Gay subculture is flourishing in military -- with acquiescence of commanders Pentagon may be opposed to lifting ban, but armed forces have already adapted

December 01, 1992|By Eric Schmitt | Eric Schmitt,New York Times News Service

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. -- Every Friday and Saturday night, scores of off-duty Marines flock to a Jacksonville bar to shoot a game of pool, cure a bout of loneliness or dance until the wee hours.

By the book, they are risking stiff fines or even jail time, since Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast, has declared the bar, Friends Lounge, off limits to the installation's 43,000 Marines and sailors. It is a gay bar and conflicts with the military's ban on homosexual behavior.

But for many of the gay Marines in Jacksonville who keep their sexual orientation secret, Friends Lounge is one of the few public places in this conservative military town where homosexuals -- once they are safely past the locked front door and inside -- can temporarily set aside their fears of being discovered and drummed out of the Marine Corps they proudly serve.

"Straight people know this as a place that's off-limits, but for gays it's a safe haven," said Alan D., 23, a lance corporal who, like all the homosexuals on active duty interviewed for this article, spoke only on the condition that his full name not be published.

The bar at Camp Lejeune, and the many others like it, demonstrate that there is a flourishing gay subculture in the military despite the official ban on homosexuals in uniform. It underscores the way the military has already adapted to something its leaders say is impossible even to contemplate.

Senior military leaders loudly protested when President-elect Bill Clinton said he would lift the ban on homosexuals, arguing that it would lead to severe morale problems and weaken combat effectiveness.

They said heterosexual soldiers, sailors and Marines cannot coexist with gay ones.

But at Camp Lejeune and many other military bases, they already coexist. Individual base commanders vary widely in how strictly they enforce the ban on the thousands of gay men and lesbians in the services, particularly when it involves gay bars and organizations that are off base.

The commanders of Camp Lejeune are clearly aware of the bar's existence but have not done anything to shut it down or round up its patrons for years.

"We don't sit and stake out these places and harass people," said Maj. Jay Farrar, a camp spokesman.

This does not mean that being a gay Marine at Camp Lejeune is entirely without risk. Gay Marines must still keep their sexual orientation officially secret, since if they are exposed, they face discharge under the Marine Corps rules.

Because the rules against homosexuals are still in force, gay service members say they are forced to live a stealthy life style.

And in an effort to help them deal with the hostility they face, an underground network of gay military groups, as well as a string of bars and clubs, has sprung up to lend support and provide contacts to gay men and lesbians at bases around the country.

The network has evolved in a variety of ways, from exchanging telephone numbers on computer bulletin boards to working together at AIDS-prevention clinics.

A few years ago, 20 junior Navy officers formed the San Diego Gay Naval Officers Association, an informal social club. A West Point graduate in Falls Church, Va., Michael W. Gary, recently started an association of gay alumni from the service academy.

In large metropolitan areas, like Washington or Atlanta, gay soldiers say it is easier to blend in and tap gay civilian advocacy and support groups. The majority of the 125 members of American Legion Post 448 in San Francisco, for example, are homosexual and helped support Petty Officer Keith Meinhold of the Navy when he declared his homosexuality on national television earlier this year.

But many installations, particularly Army bases, are in small, rural towns hours from a big city. Even in larger cities, gay soldiers must be extremely discreet. "When I was at Fort Bliss in El Paso, I drove six hours to a gay bar in Tucson because I was so paranoid of being seen in town," said Gary, 29, who served five years in the Army.

Other gay soldiers and sailors say that tight-knit circles of friends reach out when a member transfers to a new base.

"When I went to San Diego from Norfolk, my friends here called their friends there, and I had a ready-made network when I arrived," said a 34-year-old Navy lieutenant commander who is now in the Washington area.

In addition, an array of large national organizations, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, offer advice and legal counseling to gay members of the military who are threatened with being discharged for homosexuality.

In Jacksonville, gay men and lesbians say there are several small groups of gay enlisted personnel and officers. Military regulations prohibit fraternization between enlisted personnel and officers, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual.

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