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Fantasies Of Straight Men: Some Thoughts about Gays in the Military

After decades of bloody battles for the fair and equal treatment of African-Americans, women and other "minorities," how can we still be so obtuse about the basic underlying principles?
Joe Sartelle

Issue #5, March/April 1993

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: The public debate over gays in the military has mainly focused on the tensions between gay men and straight men, despite the fact that the issue is at least as important, if not more so, for lesbians in military service. The following article reflects that bias. While much of what I have to say applies to women as well as men, our cultural attitudes about women's sexuality and homosexuality are significantly different from our attitudes about men's. Detailing these differences would require making an already lengthy essay even longer. Also, I am here discussing American notions of sexual identity; obviously things are different elsewhere in time, space, and culture.)

Perhaps the most appalling thing about the deluge of hysterical fear and outright bigotry triggered by Clinton's proposal to revoke the law banning openly homosexual men and women from military service is the simple fact that we have been through all this before and by now we should know better. After decades of bloody battles for the fair and equal treatment of African-Americans, women and other "minorities," how can we still be so obtuse about the basic underlying principles?

Yet it seems that no matter how many times someone points out that the arguments against allowing open homosexuals in the armed services are virtually identical to the arguments used in the 1940s against racial integration of these same armed services, you still have people irrationally insisting that "this is completely different." And actually, despite the fact that the most vocal supporters of the ban on homosexuals are usually reactionary conservatives, I think they've got a point here: the gay issue is a little different. After all, extended intimate contact with black people isn't going to make a white person black; however, the same sort of extended intimacy with gay people just might make a few "straight" people into bisexuals. Maybe more than a few...

Of course, in making a statement like that I realize that I am flying in the face of the orthodox dogma that holds that homosexuality is not a choice, that we can't help feeling these desires, it's out of our control, and so on. Interestingly enough, though, it is generally homosexuals and sympathetic heterosexuals who most strenuously assert this position; the right wing, on the other hand, often displays a more generous evaluation of the fluidity of human sexual desire, as well as an unfortunately much more openly repressive response to that fluidity. Paradoxically (although somewhat predictably), we find "progressives" arguing that individuals are essentially powerless victims of their sexual orientations (the "no choice" position), while the "conservatives" recognize that under the right circumstances, anyone might be seduced into practicing the love that dare not speak its name.

So, for example, we find the Republican Senator from Indiana, Dan Coats, writing an editorial in the San Francisco Examiner against lifting the ban on homosexuals and quoting David Hackworth, "America's most decorated living veteran," who tells us why open homosexuality is such a threat to military discipline. Hackworth says, "During my Army career I saw countless officers and NCOs who couldn't stop themselves from hitting on soldiers. ...The objects of their affection were impressionable lads who, searching for a caring role model, sometimes ended up in gay relationships they might not have sought." While Hackworth is ostensibly talking about sexual harassment here, he also confesses, no doubt unwittingly, that sometimes what can make the difference between a "straight" man and a "gay" man is nothing more than the right circumstances at the right time.

Hackworth's comment also serves as an example of the extremely active imaginations of the opponents of ending the ban on homosexuals in the military. Indeed, a pattern quickly emerged in the public debate on the issue: those who favored lifting the ban supported their position with arguments rooted in the established American tradition of civil rights and equal opportunity (individuals should be judged according to their performance and abilities), while those who favored continuing the ban based their arguments in fantasies of predatory gays menacing innocent young straights. The comments of Specialist Fourth Class Jared Hopkins, quoted in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, are typical of the paranoid scenarios conjured by supporters of the ban. "Out on the battlefield," said Hopkins, "I'm going to have enough to worry about without thinking about the guy next to me. If you're out there a long time, you worry the guy might have sexual feelings toward you, might come on to you."

Now who exactly is it, we might want to ask, who's preoccupied with thinking about the guy next to him? As others have pointed out before me, there's at least one thing that both homosexuals and homophobes have in common, which is an intense preoccupation with homosexual desires. The comments of Specialist Hopkins and others like him assume as a kind of unconscious given that gay men will find the (straight) speaker so irresistible that they will ignore the mortal dangers of battle in order to come on to him. In other words, this particular soldier has evidently already constructed a whole imaginary scenario of attempted homosexual seduction with himself at the center of attention. Perhaps he is just assuming, as so many straight men do, that gay men look at other men the same way that straight men look at women, in which case we can read the hysteria among straight men about serving with gays as a kind of confession of the disrespectful, predatory (hetero)sexuality traditionally encouraged by military culture. On the other hand — and without invalidating or replacing that possibility — perhaps we are dealing with unconscious homosexual desire, conveniently projected onto a fantasized gay man and thus disavowed.

