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Tag: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

America to Machismo: How Do I Quit You?

Dire warnings of how men are doomed because more chapesses are now in work than chaps, are more educated, and now earning more (in large cities), prompted a special ‘Man Up!’ issue of Newsweek a few weeks back on the ‘crisis of masculinity’.  The centrepiece was an interesting, lengthy – and oddly-conflicted – essay titled ‘Men’s Lib’ which seems to identify America’s continuing love-affair with machismo as holding American men and America back from adapting to a changing world.

It calls for a ‘reimagining’ of masculinity.  Men need to jettison their prejudices and pride and embrace ‘girly’ professions and ‘changing diapers’ to adapt and survive:

… as women assume positions once occupied exclusively by men, and the more ‘manly’ sectors of the U.S. economy continue to shrink, a more capacious notion of manhood — the product of both new policies and new attitudes — is no longer a luxury. In fact, it may be exactly what’s needed to keep the American male, and America itself, competitive in the 21st century.

Which sounds splendid, if somewhat late in the day: this argument could have been made at any time since at least the 80s when ‘masculine’ heavy industries began to be replaced by ‘feminine’ service industries.  It’s also charming to see that ‘reimagining masculinity’ is cast as a patriotic project: Uncle Sam Needs YOU to change diapers!

The authors of this piece, Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil are very into changing diapers.  And reproduction generally.  Which is perhaps why they assume when talking about ‘reimagining masculinity’, even at such length, that it is entirely heterosexual.  I don’t mention this to score points. And reproduction is a wonderful, if slightly scary thing.  I mention it because fear of being thought homo – and thus emasculated, and thus outside the world of men – has long been one of the chief ways in which traditional notions of masculinity have been maintained.  Long past their use-by date – particularly in the US.

The battle over the Pentagon’s ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, still raging after nearly twenty years, is a very public example of this.  Whatever arguments traditionalists might martial in public against the repeal of this policy, such as ‘unit cohesiveness’, ‘lack of privacy’ and ‘operational readiness’, everyone knows that this is just a polite smokescreen, as much to spare their sensibilities as anyone else’s. However reasonably Don’t Tell-ers state their case we can all hear quite clearly the apopleptic D.I. superego shrieking inside their heads over and over, spraying their cerebellum with spittle: ‘Fags AREN’T MEN!  They take it UP THE ASS, for chrissakes!  And they ENJOY IT!  They bat for the OTHER SIDE!!’

How the devil can you motivate American men to be men and do the ultimate ‘manly’ thing if they are serving alongside open sodomites who aren’t punished, can’t be drummed out of the ranks of men in disgrace, and in fact have every legal right to the same respect and protection as any other soldier? (As with gay marriage, hardly anyone is terribly worked up about lesbians – but unfortunately for the ladies who love ladies they are, once again, lumped in with gay men for the sake of ‘consistency’, and also to avoid having to actually acknowledge the, y’know, bum-sex obsession.)

The connection between machismo and homophobia isn’t, in the words of the somewhat phallic cliché, rocket science.  Likewise, tackling homophobia is something you have to do if you want to take on machismo.  Sweden, the country cited so approvingly in the Newsweek piece for its paternity leave programme is also one of if not the most gay-friendly countries in the world (and the US one of the least gay-friendly in the Western world), though this goes unmentioned.

All in all, Newsweek’s clarion call for ‘men’s lib’ is sounding somewhat muted.  So perhaps it’s not entirely ridiculous that the name given its project for ‘a more capacious notion of manhood’ (that doesn’t appear to include anything non-heterosexual and non-reproductive), is ‘The New Macho’.

This moustachioed moniker has been wheeled out before – most amusingly in the form ‘machosexual’ – when the US was having its gigantic national nervous breakdown over metrosexuality in the mid Noughties, either as a reactionary knee-jerk response to that ‘girly man’/fag stuff.  Or as a mendacious repackaging of metrosexuality for the older, more clenched gentlemen.

Perhaps it’s a really clever piece of marketing by the Newsweek authors, packaging their call for radical change as something reassuring.  Maybe ‘New Macho’ is what you need if you want to tempt the old machos aboard the Twenty First Century.  Or even just aboard the latter part of the Twentieth Century.  We probably shouldn’t forget that at the height of their fame the Village People were a band whom most of the US thought were just wholesome archetypes of all-American virility.  And in a funny way, they were.  Either way, they certainly knew a thing or two about repackaging machismo.  And packets.

By contrast, I’m not so convinced by Newsweek’s spruced up handlebar moustache.

‘It’s clear that we’ve arrived at another crossroads—only today the prevailing codes of manhood have yet to adjust to the changing demands on men. We’re not advocating a genderless society, a world in which men are “just like women.”

