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May. 21 2009 - 8:04 am | 1,105 views | 2 recommendations | 19 comments

‘The Army Is A 24-Hour Gay Joke’

This week, ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ has come back into the news. Obama promised on the campaign trail he’d scrap the rule, but hasn’t. On Tuesday, Rachel Maddow interviewed Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbech, who’s being kicked out because he came out. And this is a man who served 18 years and earned nine medals, including a medal for valor. Another Army platoon leader, fluent in Arabic, is also getting the boot.

Should gays be allowed in the  military? Of course. No question. But I’d be surprised if it happens anytime soon.

Why?

Because then our troops would have nothing left to joke about.

I’m serious, sort of.

Over the last couple years, I’ve had the privilege to spend a lot of time with American combat forces in Iraq, and, more recently, in Afghanistan. If there is one persistent form of humor it is this:  jokes about homosexuality. Lots and lots of gay jokes.  So many that, on my last embed, a soldier told me this gem: ”When my family asks what it’s like to be in the Army,” he said. “I tell them it’s like a 24-hour gay joke.”

The homophobia in the military is akin to the homophobia in locker rooms or frat houses. The reason the military won’t allow in gays is the same reason we don’t know what professional athletes are gay. It’s not part of the culture. In this kind of atmosphere, you find the type of language that you get when you isolate a bunch of dudes in testerone scented quarters. Jokingly, I’ve seen soldiers sit on each others laps, pretend to blow kisses and then some, while continually make sexually suggestive comments to one another. On one embed, the soldiers showed me a video of another solider touching the penis of a donkey. (I won’t name the unit, but it could have been a bad YouTube hit.)

The humor is not meant as malicious, I don’t think, and these are on the whole good guys. It’s just what gets joked about. Call it barracks humor, or call it an homoerotic environment.

This isn’t new: read From Here to Eternity or The Thin Red Line. And this isn’t limited to the U.S. Armed forces–I’ve heard Iraqi and Afghan soldiers make gay jokes, too. In Afghanistan, which has a culture of man on man sex, the American soldiers I spent time with were always worrying/joking that the Afghan guards were checking them out. One private joked that he wanted to sue Hamid Karzai’s government for sexual harassment because an Afghan guard had taken a particularly intense liking to him. 

The culture of the military is in many ways reactionary–they stand apart from us civilians, and like to believe that they represent the best of American values, harkening back to a kind of Leave It To Beaver world. This may have its positives, for sure. They’re willing to risk their lives for us. But on some level, the resistance to letting homosexuals in has nothing to do with morale. It has to do with maintaining the macho ideal, a desire to maintain some kind of imagined tradition. A place where men can still be men. And making jokes about gays is part of that. (I’m not condoning the homophobic atmosphere. As I mentioned, I think it’s an unjust prejudice for the military to hold onto. These are just things I’ve observed.)

Military officials probably won’t ever say it like this, but it’s also one of the last politically incorrect things those in uniform can joke about freely. Women, Blacks, Hispanics, Arabs–not cool, off limits, have to be careful about that! Gay jokes, though, are a dime a dozen; they almost always get a laugh.

So maybe it is about morale after all.


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  1. collapse expand

    Just another form of the “old boys network” aye? You’re rationalizing bigotry here and your disclaimer (I’m not condoning the homophobic atmosphere. As I mentioned, I think it’s an unjust prejudice for the military to hold onto. These are just things I’ve observed.) really doesn’t change the fact. I think if you want to come up with a argument to continue a bigoted policy you better come up with something more morally sound and convincing than “boys will be boys”.

    • collapse expand

      Brian, twice in the post I explicitly make my views on ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ clear. First, when I say it’s a policy that should be ended. Second, as you point out, when I say I’m not condoning it. I added those two disclaimers to avoid this kind of misreading.

      I’m not making an argument for the policy, or rationalizing anything. I’m in fact saying that the bigotry should end.

      What I’m doing is describing and explaining behavior that I’ve witnessed. That behavior is part of a culture of homophobia in the military.Explanation and description does not equal acceptance, it equals understanding.

      So I’m trying to shed light on why the military isn’t embracing homosexuals(as they ethically and morally should) in a way that the issue usually isn’t discussed.

      best,
      mh

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    How is the following quote of yours not an attempt at rationalizing bigotry?

    “The humor is not meant as malicious, I don’t think, and these are on the whole good guys.”

    And this morality argument that you close with is nothing new, it was made to FDR and it was made Truman in regard racial segregation in the armed forces. It was wrong then, it’s wrong now.

    Without meaning to do so (I hope) all you’ve done in this piece is give weight to the haters and their argument. Anyone’s discomfort is not a valid reason to deny anyone else their full rights as a citizen, no matter how fond of oppressors you might happen to be.

    Saying you hate something then shrugging your shoulders and saying you get it isn’t very morally sound in my opinion.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Brian:

      That line you quote is the truth–just because the soldiers are in a culture where they say stupid things doesn’t make them all bad people. I’m after understanding, not condemnation.

      I’m not giving weight to the haters. And again, where am I shrugging my shoulders? I’m saying the policy should change. I’m also saying I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t because of the reasons I lay out–there’s a culture of homophobia on a fundamental level that rarely gets addressed.

      I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about when you say “the morality argument.” I’m saying it is immoral for gays not to be allowed in. Don’t ask don’t tell is immoral, in my view. We seem to be in agreement on the isse. Your objection to the post seems to be that you don’t like descriptions of reality in military life.