Consider, for example, the approach to the issue taken by Angelo Codevilla, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution who also served in the U.S. Navy. In his editorial in the San Francisco Examiner, Codevilla argues against lifting the ban by reminding us of just how much intimacy with his comrades the average serviceman is already forced to experience: "Moving fast and tired in every state of undress and sometimes full of bloody bruises, he bumps and rubs up against his fellows innumerable times." The homoeroticism of this observation is so transparent that if we didn't have a context for it, we might think we were reading the outline of a scene from a gay porn flick (an impression that is reinforced near the end of the editorial when Codevilla speciously raises the possibility of "the use of taxpayer funds for military hospitals to treat oral gonorrhea or the consequences of such practices as 'fisting' and 'rimming' "). Codevilla goes on to tell us, "Sex is an explosive part of military life. Young men are at the peak of desire. ...To say that the atmosphere aboard ship is sexually charged is an understatement." Since these young men are presumably heterosexual, one has to wonder where so much sexual tension is coming from — of course it couldn't be from all that running around naked and rubbing up against each other, could it?

It seems to me an obvious point to make, that the vicious homophobia typical of military culture must be directly related to the fact that military life is by its very nature incredibly homoerotic. What I am referring to with the term "homoerotic" is the simple fact that, as Eve Sedgwick puts it in her book Between Men, "what goes on at football games, in fraternities, at the Bohemian Grove, and at climactic moments in war novels can look, with only a slight shift of optic, quite startlingly 'homosexual'..." The imaginations, at least, of both Codevilla and Specialist Hopkins seem to recognize this fact, and both are thus concerned with seeing to it that Sedgwick's "slight shift of optic" is suppressed as a possibility. Both men's comments are representative of the conservative fear — also seen in the nervously energetic homoerotics of buddy movies like Lethal Weapon — that the good, clean, sexless and often brutal "normal" homoeroticism of straight male culture might at any moment cross over into the forbidden zone of actual homosexuality. Instead of sexual tension and "accidental" half-dressed bumping and rubbing, guys might decide to simply have sex; as in the case of conservative fears about the pleasures of casual drug use, one thing might lead to another... This is the premise, of course, of an awful lot of gay sexual fantasies. Locker rooms, fraternities and military life are staples of gay pornography because these places are already in some basic sense "homosexual": everyone is the same sex, and there's a great deal of physical intimacy.

So what is quite striking about the debate over gays in the military is that the stereotypical imaginary scenarios of gay fantasy are appearing with such regularity in the paranoid fantasies of straight men who oppose lifting the ban, such as the two men I've already quoted. Opposition to the open presence of homosexuals in the military (or anywhere, for that matter) is grounded in the wish to prevent these scenarios from becoming realities to the fullest extent possible. In other words, in much of the support for maintaining the ban on gays in the military we find straight men defending themselves against their own anxious homoerotic fantasies through the active repression and suppression of actual gay men, who are blamed for their intrinsically disruptive presence, in exactly the same way many straight men blame attractive women. The current controversy about gays in the military has more than a little in common with the ongoing controversy about the sexual harassment of women in the military. For example, both the gay man in military service and the sexy woman in the presence of a group of military men are perceived as "asking for it," the difference being that sexy women are supposedly invitations to Getting Laid, while sexy gay men are invitations to that other time-honored ritual proof of manhood, Beating Someone Up. Fag-bashing, like the sexual violation of women, should be recognized as a form of rape: both are violent physical attacks directed intentionally at someone's sexuality.

However, fag-bashing, despite being an intimately physical experience of sexual humiliation, is not commonly perceived as a sex crime in the same sense as rape, presumably because the fag-bashers are "straight," and "straight" men don't feel sexual desire for other men (that's what makes them different from gays, right?). So fag-bashing, according to this reasoning, is essentially different from woman-raping because there can be no sexual motivation to the attack on a gay man. But at the same time that we as a culture strive to maintain this useful fiction as a kind of "official" ideology about the fundamental difference between hetero and homo sexualities, we also routinely confess to the strong suspicion that fag-bashers are "really" gay themselves, or maybe they're "confused, " and are just, as the saying goes, not dealing with it very well.

