the different sexes. I don't know. I would need to think about that."

Then another question, to bring him back from speculating on policy to describing his own experience: "What about those gay guys in your unit? Was showering or dressing around those guys ever a problem?"

"No," he says. "It really wasn't."

Then he shakes my hand, smiles, and says, "Thank you for writing an article about this. It's good for us to talk about."

I walk away feeling lucky. First try, and I'd found that one soldier in four who actually knows he's serving with a gay guy. Odds are, others will be more resistant or more hostile, so I choose another friendly face for my next attempt. He's wearing little spectacles, which means, I think, he must read books, which means he might be safe -- but not too safe, because I watched him drive up to the PX in his Camaro. I swallow my dread again and give my spiel, but as I'm talking, he just nods and smiles, and in an aw-shucks Midwestern accent he relates the tale of how he left the farm and saw a lot more of Paree than he had bargained for: "At first when I got in, I could not believe how open the homosexuals were. But it doesn't matter. I had one in my unit that was an officer, and we would joke around with him and say, 'Hey, you pipe smoker,' and he'd say, 'So what? You got a problem with that?' Everybody likes him. He's good at his job. So what's the big deal?"

He too shakes my hand and thanks me when we're done, and I wonder how I managed to get two flukes in a row. For the next interview I decide to look for somebody who might be tougher. But this one -- tight striped T-shirt, late 20s, and handsome in an unapproachable, stone-faced way -- says, "A couple of the best soldiers I've known have been gay. One of them got drunk and got in a fight one night. He cleaned the guy's clock and looked down at him and said, in front of a bunch of people, 'How does it feel to get your ass beat by a faggot?' He got thrown out over that remark. Which is stupid. It made me angry the way that was handled, because if a soldier is gay, it makes no difference to me. It's a personal decision, and if that's their decision and they still do their job, and the same policies governing sexual harassment and fraternization apply to them, then there is no reason for this policy to exist."

The guy with the spectacles and the one with the stone face, like several other soldiers I spoke with, also said they saw one major problem with allowing gays to serve openly. They weren't sure how a gay guy could make it through basic training, a process designed to beat weakness and even individuality out of new recruits and mold them into soldiers whose first thought is to obey.

No one was able to articulate very clearly why being openly gay would not fly in training, but the general idea seems to be that known gays might stand out as targets for hazing, which could make it difficult for them to bond with other soldiers during boot camp. "I think if the gays could wait to come out until they got through training, then everything would be fine," one said.

What's unstated here is that homophobia is a crucial part of the bonding process for soldiers. To acknowledge the presence of a gay man in a combat unit is to acknowledge that, potentially, any one of them could be gay, which could render suspect every instance of the intimacy between men on which military camaraderie is based.

But many soldiers, at least many of the young ones, are probably more conscious of these ambiguities and better able to handle them than conventional wisdom might suggest.

I walk up to a man with flat gray eyes who's sitting alone, staring out the windows of the PX. On a 65-degree day he's dressed for December -- blue and green flannel shirt, gray sweatshirt, heavy jacket, and when he goes out later for a cigarette he pulls a stocking cap down to his eyebrows -- he looks like the kind of guy who excels at multiplayer video games and has most of Donnie Darko memorized. Between bites of a burger and fries, he tells me that he's infantry, barely 20 years old, and his first deployment to Iraq starts a couple of days later. In the three hours I spend on base this afternoon, among the eight Army enlisted men I talk to, he is the only one who says he's never known or known of an openly gay soldier.

But he also says, "Homosexual conduct happens in the military every day. Everywhere."

There is a long pause, during which I detect no trace of a smirk on his face, and his words hang in the air while I take them in. His tone is dead serious. "What does that mean?" I ask.

"Homosexual conduct happens every single day, all over the place, in every military installation in the world. For sure, in the infantry."

"I'm not following."

"Grabbing ass," he says, like he's talking to someone who speaks English as a second language. "Somebody grabs my ass every day. That's homosexual conduct."

I don't know what to say. So I ask, "What are you telling me?"

"You have to be a little bit gay to be in the infantry."


He spells it out, talks to me like I'm an idiot, punching his words like a boxer hits a speed bag. This is the only moment on base when anyone speaks to me with what sounds like contempt -- and not for the topic I've introduced, but for my intelligence. "You have to be a little bit gay. Gay, as in, you have to like being around guys, touching guys, being touched by guys, being pretty much only with guys. Not sucking-cock gay. Anybody tries to cross that line with me, he gets slapped. But if that's what you want to do on your own time, in your own life, and you can shoot as good as I can, I. Do. Not. Give. A. Shit."

There must be someone on this base who's freaked out by gay guys. I have to find that person before the afternoon is up. So I start looking for the worst possible prospect, the guy most likely to blow me off, and I think I've spotted him, sitting at the far end of the food court. His outfit features the Confederate flag prominently. His T-shirt bears an image that could be the cover of Field & Stream. The sleeves have been cut off to reveal a pair of arms almost the size of footballs, one of which bears a tattoo so ostentatiously foreboding he could probably go straight to full-patch in the Hell's Angels.

"The way I was raised, it was bad to be homosexual," he says, in a voice as deep and rough as his thoughts are precise and measured. "My mom and dad do not approve of it, and they taught me that homosexuality was wrong. But I changed my opinion on it. In high school one of my best friends told me that he was homosexual, and I realized that it was just the way he is, so I came to believe that it was just another way of life. I've known a few homosexual soldiers and I believe they were good soldiers, so I have no problem with it and I hope the policy changes."