Well, c’mon guys you so are! At least in the sense that men should be able, just like women today, to go against traditional expectations.  (I know, know, you have to say these daft things because otherwise you’ll sound… un-American.)

‘We’re not even averse to decorative manhood, or the kind of escapism that men have turned to again and again—think Paul Bunyan, Tarzan, and bomber jackets—when the actual substance of their lives felt light. If today’s men want to be hunters, or metrosexuals, or metrosexuals dressed in hunting clothes, they should feel free.’

Yes, there are rather a lot of metros dressing in hunting clothes these days. Particularly at Newsweek.  But ‘feeling free’ is the key here, of course.  Which is why this really is in the end about a kind of ‘men’s lib’. But my hunch is that a system as rigid, repressive – and now as cloyingly sentimental – as machismo can’t be reformed, or re-styled by putting the word ‘new’ in front of it.  Like medallions and signet rings it just.  Has to.  Go.  (West.)

Along with Newsweek’s and the Pentagon’s notion that masculinity is always heterosexual.

Why Straight Soldiers Can’t Stop Acting Gay on Video

Way back in the last century, before the Interweb swallowed everything, my friend and accomplice in literary crime Steve Zeeland 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. Perhaps 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 dance-floor, 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?’

Oh yes.

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?

Copyright Steve Zeeland 1995

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 like most young people in a mediated world, they want to draw attention to themselves.

Way back in the Twenieth 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 pretty clear that even straight soldiers aren’t that repressed any more.  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 seems to make 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 not inconsiderable sums 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 really 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’.

Catterick Garrison Goes Gay

Catterick

A decade ago the ban on lesbians and gays serving in the UK military was lifted.  This summer Mark Simpson attended the first gay night on a UK garrison.  For purely professional reasons.  No, really.

(Also published on Out.com)

There isn’t at first glance much that appears terribly gay about Catterick Garrison.

Home to the largest UK Army base in the world, with c. 15,000 men and women based here, Catterick Garrison as the name suggests, owes its existence entirely to the British Army — whose favourite colour is khaki. Located off the A1 just before Scotch Corner in the far north of North Yorkshire, ‘Camp’ as Catterick Garrison is known locally – usually without irony – is mostly a utilitarian collection of barracks blocks, Nissan huts, barbed wire fences, and MoD housing, with a dilapidated main parade boasting a Spar, a couple of laundrettes and several takeaways.

A Tesco Superstore did arrive here a few years ago, but they don’t carry much in the way of their Finest range. Imagine Middlesbrough (about a 50 minute drive away), take away the culture, add lots of bracing fresh air and combat trousers and you’ve got Catterick Garrison. Little wonder it was the setting for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s unrelentingly bleak (and not very funny) 2004 sit-com ‘Catterick’.

But tonight at Louis, a no-frills nightclub nestling amongst the lines of neatly parked khaki green Army trucks, Catterick Garrison is also the setting for the first regular, and probably first ever, gay night on a British Army garrison: ‘It’s Catterick GAYrison!!!’ announces the poster on the wall of the place where local single and not-so-single ladies usually go to meet drunken squaddies (‘It’s a parachute club,’ one soldier told me, ‘’coz you’re guaranteed a jump!’).

But tonight a different kind of meat market is promised: ‘Uniform Optional!’ saucily declares the rubric on the poster, next to a sketch of a muscular young squaddie dancing and grinning with his top off. Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts who first suggested the location for Catterick Camp because of its tranquillity and distance from urban enervations must be spinning in his orderly grave.

‘I didn’t like Camp at all when I first moved here a couple of years ago,’ says Lisa, 32, a sunny-natured out lesbian lass from Blackburn serving in the Army as a medic, drinking Strongbow at the bar. ‘The countryside’s nice, but Camp itself is a bit isolated. And the nearest gay pub is a long, long drive away.’ She loves the idea of a gay night in Catterick. ‘It’s just what we need. Plus this place is just around the corner from me and I can stagger home! Until this came along there was nothing in the way of socialising for lesbian and gay service personnel here.’

When Lisa joined up twelve years ago homosexuality (and bisexuality) was still banned in the UK Forces: ‘they still asked if you’d had any same-sex experiences and I had to lie.’  The ban was formally lifted in 2000 after four former service personnel, drummed out for being gay, won their case against the MoD for discrimination in the European Court of Human Rights ten years ago this autumn.

In the Nineties the idea of a gay night on a UK garrison would have been unthinkable – instead military investigators were known to hang around civilian gay pubs in places like Aldershot and Portsmouth taking photos of those coming in and out. But that was then. Last year the Army joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Campaign, and this Summer Soldier magazine featured an out gay male squaddie on the cover for the first time. Interviewed inside, Trooper James Wharton, 22, of the Royal Household Cavalry claimed that he had had little or no trouble with his sexuality from other soldiers: ‘I came out to the Army before I told my parents, so that say a lot for the Armed Forces.’

