Gays want right to be open about defending U.S.

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 28, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This business of admitting gays into the military brings back a memory of Dick Gregory, who finally succeeded in integrating a restaurant in the racially segregated South many years ago and then announced, after lunch:

''It turned out, they didn't have anything I wanted.''

Can we make a distinction here? Giving homosexuals the right to join the military is not the same thing as having them rush the gates in anticipation of finding something wonderful waiting for them.

As I read it, it's not that they're dying to put themselves into combat; it's that they don't want anybody telling them they can't do it if they want to.

''Exactly,'' said a friend of mine, who is openly gay, but not so open that he wishes to see his name in the morning newspaper. ''Who would want to go in? Nobody. But that's not the issue.

''The real issue,'' he said -- and suddenly, against all intentions, he slipped uncomfortably out of a jaunty mood and his voice began to clench a little -- ''the real issue is to make a statement: We're citizens of this country, and we don't want to be diminished by somebody telling us we're not good enough to defend it.''

The military has an answer to this, since they've had years to prepare one. It isn't patriotism they question, it's this tricky issue of lifestyle and of intimacy.

Did someone mention lifestyle? In the shadows of the Tailhook scandal -- which, last time anybody looked, involved only heterosexual males forcing themselves upon women -- the military wishes to raise sexual conduct issues about gays?

Did someone mention intimacy? We're talking about taking showers here, aren't we, and this terrible fear among straight men that a gay man will take a peek, and maybe even make a pass.

Oh, please. In an organization whose majority is vastly heterosexual, and where physical aggressiveness is encouraged, a gay man is going to force himself on a straight man?

''I'll tell you a little story,'' says my gay friend. ''A bunch of us went to The Hippo one night, and one of the guys was straight. But he went, because we were all having a good time and he didn't want to leave.

''But he said to me, 'What do I do if somebody makes a pass at me? What should I say?' I told him, 'I go to The Hippo all the time, hoping somebody will make a pass at me, and no one does. Don't flatter yourself. You're not so beautiful.' ''

A long time ago, when everybody in my generation was young and stupid, nobody worried about such things. In my time, there was Vietnam. Back then, everybody I knew wished the military had a ban on heterosexuals.

The mind does back flips to a January morning precisely 25 years ago, where scores of us gathered at the draft board for a bus ride across town to Fort Holabird. Nobody wanted to go. Half the guys there had letters from doctors, alleging medical problems of the highest order -- asthma, hay fever, trick knees -- any desperate, port-in-a-storm phony affliction which would discourage the U.S. Army from accepting the poor lads carrying the letters.

The Army doctors sneered at them. It was the biggest open military secret of the era: Almost nobody wanted to go to Vietnam, and almost everybody wanted to fool the Army into thinking they had a physical problem.

Boy, was everybody dumb!

Who needed trick knees when trick sexuality would have worked wonders? Who needed asthma when all you had to say was: The thought of doing close order drill with another man induces heavy breathing?

But nobody at the draft board that day carried such a letter. There were certain bounds over which you would not step. And anyway, we all had images of ourselves as tough, rugged fellows (at least in peacetime circumstances), whereas gays were imagined to be universally feminine and easy to spot. Nobody I knew realized the truth: There were gays among us, hoping not to be noticed, who would sooner risk their lives than their identities.

''All of this debate,'' my gay friend remarked the other day, ''is really remarkable, because the military has already solved the problem, and nobody's saying it. There are already thousands and thousands of gays serving in the military, but doing it in secret.

"Why is the military so frightened about simply letting them admit it?''

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