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Combat And The Politics Of Masculinity

December 28, 2010

There’s more topic in that title than I can deliver right now.

Talking Points Memo carried a reader’s story today:

My wife had a friend in college who was ex-Navy, but was generally pretty vague about what he did in the service. He was also pretty vague about the circumstances of his leaving the service (was he just done, or was he kicked out?), but he was gay and out. Well, as out as a fairly private person in 1990s Mississippi would be. Anyway, their town had just one gay bar, and there was a rash of gay bashings happening. The gang was making plans one Friday night, and he demurred, saying “I think I’m going to go downtown tonight.”

The next day, campus was buzzing about the six frat guys that had ended up in the hospital after a “fight” outside the gay bar. The lone assailant was not named or charged. When asked what he did that night, my wife’s friend just said, “Walked a few friends home.”

That’s all just to say that, yes, there are and have been gay SEALs.

That reminds me of something I read in the local gay press when I was in school a long time ago, which I’ll do my best to recall from memory: “Two men were assaulted Thursday night outside [gay bar in gay nabe] by four white males in a red Jeep Cherokee.  The assailants, one of whom was armed with an aluminum baseball bat, exited the vehicle and hurled anti-gay slogans at the victims before attacking.  One victim suffered minor injuries to his hands and forearms before disarming and driving off the attackers.  Police are seeking information leading to an arrest.”

The stakes for the bigots in DADT always included two big-ticket items: the deference in this culture to military service (which Adam Serwer talked about), and the related but distinct image of toughness that goes with combat.  The deference to service has always been more symbolic than real; we elect leaders who dodged service and then send others off to die while refusing proper care to the veterans who did the fighting; and the loss of three limbs in the service of his country did not dissuade conservatives from smearing Max Cleland, nor did several shrapnel wounds and a Silver Star provoke any respect on the right for Senator Kerry’s service.  And of course the club-within-a-club approach to combat units within the armed services is fully in use to categorically bar women from combat roles without regard to their individual capabilities. 

The bigots are trying the same strategy with GLB service members, and so much of the commentary I’ve seen in the last few weeks traffics in the stereotype that gay men, while they might make fine non-combat troops, can’t be the toughest, hardest special operations troops.  Just one example is the Washington Times piece that TPM reported earlier, quoting a retired SEAL:

I don’t think there is going to be that many of them that want to sign up for SEALs anyway because of the closeness and the tightness of the training. My opinion is that they’re probably more clerical oriented. Medical profession. Corpsmen. Stuff like that.

The subtext is pretty plain, right?  Women and gay men can do support, but only heterosexual men can kill the enemy.  That’s what he’s really saying.  There is, of course, no evidence for this.  In fact, there have always been gay and bi men distributed through the armed forces, but until now they’ve been required to be closeted.  Now that they are about to be permitted to serve openly, the bigots know that the stereotype will die when brought into contact with reality.  Just a few gay or bi or pan or queer men serving in special operations units, when inevitably brought to the public’s attention, will seriously undermine the stereotype, and more, it will produce a group of young het men who served with openly gay or bi or queer men in elite units.  They’re going to be part of a generation that just doesn’t believe any of the bullshit that the bigots need people to believe in order to keep marginalizing the GLBQ population, and the endgame is, at this point, inevitable

There’s a much longer way to go before the GLBQ progress includes the T, though.

(I’ll throw in an aside here about combat and masculinity:  what if one of America’s greatest combat commanders had many qualities typically coded, and derided, as feminine?  What if instead of a poker-faced stoic, he were emotional?  What if he broke down and cried in front of people, or lost his temper?  What if he were a peacock, a fashionista, a vain clotheshorse with a foppish affection for riding breeches and shiny, polished sidearms as accessories?  What if instead of a Gerard Butler growl, he had a high-ish, squeaky voice?  Wait, that already happened.)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2010 8:55 pm

    Yeah, this is pretty much the best take-down of anti-repeal arguments I’ve heard.

    I can understand, culturally, where we get the MESSAGE that gay men can’t fight, but the actual marriage between gay and weak I’ve never really gotten. History’s pretty full of gay warriors who did quite well at butchering their fellow humans.

  2. makomk permalink
    January 1, 2011 6:26 am

    This seems to miss the point somewhat: “The deference to service has always been more symbolic than real; we elect leaders who dodged service and then send others off to die while refusing proper care to the veterans who did the fighting”. The draft itself, and all the ideas of masculinity revolving around both it and military service, have never applied to the rich and powerful – they’ve always been aimed at the poor unwashed masses being sent to die abroad in wars started and controlled by said rich and powerful people. Likewise, “deference to service” and all that BS about “supporting our troops” have never been about supporting the troops themselves, but about supporting the right of our leaders to send them off to die.

    As for what happens if anyone does or says something, anything, that might encourage said masses to question this state of affairs? I assume you’re familiar with Schenck v. United States (the “shouting fire ina a crowded theatre” ruling) and Debs v. United States. The First Amendment doesn’t apply to political speech when that speech challenges the right of the rulers to force the ruled to fight and die violent deaths abroad. Likewise, any attempt by members of the targetted population to avoid the draft were squashed brutally.

  3. Jen permalink
    January 3, 2011 7:30 pm

    The argument I’ve heard (from an ex-friend, straight, Army guy) is far less subtle. His claim was not that gay men are too weak to fight but simply this: The military is full of men who are straight and homophobic. Therefore we should not allow gays in the military.

    Obviously, this is a load of BS. The military probably had lots of racists in it when it was desegregated; but that’s not a compelling argument against desegregation.

  4. ginmar permalink
    January 4, 2011 3:41 am

    I was in combat in Iraq. I’m not gay but I am female and liberal. What happens is that assholes just move the goalposts. The big message is that one has to either get rid of the bigots or otherwise remove them by education and training.

  5. Mel permalink
    December 30, 2011 1:16 am

    This… was great. Thank you for the post. This was a breath of fresh air and I really needed it after wading through the filth at some anti-feminist sites ( – fuck you guys). I’m really glad the Navy Seal took care of his friends.

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