Given how often we hear of or know people who have experienced at least some degree of "confusion" about their sexual orientations before settling into their "true" identities, it's amazing that we are still in so much denial — culturally, socially, individually — about the implications of that common confusion. "Confusion" about one's sexual identity can only come from conflicting desires, from feeling varying degrees of attraction to both sexes. What I know of my own experience and others' suggests that such "confusion" is in fact so common as to be a normal aspect of human development, particularly during adolescence.

However, because we live in a culture that teaches us that heterosexual desire is not just natural, desirable, and normal but also completely incompatible with homosexual desire, we are encouraged to regard our bisexual potential as "confusion" rather than a normal human sexual response. Our current "common sense" about sexual identity tells us that a certain degree of homosexual attraction is normal, but that sexual identity is a matter of being either straight or gay, and in either case it's just the way you are, not something you "choose" — so anything else is just "confusion." In my experience, some version of this understanding is shared by most gays and straights alike.

It should be easy to see, then, how an integral part of our "sexual identities," whether straight or gay, is a kind of search-and-destroy program that continually scans for signs of the "opposite" orientation so that these "confusing" impulses can be neutralized through the usual array of psychological defense mechanisms. The "success" of the program is measured by how effectively it blocks conscious recognition of any attraction to the "wrong" sex, attractions that "confuse" our sexual identities. The search-and-destroy mission is especially important, of course, in the construction of "normal" heterosexual masculinity; seen in this light, fag-bashing is merely the outward and visible expression of an interior psychological conflict.

Returning to the specific issue of the debate over gays in the military, we can see now why, in Angelo Codevilla's editorial, an emphasis on the sexually tense and homoerotic atmosphere of military service would quickly yield to warnings about the inevitability of violent attacks against openly gay servicemen. Indeed, this movement has characterized the shifts in emphasis of the larger public debate: first the paranoid fantasies of predatory gays and the "discomfort" of straights at the idea of having openly gay men around them, and then the threats of violent harassment of gay servicemen. Since the fears about how gays will actually behave if they were allowed to come out about their sexuality are easily answered by already-existing codes of conduct that will work equally well — if enforced — for gays as well as straights, the opposition to lifting the ban seems to be left with basing its case on assurances of morale problems (again, no matter that this is exactly what the opponents of racial integration of the military said, too). Straight servicemen will be offended and uncomfortable, and gay servicemen will get beat up.

So we are left with only one meaningful question, which is, what are these guys so afraid of? After all, we're talking about military personnel — rough, tough super-macho guys, men intimate with guns, trained killers. Yet these are the people whose sensibilities are so sensitive that the possibility that they are merely being looked at with sexual interest by another man is supposedly intolerable to them. But why? If a gay soldier, say, were to make an unwanted pass at a straight comrade, why can't the straight man politely and firmly refuse, the way one refuses any unwanted friendly advances? A refusal to take "no" for an answer would constitute sexual harassment, and could be dealt with accordingly. But all that changes, of course, if what is truly intolerable in this situation is the straight man's unthinkable and unspeakable interest in saying "yes."

As I have tried to suggest, the open presence of homosexuals is considered intolerable within the already extremely homoerotic context of military life because it undermines what we might call the "heterosexual alibi," the security "straight" men can feel despite the constant homoeroticism of their lives because of the belief that gay men are fundamentally and identifiably different from themselves. Without that alibi to protect them, the obvious pleasure many straight men get from homoerotic situations (if you doubt this, spend some time in a gym) begins to look too much like what it actually is, a covert and sublimated way of gratifying forbidden "homosexual" desires. Straight men spend so much time nervously identifying and parodying "gay" mannerisms (as in the case of Ollie North's much-publicized recent "joke") in order to reassure themselves and others that they couldn't possibly be gay themselves, since they don't act like that. The heterosexual alibi is perpetuated by any and every insistence that there is an objectively measurable difference between "heterosexuals" and "homosexuals" that goes beyond the specifics of their genital relations — which also means, as I shall discuss shortly, that it's not just straight people who buy into the heterosexual alibi.

