Way back in the last century, before the Interweb swallowed everything, my friend and accomplice in literary crime Steve Zeeland and I were visiting, as you do, Camp Pendleton, the giant US Marine Corps base in Southern California with some jarhead friends.
We spent the afternoon watching the Marine Rodeo – scores of grinning fit Texan boys in tight Wranglers and high-and-tights bouncing up and down on broncos and slapping each other’s butts. You’ll understand why, after having seen this, the Details fashion shoot that was Brokeback Mountain left me cold.
We then headed to the enlisted men’s club for a much needed and, I’d like to think, well-earned drink. While we were there, some Marines came in from a week’s exercise in the field, still in their combats, camouflage paint still on their young, sunburned faces. They were in high spirits, enjoying their first beer of the week, and when the DJ played the opening fanfare of The Village People’s “YMCA”, like Pavlov’s dogs they instantly and instinctively understood what was required of them.
They flocked onto the dancefloor, scrambling to outdo one another in their 1970s disco dance moves, and joyously spelling out the letters of the camp classic extolling the pleasures of getting clean and hanging out with all the bo-oys. “Hey buddy,” one jarhead shouted to me, slapping me on the shoulder and grinning in my face, “you having a good time?”
At this point Steve produced his mid 1990s, large, cumbersome and very, very obvious camcorder and started filming the jarhead hi-jinks. “Steve,” I hissed in his ear, palms moistening. “Don’t you think this might, er, get us into trouble?“
We escaped unscathed – though we did hear reports a year or two later that the Commandant of Camp Pendleton had ordered, like an angry Old Testament God, that enlisted men’s club be razed to the ground because it was ‘a cesspit of sodomy’.
I needn’t have worried about Steve’s camcording. But the Commandant did have reason to worry – and his Biblical efforts proved in vain. In just a few years’ time, military boys would be enthusiastically filming themselves acting way ‘gayer’ than dancing to YMCA – and posting it on YouTube for the entire world to see.
You’ve probably already seen the video tribute to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ made by US soldiers in Afghanistan, which has gone virulently viral. It’s part of a well-established craze by dusty, bored, and stressed military boys letting off steam, taking time out from buttoned-down masculine norms and channelling a little glamour instead. Having a scream, in other words. But the fact they are videoing it and putting on YouTube suggests that, like most young people in a mediated world, they want to draw attention to themselves.
Way back in the Twentieth Century again I wrote, only slightly tongue in cheek: ‘The problem with straight men is they’re repressed. The problem with gay men is they’re not.’ In the metrosexual 21st Century I think it’s clear that even straight soldiers aren’t that repressed anymore. While of course gays are getting married and becoming Tory MPs.
I don’t know about you, but the scene where the soldiers are standing around admiring one another’s home-made House of Gaga outfits will stay with me forever. There’s something about Lady Gaga that makes funny, flaming flamboyance – Gagacity – irresistible to men, women, children, civilians and soldiers and small animals. Gay or straight.
Quite rightly, hardly anyone has suggested that these soldiers being hyper and hilariously camp are ‘really gay’. Some might be, of course. But their appearance in a video of this kind doesn’t prove any such thing. Even the gay-banning US Army put out a statement approving the video, or at least trying to exploit its popularity.
Compare this with what happened a few years back when it emerged that some US paratroopers had been ‘acting gay’ on video for private consumption rather than YouTube. Gay porn videos made by a company called ActiveDuty. A global scandal erupted, and several young soldiers were arrested, courts martialed, fined, and dishonourably discharged. A lot of people – particularly gays – seemed convinced that the soldiers ‘must’ all be gay because they appeared in such videos.
When in fact many did it like the soldiers in the ‘Telephone’ video – for giggles, for fun, for a dare. And, in this case, also for the considerable sums of money they were paid.
Like the discharged soldier said to the shell-shocked waitress who recognised him from the ActiveDuty website and demanded to know how he could have done such a thing: “It was no big deal. And besides, I got paid.”
If you think my comparison far-fetched, consider that the soldiers courts martialed for ‘acting gay’ on video (Certificate 18) were paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne based in Fort Bragg. The same elite unit that the chaps ‘acting gay’ in the ‘Telephone’ video (PG) are from.
The latest YouTube video of soldiers ‘acting gay’ called ‘The Army Goes Gay’ (below) has been curiously claimed by some gay blogs as an example of straight soldiers ‘ridiculing’ Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. There isn’t much if any evidence for this reading however – and in fact it could be more easily read as an endorsement of the ‘Gay Bomb’ fears of the Pentagon.
Almost certainly, it doesn’t have any message at all.
It’s just soldiers being silly and naughty. And ‘gay’.