Lisa is grateful for the 21st Century equal opps approach of the Army: she lives in married quarters with her civilian girlfriend whom she civilly-partnered last year – with a Guard of Honour: ‘6 out of the 8 were gay’.  Attitudes didn’t change overnight, however. ‘In 2004 I was posted to Germany and when they found out I was a lesbian they moved me away from the other nurses and onto my own corridor. I put my foot down and they finally moved me back, but they didn’t like it. It’s this thing of, “she’ll be looking at me in the showers!”.

Lisa thinks this kind of anxiety is the still a problem for many gay and bi males in the Army. ‘I know quite a few gay squaddies, and most of them aren’t out because they’re worried about being bullied and also the backs-against-the-wall-lads! mentality. It’s definitely different for gay men in the Army, especially in front-line units like the ones based in Catterick. The macho thing kicks in’.

Perhaps that’s why I haven’t been able to find any out gay male squaddies here tonight. Instead about thirty local gays and lesbians and their straight friends, and two charmingly tipsy young off-duty (they’ve left their wigs at home) drag queens from Darlington, Lucy-Licious and Gina Tonic: ‘We came to pull a squaddie,’ says Lucy, aka Josh, ‘everyone loves a soldier don’t they, dear? But when,’ he asks, looking around eagerly, are they turning up?’ Well, quite.

At pub-chucking out time mine and the drag queens’ prayers are answered. Sort of.  A large party of drunken squaddies turn up. But they’re all straight – officially, at least.  Scots Guardsmen celebrating their return from exercise in Canada and determined to continue their evening at the only nightclub in town. They’re not put off by Louis being ‘gay’ tonight.  The burliest, Steve, 32, a married soldier with two kids, has served 12 years and welcomes a gay night in Catterick. ‘It’s about time, if you ask me. Catterick really needs this. It had to happen. This is the modern world, isn’t it? I mean, my wife was living with a woman for four years before she married me’.

Steve thinks that being gay in his regiment isn’t a problem. ‘There are four gay lads in my regiment,’ he explains, ‘and they don’t get any hassle.’ But, I suggest, maybe just four gay squaddies in a 600 strong regiment might suggest that most still don’t feel able to come out? ‘Attitudes have changed a lot, especially with the younger people. But a lot of old school people don’t like it one bit. And my Regiment tends to be very traditional.  We didn’t have any black squaddies until about ten years ago.  Now we have black officers.  I think things will change a lot on the gay front once the older generation retire.’

Chris, a  local gay civvie lad in his early twenties has parents who are both ex-Army.  ‘They’re very old-fashioned in their outlook,’ he says.  ‘They were in the Army when homosexuality was illegal and don’t like me being gay at all.  But they have to put up with it!’  Does he know any gay squaddies?  ‘One or two, but most of the ones I’ve met have been drunken horny straight ones,’ he says, laughing.

Speaking of drunken straight squaddies, one of them is now dancing and twirling with Gina Tonic on the dance floor to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. Steve comes over; grinning he says: ‘Like I said, Mark, attitudes really are changing!’

A little later, the same dancing squaddie walks past and puts his hand on the shoulder of another soldier I’m talking to. It’s a friendly gesture that would mean nothing any other night at Louis (when it’s not entirely unusual for drunken straight squaddies to snog, grope and pretend to hump one another on the dance-floor). But the soldier I’m talking to looks like he’s been electrocuted, whips around and shouts: ‘’Ere! You’ve got the wrong guy mate, I’m straight!” He points emphatically to a wedding ring on his finger. The dancing squaddie then protests, briefly, his own heterosexuality, pointing to a ring on his finger. Bruised egos suitably salved, they shake hands, grinning and slapping each other on the back.

The organiser of Louis gay night, Dave Parker, 36, a Durham lad with what I can only describe as cheeky eyes, is gay himself, and has lived in Catterick Camp for ten years. ‘I just thought it was about time we had a gay night,’ he says.  ‘Plus it will help to change attitudes as well as provide a place for gay Army people and locals to socialise. The feedback I’ve had has all been positive. Though I’ve heard that one or two have been complaining about ‘bloody poofs’ – but’ he laughs, ‘not to my face!’

Some might say that he’s set himself something of a challenge. ‘It’s a shame there were only a few lesbians and no gay male squaddies tonight,’ he admits, ‘but it will take a while for a gay night in Catterick to take off.’ Yes, it probably will. Dave has high hopes for next month though: everyone will be back from leave, and he’s booked a male stripper. ‘From Down South. Wigan, I think it was,’ he says with a wink.