Without the heterosexual alibi of the essential difference between straight and gay, heterosexuals are faced with the reality that there are people who seem just like themselves, but who not only openly admit to forbidden homosexual attractions, but even go so far as to act on them with pleasure and satisfaction! If you were someone who had invested a lot of energy in the psychological work of repressing and denying your own homosexual attractions — and in the case of military service, this work would be a full-time job — with all the necessary frustration and unpleasure that entails, you'd probably find the presence of open homosexuals intolerable, too. Who wants to find out that all that hard work wasn't necessary? And if you couldn't get rid of them, you might find a safe outlet for your own frustration — sorry, I mean confusion — in tormenting them, "proving" your own essential difference even as you unconsciously mirror their interest in homosexual arousal.

So finally my point is simply that the opposition to gays in the military is really about trying to preserve the heterosexual alibi. When there are gay men in the locker rooms, so to speak, behaving pretty much just like the straight men do, then suddenly all that innocent, playful homoeroticism — that "typical guy behavior" — might not look so innocent any more, simply because we can recognize its erotic dimensions. And now it's time to confront the fact that the only reason there is any problem here at all is because of the entrenched belief that homosexual desires are unnatural and bad (the more liberal version being that the desires are bad but OK, so long as you don't act on them, but it amounts to the same thing). If we accepted homosexual desire as a normal component of human sexuality that varies in strength in each individual — which is what experience as opposed to ideology tells us — then same-sex attractions wouldn't be a problem, and neither would gays in the military.

Unfortunately, it is not just homophobic straights who seek to preserve and strengthen the heterosexual alibi. The ways in which gay people commonly understand and define our own "sexual identities" are also often deeply complicit with the heterosexual alibi. Partly the insistence upon the essential difference of gay identity has been useful for both our political and psychological survival. If gays are indistinguishable from straights in everything but our sexual practices, then we are invisible, and invisibility leads to isolation, fear and weakness. Adoption of a number of common "markers" of gayness — in the ways we dress, talk, consume, etc. — helps us find each other and thus support each other. However, in my experience gay people are perhaps even more likely than straights to forget that these markers have been attached to our sexual orientation and are not, therefore, necessary functions of our homosexuality. In other words, we tend to act as though we believe, in accord with the heterosexual alibi, that there is an essential and thus absolute difference between gay and straight, which manifests itself in more than just our choice of sexual partners.

If such a constitutional difference exists, it must exist across the board; it must be something common to all gays but absent from all straights if it's going to serve as a reliable indicator of sexual preference. Obviously, this is going to be hard to establish as long as we're dealing with things like a taste for leather or Julie Andrews records, or a knack for interior decorating. What we need, according to the dominant thinking on the subject, is something more scientific, so that we can finally prove the difference! As many of you know, the other big news about gays in the mainstream media recently has been a series of reports about medical research into the question of whether homosexuality is biologically or socially produced.

The most widely-publicized study has been the "gay brain" research conducted by Simon LeVay at the Salk Institute. LeVay claims to have found a meaningful difference in the size of the hypothalamus in gay men and straight men. I am not going to go into the details of his work, or the numerous objections that have been raised about his very questionable methodology — all that has been detailed elsewhere. What I am interested in here are the underlying motivations for his research, which are shared by others seeking to prove that homosexuality is biologically-determined. LeVay, like many others who are committed to this theory, is himself a gay man. The interest in establishing a biological basis for homosexuality, according to public statements from LeVay and his supporters, comes from the wish to help gay people by showing the world that we can't help being gay, that it's part of our biological make-up and thus "out of our control."

While I am sympathetic to the idea that if the straight world would just accept that we do not "choose" to be attracted strongly and primarily to individuals of our own sex, then we stand a better chance of gaining acceptance and toleration, I find the implications of this reasoning to be dangerously self-defeating. For in defending our sexuality by saying that "we have no choice," aren't we implying that if we did have a choice, we both shouldn't and wouldn't choose to be gay? That therefore, in some deep sense, it really is "better" to be straight, and abnormal to be gay? I think that gay people would better serve their interests by insisting, firmly and unequivocally, that there is simply nothing wrong with homosexuality and that therefore all questions of where it comes from are irrelevant.

As I observed near the beginning of this essay, the position that we have "no choice" about our sexual desires is objectionable not least because it is an extension of the victim-oriented logic that currently dominates "progressive" or "liberal" thinking. To say that gay people do not choose their sexual preferences is to make them into victims of their desires; and however titillating it may be to think of ourselves as thralls to our passions, it is hardly a responsible position to take. As victims of repression and oppression, gay people have an obvious stake in expanding our human sexual freedom, not further restricting it by building limitations into our biology.

