Meet a few good men—some of whom are gay.
Originally published in The Boston Globe and IndyWeek.
JACKSONVILLE, N.C.—I WALK UP to the bar at the Lucky Lady Night Club and order a Bud Light. Immediately, the woman on the next stool drops her hand, landing it square on my thigh. Early 40s, Filipina, nearly naked, she introduces herself as Lydia. I can barely hear her for the rock ‘n’ roll.
“Come sit with me,” she says, motioning toward a dark booth near the runway. “I’m a dancer.” She peels back her sleeveless dress to show me her cleavage, then pulls up her miniskirt to show me her black panties. “Buy me a beer. I like you.”
“I’m gonna walk around,” I say.
“You break my heart,” she replies sourly.
I walk to the front of the lounge, where a handful of the 45,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune play pool. One of them is blond, winsome, 23 years old. He wears pink and black Spandex running shorts that peek through the gaping tears in his blue jeans. He wants to talk. His name is Cpl. Corey Lafreniere.
He’s a man of strong opinions. He hates homosexuals. He wants to kill them.
“There’s no place in our corps for queers,” he says. “No place.”
I ask why, and he looks at me like I just asked why the sun rises every morning. “Because they’re queer—I don’t know.” He pounds his hand on the table. “What ever happened to right and wrong? If you let those people in, where’s your morals?”
I ask him about the incident that drew me to this macho coastal city. On Jan. 30, police arrested three Camp Lejeune Marines for beating a gay man outside a bar in Wilmington, N.C., 50 miles away. According to some witnesses, the Marines were shouting, “Fag, you should die!” and “Tell Bill Clinton about this!” as they fractured the victim’s skull and knocked out a tooth.
Lafreniere is quick to defend his fellow Marines. He warned me that if Clinton persists in “tarnishing” the Marine Corps by lifting the military ban on homosexuals, the Wilmington beating will seem like a friendly neighborhood rumble. “I guarantee you there would be some killings,” he says. “It wouldn’t bother me a bit.”
“I’d do it myself,” he adds.
He looks like such an innocent, this leatherneck from small-town New Hampshire. As he says these hateful words, I look into his blue eyes and see something beyond the anger. I see fear.
Does homosexuality scare you? I ask.
“Yes, a lot.” Then he catches himself, starts to backpedal. “I don’t know if it scares me. It bothers me.”
I don’t fully understand, I tell him. You’ve survived boot camp. You’ve faced the Saudi Arabian desert. You’ve shown repeated physical bravery. Why does it scare you so much to serve next to a gay man?
“I don’t know what it is,” Lafreniere says. “I just know deep inside I wouldn’t work with one. I’d take my stripes and turn them in and get out.”
He’s never met a gay soldier, to his knowledge. He never met anyone gay, he says. But one night he and his buddies went to a club in Wilmington, and he didn’t realize they were the only straight men there. Just like the guys charged with last month’s beatings.
After he realized he was in a gay bar, Lafreniere waited an excruciating half hour before his friends finished their beers. He spent the entire time clutching a bottle for dear life. “If one of those guys came on to me, I would have hit ’em with it,” he says.
Was he afraid of being manhandled that night? Not really, he says. So exactly what was he afraid of?
“Them. Just.” He pauses. “You hate somebody so bad, when you’re there, you’re just uncomfortable.”
THE LATE AFTERNOON HOST ON WJNC-AM has a happy-talk voice and an easy rapport with her listeners. “Isn’t this wonderful that there has been an issue that has galvanized the American people?” she asks. Her caller agrees emphatically.
She’s talking about how wrong it would be to allow lesbians and gay men into the military. “It’s the point of conversation everywhere you go,” Lafreniere had told me. “Every office is talking the same thing. Everyone feels the same.”
I pull off Lejeune Boulevard into the parking lot of a white cinderblock building. Located discreetly behind an abandoned gas station, Friends Lounge is the only spot where Jacksonville’s lesbian and gay soldiers can safely gather. Twelve years ago, the military declared the club off-limits, but owner Danny Leonard estimates two-thirds of his customers are Marines.