"But your buddies must not all feel that way." I'm trying not to let him see my frustration -- my frustration at his willingness to accept someone like me. "Do you think any of them would quit if the policy changed?"

Contemplative, he nods. "Yes. There are a lot of people who, they have different life experiences than me, and they think it is wrong, maybe for religious reasons, and they hate it. I think some of them would leave."

"Would you try to talk any of them into staying?"

"Well," he says, "that makes me think of an interesting story. One of my friends who -- I am a redneck, but he is the biggest redneck of all -- it was time for his reenlistment, right around that time this gay guy in our unit was hitting on him. He was like, 'I can't deal with this homo shit, I am not gonna stay in this job if these people can get at me like this,' and he was gonna use that as his excuse not to reenlist. And I said, 'I know this guy, and he is a regular person, but a homosexual, and I know that if you just tell him, "I'm straight and I'm not interested," he will respect that and he will not hit on you anymore.' So he told the guy that, and the gay guy apologized, and now, I swear to you, they are best friends."

It is possible, even likely, that I'd have had a chillier reception at a base in the Bible Belt, like Fort Bragg -- or if I'd spoken with senior officers instead of young enlisted men. Military culture is a contest to see who's best at following the rules. The ones who toe the line rise to the top. "This is a stupid policy," said an Air Force officer who was visiting Fort Lewis that afternoon. "But I'll follow it, because it's policy. If they change it, I'll follow that too. Most people will."

I realize too that the same soldiers I spoke with might not have expressed such openness had our conversations not been anonymous and one-on-one, or if I'd asked their thoughts on gays in general instead of asking them to tell me about gay soldiers they had known. It's easy to say the right thing when you won't be held accountable, and it's easy to like people when you view them as individuals. Wherever two or three are gathered, though, groupthink rears its head: Even good men may betray someone in public they might defend in private. That's how a friend becomes a faggot.

Military culture evolves the way that any hard-line political culture evolves. Individuals almost never muster the courage to radically challenge the reigning order unless a role model, one with unquestionable credibility, sticks his neck out for an unpopular position. Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was able to make peace with the Palestinians because he was a war hero. And DADT will not be repealed until military leaders of unimpeachable integrity come out unambiguously against it.

In the past few years military leaders such as former Joint Chiefs chairmen Colin Powell and John Shalikashvili, who lives in the town of Steilacoom, bordering Fort Lewis, have called for reconsideration or repeal of the ban. No one, however, in the prime of his career, on the incline of power, who's universally admired among soldiers has spoken against the ban with the kind of moral clarity that Patrick Murphy has mustered.

At the beginning of most conversations on base at Fort Lewis, I mentioned Murphy's name and described his work for repeal. Practically every soldier I talked with knew who Murphy is, and almost all of them indicated that his leadership makes a difference in how they see DADT.

Murphy himself says that response to his commitment on this issue has so far been mixed: "I've spoken with current senior leaders in the Army -- it's a significant number -- and they tell me absolutely that I'm right in what I'm doing here. They also tell me, 'You're in for a fight with some folks in the Pentagon,' and they give me a heads-up, who's doing what, and what their plans are."

On the other hand, he goes on to say, "The first thing you learn as a warrior in the military is, anticipate where the punches are going to be thrown. I knew the opponents would come head on, but they would also come on the side as a diversion. An editorial in the local paper, The Intelligencer, ran under the headline 'More From Murphy.' The argument was, 'When our economy on the right track and the nation is debating health care, why does our congressman care so much about a peripheral issue like 'don't ask, don't tell?' That will be the headline in a 30-second ad a year from now when I am running for reelection in the conservative district that I represent, where I won by 1,518 votes of 250,000 cast. I told my congressional team that I feel so passionate about this issue that people are going to be critical of this office and of me personally, and if you are not ready to withstand the heat that's coming, I'll help you find a job in another office. The closer that we get to changing things, the harder it will become. It will come from the Left and from the Right. The Left will say we're not doing enough. The Right will say we're focused on the wrong things. But just so you know, we are going to change this damn law. It's going to come under our watch in this 111th session of the Congress. And not one person on my team backed away from it.

"I'm a nice guy," he says, "but I'm not in this to make friends. I'm in this to make public policy to make our military stronger and keep our families safe at home. We have paratroopers going down in Baghdad who do not have Arabic translators to back them up because Congress 16 years ago didn't have the guts to do what's right. You can't tell me that's a peripheral fuckin' issue."

Murphy tells one last story: "A couple of weeks ago I was in the Helmand province of Afghanistan to get a status report from General McChrystal and Brigadier General Nicholson," he says. "A hundred and twenty-two degrees, and I'm wearing khaki pants, blue button-down, sleeves rolled up, and I'm dying from the heat, and these soldiers around me are in full combat gear, carrying all of that, in this place where it is an accomplishment just to make it through the day. This is the most dangerous place in the world right now. And one of these guys grabbed me as I was walking by, grabbed my hand and pulled me close for a second, and said so nobody else could hear, 'Keep fighting to get rid of 'don't ask, don't tell.'

"I said, 'I will, brother.'

"And he gave me that look like, I'm counting on you.

"And I looked at him like, I got you, man. I got you."

If the guys I met at Fort Lewis are any indication, plenty more enlisted men, left to their own devices, would cover Murphy's back in the battle he's about to lead. The trick is how to get their voices heard.

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Michael Joseph Gross