December 28, 2010
Open Wide the Closets

And now, for a change of pace, some good news. Bill Clinton’s misbegotten child, DADT, is dead. Everybody has heard this by now, but whole generations of younger Americans can’t understand just how good this news really is. One who can is author Perry Deane Young, an army veteran and a war correspondent in Vietnam. Let him tell you how it was in the bad old days:

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The repeal of “Don’t Ask don’t Tell” was a moment in history this old queer never thought he’d live to see.

Like many thousands before and since, I lied when I came to this line in the Army’s health questionnaire: “Do you now or have you ever had …. homosexual tendencies?” I had been actively, if secretively, homosexual since early puberty, but I also knew the brutal consequences of being open about those “tendencies.”

There came a moment of terror for me in February of 1967 when I stood at the alphabetical end of hundreds of soldiers posing for our graduation picture at the Fort Gordon Military Police School. Lost among that anonymous sea of olive drab, I was stunned to hear my name called out by one of the officers standing down front.

Words cannot begin to describe the fear and dread going through my mind as I slowly made my way to the front. Like all homosexuals at that time, I lived in constant fear of being “found out.” I honestly felt my hopes and dreams for the future would come crashing down. In fact, I felt I would never have a future except as some silly societal category of lesser human being…


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My fears turned out to be unfounded. An officer handed me my diploma and I slowly made my way back into the stands, amid the whispers of what’s he done, why’s he so special?

To this day, I have no idea why I was singled out. All I know is that in that moment, I realized that I could not live with that sort of terror. Some day, somehow, I would have to deal with it. I could not live a lie. A wise old survivor of the death camps in Nazi Germany said it best: “Freedom is not having to lie about who you are.”

How can anybody believe that being homosexual is some sort of moral choice? Nobody in his or her right mind would choose to live the way homosexuals were forced to live in the 1950s and 1960s. Even now, the taint of being homosexual is so strong the suicide rate among gay teenage is several times that of heterosexuals. The suicide of the young Rutgers student last year dramatically illustrates how far we have yet to go.

During my time as a correspondent in Vietnam, I simply got up one morning unafraid to be myself. And, yes, there were some wonderful loving moments I cherish from my days among the military in Vietnam. In his book, Dispatches, Michael Herr mentions two Marines “making love” one night during the battle in Hue. And in my own memoir, Two of the Missing, I describe having sex with a Marine in Danang, a Navy Lieutenant in Saigon and an Army captain in Phu Bai.

Simply put, there have been homosexuals and homosexual activity among service men and women for as long as there have been service men and women. John Horne Burns’ The Galleria was a barely fictionalized account of gay American soldiers in World War II Italy.

The Marine Corps commandant is simply over-reacting to outdated images of homosexuality and masculinity in his recent statements against repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He does a disservice to homosexuals and to the Marines. He helps perpetuate the myth that homosexuals are weak and can’t be trusted to control themselves in a professional manner — and he also seems to think the Marines are redneck rubes who can’t handle being around somebody different.

The truth is the commandant is not nearly as aware of societal changes or as sophisticated as the troops he commands. He is concerned about image, and nothing more. The current Marines grew up in an environment of sexual and racial tolerance where being gay is simply not an issue. They also know that the old stereotypes of homosexuals as sissies, pansies, fairies are no more valid than the old stereotypes that denigrated people of color in our country.

The Marine commandant is wrong about homosexuals and wrong about the kind of men and women who serve in the U.S. military. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, gave an eloquent summary of both counts in his testimony before a senate committee on Feb. 2, 2010:

Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me personally, it comes down to integrity—theirs as individuals and ours as an institution. I also believe that the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change. I never underestimate their ability to adapt.

As a gay man swiftly slouching toward the age of 70, I am dismayed by the attitudes that still cause gay men and women to kill themselves. But, I am heartened by changes in the laws that will make it possible for young gay Americans to grow up with the same freedoms everybody else enjoys. It reflects a healthier time for homosexuals and for America.

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at December 28, 2010 11:27 AM
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