It hasn’t always been easy for soldiers to visit Friends Lounge. The Naval Investigative Service has parked outside and copied license-plate numbers. Some customers park at a McDonald’s and walk blocks to the bar. Leonard sometimes shuttles groups of soldiers to the lounge—they lie on the floor of his van for protection—and then holds up a sheet to shield their faces as they enter the building.
One night when the military was staking out the bar, Leonard let 123 Marines sleep in the basement. Next morning, he drove to Hardee’s and bought biscuits for the whole bunch.
I expected to find a few dinner-hour customers chatting at Friends Lounge. Instead, I am met by the floodlights of a camera crew. MTV has descended on Jacksonville to film a segment on gay in uniform for “This Week in Rock.”
Tonight, the hero of Friends Lounge is Sgt. Justin Elzie, a buzz-cut Marine who announced his homosexuality on national television hours before the Wilmington beating. Sitting against a backdrop, Elzie answers the MTV reporter’s banal questions about whether gays really stare at other Marines in the showers. (The consensus here is that straight men are the ones sizing one another up.)
Elzie talks about the response to his national coming-out. Monday, when he walked into work, he was questioned by his superiors and met silence from his co-workers. Over the next three days, everyone started lightening up. There’s been no overt hostility, he says. “I don’t regret a thing.”
If Elzie’s friends admire his courage, no one has lined up to follow his lead. During the taping, a 21-year-old corporal named Darren walks in. He looks like someone I might have seen at the Lucky Lady: 6-foot-4, broad-shouldered, a crew cut with sloppy bangs. A bit starched in his demeanor, or maybe that’s just the camouflage he wears. He describes the past week as “hell.”
With all the national attention, “the persecution has doubled, tripled,” he says. “It’s bad.”
This afternoon, Darren was working on his computer as his entire chain of command was meeting in the same room. “Once they got behind closed doors, they thought it was OK to say faggot this and faggot that,” he says. Darren kept his mouth shut; none of his superiors know he’s gay.
Sometimes he wonders how long he’ll be able to suppress his secret.
“I just want to get in their face and say, ‘Look, I’m a homosexual and I’ve been busting my ass for three years, and you have no idea.” But he won’t. “I have two and a half years left in the military. It wouldn’t do me any good to tell them.”
As Darren relaxes, he starts to peel off his emotional camouflage. His shoulders lose their military bearing. He lapses into the campy girl talk that gay men have long used to cope with the outside world. He punctuates sentences by lifting his arm over his head and snapping his fingers. Gay semiotics.
Camouflage is nothing new to lesbian and gay soldiers, who have worked hard to blend in, to create an image of heterosexuality. In fact, during World War II, the military singled out gay soldiers to become camouflage artists, according to historian Allan Berube. Coming from civilian jobs as window dressers and fashion designers, they understood the art of illusion.
In the 1940s Air Force show “You Bet Your Life,” the camouflage artists sang this song:
It’s so confusing,
But so amusing,
Are nature’s own scheme
Though we’re like mirages
We’re all camouflages—
Things Are Not What They Seem.
AT FRIENDS LOUNGE, I TALK BRIEFLY with a lesbian Marine, a painfully shy woman with long black hair and a leather jacket. Lesbians have long taken the brunt of the military’s anti-gay policies; women get booted from the Marines at a rate six times higher than men. This time around, she says, the focus has shifted. “The people I work with don’t think it affects them in any way,” she tells me.
This time around, it’s about male sexuality.
Across town, at the Mardi Gras lounge, a lance corporal named Jim puts a quarter in the jukebox and “Seminole Wind” fills the near empty room. The green chipboard walls are covered with posters of sultry women in haystacks, on mountains, on beaches. Women holding bottles of Coors, Keystone Light, Miller Dry.
Jim and his friend Glenn, both 22, seem an unlikely pair. Jim has long lashes, a wisp of a mustache, a cute face. Glenn is tubby, wears glasses, looks like the president of his high-school science club. Glenn knows gay men from his time living in Monterey, Calif. Though he supports the ban, he wouldn’t mind serving with gays, even sharing a foxhole with one.
“It’s a pretty touchy subject,” he says. “I don’t have any problems with gays myself. But a lot of people in the military, they’re gonna flip about it. They’re gonna beat the hell out of gays.”
Jim, on the other hand, seems like one of the Marines who might flip. He imagines trying to sleep in a foxhole—the kind he dug in Saudi Arabia—with a homosexual. Waking up to feel a hand on his leg. Going berserk with fear and rage. His body shakes at the thought.
“The gun’s gonna be right here,” Jim says, holding his fist to his chest. “The gun’s gonna be on the enemy, but it’s gonna be on you, too. You put a hand on my leg, and I put a round or two into you.”
I try to prod Jim a bit. Let’s talk about reality, I say. No one’s going to proposition you in a foxhole. More likely, an old buddy will pull you aside nervously. He’ll confess he’s been checking you out, and wondering if you’ve been doing the same.”
Something clicks inside Jim. Oh, his buddy. They’ve worked side by side for years. They’ve endured boot camp, maybe even combat. His buddy. That would be different.
“I’d probably sit there for a while, thinking,” he replies, slowly. “Then I’d say, ‘Hell man, it’s cool, but I ain’t checkin’ you out.”
No surprise Jim carries an image of gay men as sexual predators. In Jacksonville by night, everyone is a predator. This is a city run on testosterone, a city where whorehouses, tattoo parlors, and “all-girl staff” nightclubs beckon with their plastic signs. How many straight Marines have walked into the bars along U.S. 17 and immediately felt a hostess’ hand or their legs? Or visited the “adult relaxation center” that boasts, “No fat or ugly girls here?”
These are kids just out of high school. They have limited sexual experience. Suddenly they enter a world where sex is crude and public. No wonder they think gays will be grabbing at them in the shower.
After I close my notebook, we talk awhile. I find myself liking Jim and Glenn. They treat me with respect and defend me against a drunken customer. At one point, I say something funny. Jim throws his head back and laughs. Then, in the most innocent of ways, he touches my leg.
NEAR ONE OF THE ENTRANCES to Camp Lejeune sits the Beirut Memorial, a stone monument to the soldiers who died in Lebanon. In the fifth column, five names down, is JOSEPH MILANO, USN. He died with 240 others during the 1983 suicide car-bombing.
I’ve seen his photo. Lovely smile. Bush mustache. Dressed in camouflage. Gay.
It’s 6:30 a.m. I’m sitting in a cluttered apartment, drinking coffee with the lover Milano left behind. Don, a sergeant, has a “Silence=Death” poster and a rainbow flag on his wall. He also has a framed photograph of one of his role models, Gen. Colin Powell.
The straight Marines don’t know Don’s gay. Well, he says, “maybe they suspect.”
He flashes back 10 years. Stationed in Okinawa. No one told him Milano had died. He read about the week-old bombing in the base newspaper. When he learned which troop was involved, his heart started racing. He called the United States at 2 a.m. and impersonated a chaplain. That’s when he learned the news.
“That was devastating,” he says. There was no one with whom he could share his grief. “You can’t go to your mates.” He invented a story about losing his pregnant girlfriend in a car wreck. But the military wouldn’t grant him emergency leave to attend the funeral.
“I made a decision after Joe died that I would never go back into that closet,” Don says. He still reveals little about his personal life, but he now debates the gay issue with his workmates, drawing parallels to the oppression Marines fight worldwide. “I stand very firm on my views,” he says.
These are frustrating times, according to Don. “But then again, it’s very challenging and exciting.” For 10 years Don has been afraid to discuss the issue openly, but now President Clinton has forced a national debate. Finally, Don can begin to take a public stand.
“All the Clinton administration has done,” he says, “is put a mirror in front of America so it can take a look at its own hatred.”