On Being Drafted

Published in: January-February 2014 issue.


EVERY AUGUST around the 25th I fall into a peculiar mood that puzzles me until I realize that it was the day on which I was conscripted by the U.S. Army. In the summer of 1966 the Vietnam War was on, and I did not want to go there. But turning eighteen, I’d been carrying a small, blue-and-white card signed by a woman named Dorothy S. Milberger, whose address was a draft board in the Qui Si Sana Hotel in Green Cove Springs, Florida. The hotel’s exotic name went with my conception of her as a goddess in a Greek myth: Fate itself. Every fall I’d had to tell her where I was and what I was doing, which was why I’d gone to graduate school—to get a deferment—and why, when I decided to drop out, I knew the jig was up. Trying to get into the Navy at the last minute, I flunked the hearing test, and literally shit in my pants during some phone call to someone about the matter. But nothing worked; one day at dawn, at the end of August, I was driven to Jacksonville and put on a bus to Fort Benning, Georgia.

Had I checked the box marked “Homosexual Tendencies,” it would have gotten me out of the Army instantly; but I could not admit that I was gay to my parents, or to the country in which I lived. Anything was better than that. (Even death?) In 1966, homosexuality was not only grounds for being excluded from the Armed Forces, it could keep you from getting certain jobs in the civilian sector, certainly any that required a security clearance. The thinking was that a homosexual could not be trusted with secrets because his own secret left him subject to blackmail. That was why I did not check the box: it would have made me a pariah, or, at the very least, narrowed my options in life.

But I left the box blank for another reason: I didn’t agree with society’s low estimate of me. In fact, I was certain that I’d been drafted because I was homosexual. The logic went like this: since I was homosexual, I was not starting a family (which earned you a deferment), or a career (another deferment) to feed them. I was the sole supporter of nobody, drifting and unmotivated, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And if I didn’t know what to do with my life, the Army did; because, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it: “All societies are founded on the blood of young men.”

The Army—which has always relaxed standards when it needed bodies and raised them when it didn’t—was progressive in at least one way: the integration of whites and blacks. Otherwise, it was about as homophobic as, well, the recruits themselves. Lying on my bunk in the barracks waiting for sleep, I had to listen to my bunkmate talk lyrically about the joys of cunnilingus. But I had fallen in love with a fellow draftee already, so badly that to ease the ache I was writing poems in the little notebook in which I was supposed to take notes at lectures on the bayonet. The reason he and I would sneak off to an empty barracks after breakfast was to snooze some more, but a rumor started that we were having sex. After basic training, having been assigned to Fort Benning, an older clerk started calling me “Daisy” until one of the civilian secretaries intervened. But when I was sent to Germany and walked into a personnel office in Heidelberg, my ordeal was over when a queen from Boston with gaydar got me assigned to headquarters. He even took me downtown to my first gay bar: the Whiskey à Go-Go.

So when they broadcast the hearings on the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy thirty years later, I was torn between amusement and contempt. In 1993, it was still assumed not only that homosexuals couldn’t keep secrets but that they couldn’t keep their hands off their fellow soldiers: the poor GI who had just dropped his soap in the communal shower. Imagine a nuclear submarine, said the unctuous Senator Nunn of Georgia, with a homosexual on board! One got the impression listening to Nunn and Colin Powell that American soldiers were as fragile as pubescent girls. No matter that the Dutch and the Israelis had long since allowed homosexuals to serve. American men were apparently more susceptible.