      But you’re right about desegretation in the military. That was a big boon for the civil rights of African Americans, and once homosexuals are allowed to serve openly, that will be a big step for gay civil rights. The military though is resisting as they resisted desegregation, and I’m interested in why that is.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    From the perspective of a gay man who served in the army. I thought that this article was good; it sums up the mentality/situation brilliantly. This was the way things were when I was in the Canadian army years ago. Its also what I experienced when I was working with the U.S. army years ago. That’s the way it is. How it changes is another matter.

  4. collapse expand

    First, I want to say I have no idea what Brian in NYC is talking about. Describing what you see in no way amounts to condoning it. I think the author has made his opinion very clear.

    Second, I’m wondering if I’m being naive or not in thinking that once this policy is changed, hopefully sooner rather than later, it will end up being no big deal. Things change, people will adjust and years down the road we’ll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. I see it in the same vein as the gay marriage debate in that once the rule is actually changed and people see how little effect it has on them it becomes a non-issue.

    Or will the culture of homophobia that the article states pervades the military ensure that it will be, in fact, a big deal? I honestly think that once the rule is changed, most soldiers wouldn’t care in the slightest about serving with an openly gay comrade. But like I said, maybe I’m being naive.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Eli, I think you’re right. Once the barrier falls down, I don’t think it will be a serious issue. It will change the culture, get absorbed, most likely for the better. There will still be off color jokes, for sure, and likely hazing. But I think you’re right, that after the policy is lifted all will be well.

      What I see as a major friction point: the large percentage of the military that considers themselves evangelical.

      The other point I’ve been thinking about re: how crazy this policy is. Would the kinds of jokes I describe above be allowed in any other branch of the government? Could you imagine Treasury Department officials saying this kind of thing, or folks at the EPA? If they did say it, they’d surely be fired. We should hold the military to the same standards of conduct that we’d expect from other gov’t employees.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    If anyone has seen the astonishing Scots play “Blackwatch” about the Blackwatch regiment in Iraq, you’ll have laughed at the many many homocentric — feaux homophobic — jokes. They are some of the absolutely best laughs in the show. One soldier explains they play gay in front of new recruits to frighten them. On top of that, the actors would hold hands and dance like little girls even before the show started so shock us ushers. Face it, men are sexually playful, are always looking for new ways to be silly, and probably won’t stop if openly gay men are there. Hell they’d probably do a “Bloody Mary” grass skirt and coconuts number just to shock the gays! Then they’d copy our piercing, tat, and shaving styles — wait, they already do!

  6. collapse expand

    Superb post, Michael. You brilliantly capture the atmosphere of the military – and high school locker rooms. I interviewed some Army officials last month and one of them joked about something being “gay”, as in weak. I was awfully tempted to quote him. But if I had challenged him on this, he wouldn’t have understood why I was offended.

  7. collapse expand

    Brian Hughes has responded to your comments at Pam’s House Blend.

    I agree with, and especially with Keori, who responds to him. You seem especially oblivious to the fact that there are women in the mliitary, and that the military has a *huge* problem with misogyny, as evidenced by the high rates of sexual assault and rape followed by victim-blaming, punishment of whistle-blowers, and cover-ups.

    You sound like another privileged straight white male who sees what he wants to see and rationalizes bigotry as “not that bad” because you don’t see the worst of it and none of it’s aimed at you anyway. If you or anyone else want to call that “politically correct,” be my guest, because people who complain about “P.C.” almost never want to examine their own attitudes.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Nobody, I’m not saying misogny isn’t a problem. This wasn’t a post about misogny. See Michael Peck’s post on T/S about the horrible rape statistics.

      Again, I’m not saying the comments aren’t bad, or unfortunate. I’m just examining the how the homophobic culture gets played out on daily basis.

      It’s true, I’m a privileged white male. You got me. But part of that privilege has meant an opportunity to spend time with folks from all walks of life, of all different gender, orientation, race etc. My goal in doing so is to observe, and try to explain what I’m seeing.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    My wife’s father was a DI in the Marines during WW2 and he would recite marching or cadence songs that mocked Blacks and Gays. Going through basic training is the closest most will come to the brainwashing of a cult. I am not saying it is a cult but the idea is to break one down physically and mentally then build you back up with a military mindset. Your fellow soldiers are your brothers. This is necessary for survival in combat but it also has its drawbacks, one is institutionalized bigotry. It is deplorable but worse it is stupid, akin to not allowing women in college or the workplace. It narrows the talent pool. Fehenbech is one of hundreds examples within the military and think of those loyal Americans with plenty to give who can’t even consider joining. There are plenty in the military who laugh at the jokes and we should consider what happens if they don’t?
    There is another subculture in the military, the evangelists who are pushing their agenda quite aggressively. Jeff Sharlet wrote a provocative article, Jesus Killed Mohammed, in May’s Harper’s magazine on the subject. I would recommend it to all interested in the welfare of our troops.

  9. collapse expand

    MH Homophopic attitudes are ramped outside the military. As you said in sports there is nery a play while playing who is out and open. When something is this pervasive it is hard for any body or group to change. After all the very people who have to inact the change have and are the participants.

    While you have given me much food for thought, I agree that in this MAN’S army you will solve the puzzel that is Iraq long before the army truly allows gays to serve openly.

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    I'm the author of "I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story" and a regular contributor to GQ. Previously, I was the Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek magazine. My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, the L.A. Times, and other publications of repute. This blog will focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other newsy foreign-ish things.

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