And it is also the case that arguments which seek to establish a biological basis for sexual preference are fully complicit with the heterosexual alibi, since both are efforts to establish some absolute difference between gay and straight. The theory that one is biologically constituted as either heterosexual or homosexual — that the two are mutually exclusive rather than complementary — is just as likely in practical terms to make it easier for straight people to dismiss their "confusions" and to consolidate their homoerotic-homophobic identities as it is likely to make them more sympathetic to gays. Since the basis of sympathy is some sort of identification, a recognition of one's self in another, I have to say that I think the cause of liberating ourselves as gay people would be better served by liberating the gay potential in everyone (as well as the straight potential in ourselves). Only then would "straight" people come to realize that in attacking us they are attacking something within themselves.

Finally, I do not wish to be understood as arguing that we are all "really" bisexuals. Rather, more precisely I am arguing that we are all, as human beings, potential bisexuals who have been taught, through an elaborate system of social rewards and punishments, to see ourselves as "heterosexuals" and "homosexuals." The fact that bisexuals are in a very real sense the most invisible "sexual identity" makes perfect sense in these terms: the existence of functionally bisexual individuals radically undermines any belief in the exclusivity of heterosexual and homosexual attractions. And as I have also tried to point out, what we know about how human beings actually experience their sexual desires supports the position that bisexuality is the norm, while both hetero- and homosexuality are learned restrictions of that potential.

This does not mean that when either gay or straight people say that they feel like they are "really" heterosexual or homosexual that they are being untruthful. It just means that they have so successfully conformed to dominant ideas of sexual identity that whatever bisexual potential they once had has atrophied, even to the point of its effective extinction. In other words, just because our identities are socially constructed doesn't mean that they aren't, in a very real way, "authentic." However, just because my own sexuality has been crippled by my socialization doesn't mean I want to promote my limitations as the "natural" standard for others, such as the future generations of humanity. I know that it feels like I have no choice in my sexual orientation toward men; but I also know that I am capable of attractions to women that, if they had been handled differently earlier in my development, might have led to my being bisexual rather than homosexual (I doubt I could ever have been "straight").

What I am talking about is a fully human sexuality, rather than the pre-human "sexual identities" that now afflict us. The people we now call "homosexuals" are most likely, seen in this light, that relatively small minority of individuals whose homosexual attractions are so much stronger than our heterosexual attractions as to render those latter feelings almost invisible. In that sense we "have no choice." Similarly, we would expect to find a comparable minority of people for whom the opposite is true, who "have no choice" but to be heterosexual. But I think that in a fully human society, the overwhelming majority of people would fall somewhere in the middle, more or less indifferent to the biological sex of their partners, attracted instead to the qualities of individuals as humans and not as sexes. Of course there would be varying degrees of bisexuality, with some people tending to choose one sex rather than the other. But the important point here is that it would be a choice, and thus an affirmation of our freedom — and freedom to choose is what makes us human.

We are a very long way from such a world, but even if it's a fantasy, at least it's a compelling one, certainly more worth believing in than the ideology of the heterosexual alibi that dominates both gay and straight thinking about sexual identity. For despite everything we know about the complexities of human sexuality, the debate over gays in the military shows us how much we persist in denying that complexity, invested as we all are in fantasies of straight men, perfect heterosexuals uncontaminated by any sexual interest in their fellow men. It may be that the hysteria over gays in the military is really only the last gasp of the old conceptions and attitudes; certainly today's young people are growing up in a sexual landscape very different from what has come before. The ongoing hype surrounding The Crying Game is one sign of this, like the popularity of androgynous styles and the omnipresence of sexually objectified male bodies. Perhaps what we are witnessing, as others have suggested, is the liberation of sexuality from reproduction and thus from "nature" — and along with it the nervous and tentative recognition that once sexual pleasure doesn't have to be tied to making babies, there's no longer any pressing reason to enforce heterosexuality, or to suppress homosexuality. As Marx observes in the third volume of Capital, the realm of freedom begins only where the realm of necessity ends. So long as we insist that we have no choice about our sexuality, whether we define it as gay or straight, we cannot be free, and we will remain something less than fully human.

Joe Sartelle is a graduate student at UC Berkeley and Co-Editor of Bad Subjects.

Copyright © Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.