‘Mind,’ he adds, ‘I should have booked one of the local Army PTi’s instead. They’d probably have done it just for some free drinks. They love putting on a show, some of them. And god knows they use the tanning salon enough!’

So there you have it. Catterick Garrison. Gayer than you think.

Gay night at Louis Bar, Kitchener Road, Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.  

The Gay Bomb

gaybomb.jpg

Mark Simpson drops the Gay Bomb

(Guardian & Out magazine June 13, 2007)

Look out! Take cover! Backs to the walls, boys! It’s the Gay Bomb!

No, not a bomb with fashionably styled fins or one that can’t whistle, but rather a proposed “non-lethal” chemical bomb containing “strong aphrodisiacs” that would cause “homosexual behavior” among soldiers.

Since the United States Air Force wanted $7.5 million of taxpayers’ money to develop it, it probably involved more than the traditional recipe of a few six-packs of beer.

According to the Sunshine Group, an organization opposed to chemical weapons that recently obtained the original proposal under the Freedom of Information Act, a U.S.A.F. lab seriously proposed in 1994 “that a bomb be developed containing a chemical that would cause [enemy] soldiers to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistibly attractive to one another.” The U.S.A.F. obviously didn’t know how picky even horny gays can be.

Despite never having been developed, the so-called Gay Bomb is a bouncing bomb – or perhaps a bent stick: it keeps coming back. The media have picked up the story of the Gay Bomb more than once since 2005 – after all it’s a story that’s too good to throw away, and, as this article proves, it’s a gift for dubious jokes.

Mind you, it now seems to be the case that the Pentagon didn’t throw it away either, at least not immediately. In the past the Pentagon has been keen to suggest it was just a cranky proposal they quickly rejected. The Sunshine Project now contradicts this, saying the Gay Bomb was given serious and sustained attention by the Pentagon and that in fact they “submitted the proposal to the highest scientific review body in the country for them to consider.” The Gay Bomb was no joke.

So perhaps we should seriously consider probing-however gingerly – what exactly was in the minds of the boys at the Pentagon back then.

The date is key. The Gay Bomb proposal was submitted in 1994 – the year after the extraordinary moral panic that very nearly derailed Clinton’s first term when he tried to honor his campaign pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. military and that ultimately produced the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) compromise that allows them to serve so long as they remain closeted and are not reported.

The newly sworn-in Commander-in-Chief was successfully portrayed by the homo-baiting right wing – and by the Pentagon itself – as a dirty pinko Gay Bomb that was seriously weakening the cohesion of the unit and molesting the noble, heterosexual U.S. fighting man’s ability to perform his manly mission. “Why not drop Clinton on the enemy?” is probably what they were thinking.

The Pentagon’s love affair with the Gay Bomb also hints heavily that ticking away at the heart of its opposition to lifting the ban on gays serving, which involved much emphasis on the “close conditions” (cue endless TV footage of naked soldiers and sailors showering together) was an anxiety that if homosexuality wasn’t actively discouraged the U.S. Armed Forces would quickly turn into one huge, hot, military-themed gay orgy – that American fighting men would be too busy offering themselves to one another to defend their country. I sympathize. I too share the same fantasy – but at least I know it’s called gay porn.

Whatever its motivations or rationalizations, the DADT policy of gay quarantine has resulted in thousands of discharges of homosexuals and bisexuals from the U.S. Armed Forces, even at a time when the military is having great difficulty mobilizing enough bodies of any sexual persuasion and is currently being publicly questioned. But the Pentagon seems unlikely to budge its institutional back from the proverbial wall.

Its top commander, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, recently defended the policy in outspoken terms, saying: “I believe that homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.” (The good General probably didn’t mean to suggest that homosexual acts involving only one person or more than two were not immoral.)

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy that even Joseph Heller would have had difficulty satirizing, may be confused and confusing, and it may or may not be repealed in the near future, but it clearly shows that the U.S. remains dramatically conflicted about itself and the enormous changes in attitudes and behavior that its own affluence and sophistication have helped bring about.

After all, the Gay Bomb is here already, and it’s been thoroughly tested – on civilians. It was developed not by the U.S.A.F. but by the laboratories of American consumer and pop culture, advertising, and Hollywood. If you want to awaken the enemy to the attractiveness of the male body, try dropping back issues of Men’s Health or GQ on them. Or Abercrombie & Fitch posters. Or Justin Timberlake videos. Or DVDs of 300.

Or even the U.S.’s newly acquired British-made weapons system for delivering global sexual confusion and hysteria known as ‘David Beckham’.

To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington: I don’t know whether they frighten the enemy, but by God they scare the Bejeesus out of me.

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