What was really under threat, of course, was not the sailors who dropped their soap in the shower; it was the very sanctity of masculinity itself. If homosexual males could serve in the Army along with heterosexuals, then what made the latter men? (Compare today’s complaint that the new unisex hats for the Marine Corps are too “girly.”) The argument that allowing homosexuals into the service would lower the troops’ morale sounded a lot like the argument against letting Negroes move into a white neighborhood. To be a heterosexual male soldier was a glorious thing; let us not sully it with fags.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which went into effect on February 28, 1994, solved the problem by codifying the closet: If a service member did not declare himself gay, the Army would not investigate—a situation that had prevailed for decades, including World War II, when, as Allan Bérubé documented in Coming Out Under Fire, thousands of gay Americans found themselves far from home in the company of other gay people for the first time in their lives. How could we know that the draft (which I imagined had expropriated my life) would liberate us? Being secretly homosexual in the Army was easy (see James Lord’s My Queer War). I remember standing in a general’s office one day listening to the most effeminate man I’ve ever encountered, a general’s secretary, jabbering on in such a way that the general had to know what he was dealing with. Perhaps he didn’t. At any rate, like the Purloined Letter, we were hidden in plain sight.

Even now that DADT has been repealed, I suspect that being out in the Army still depends on the people one is working with. There is a real sting to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in a piece in The New York Times mocking the idea that “openly gay soldiers pressing buttons in Nevada to obliterate Somali villages means homophobia is on the wane.” There are multiple ironies here. But as African Americans knew, there’s no better way to cement one’s position in a culture than to be willing to kill for it. In wanting not to be marginalized, the gay movement has tried to assure heterosexuals that they are human beings just like them: they want to marry, serve in the Army, and have kids. But still: who would ever have predicted that gay liberation would become inextricably entangled with the urge to enlist? One could even argue that the Army is discriminatory now not because  of sexual orientation but because the draft has been abolished. The way it works now, the majority of Americans experience nothing when we send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan; we’re paying surrogates, the way men did in the Civil War, to do the awful work of killing for us. It’s another case of gay assimilation leaving everything as it was. What is the answer to Martin Duberman’s question: Why would gays want to serve in the military? Many of us did everything we could to avoid it.

So, not long ago when I saw the photograph of the former Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning in her blond wig looking out at us through the window of a car taking her to prison—the ability of the Army to whisk one away!—my first reaction was that here was just another of the gay clerks who, in my experience, ran the Army. At the same time, the photograph was beyond anything a drag queen could have staged—it was Myra Breckenridge. Chelsea (whose father was, like Edward Snowden’s, a military man) was the nightmare of the heterosexual patriarchy: a homosexual betraying secrets and dissolving the boundary between male and female.

What was going on? The answer to Martin Duberman’s question undoubtedly has something to do with wanting full citizenship—though Chelsea seems to have entered the Army for the oldest reason in the book: her life was a mess—one of the main reasons people have joined armies in every country, in every century. But she went on, you could argue, to make it more of a mess by revealing secrets—secrets that had nothing to do with her sexuality. Or did they? One has to wonder, because the next person to be involved in the leaking of classified information was also gay: an American journalist named Glenn Greenwald living with his boyfriend in Brazil when he helped Snowden expose the NSA to the media.

Of course, one can argue that revealing these kinds of secrets has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Snowden is straight. Countless gay people have served in the U.S. Armed Forces over the years—before, during, and after “Don’t ask, don’t tell”—without ever doing what Manning and Greenwald did. But one wonders how they will be perceived. Earlier this year Greenwald told The New York Times: “When you grow up gay, you are not part of the system, it forces you to evaluate: ‘Is it me, or is the system bad?’” Which raises the question: do Manning and Greenwald embody a post-assimilationist psychology? Will gay people now choose targets of rebellion that have nothing to do with gay rights? Is the rejection of secrecy that fueled the repeal of DADT taking a new twist? It’s all about secrets, when you think about it.

In 1966 one could refuse to check the box admitting homosexual tendencies because one did not want to be outed and marked “Damaged Goods.” There were, of course, gay men who did check the box, who were, you could say, brought out of the closet by the War in Vietnam. (Foreign wars have so many unforeseen domestic consequences.) Now that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is history, one no longer has to hide one’s sexual orientation. But this time Manning and Greenwald were rebelling against another kind of secrecy.


Andrew Holleran’s latest book is Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath.