Thursday, March 01, 2007

Gays gone to soldier

Yesterday Iraq vet Eric Alva testified at a Congressional hearing against the U.S. military's exclusion of gays from the Armed Forces. Alva lost his leg on the third day of the Iraq war when he stepped on a land mine during the initial invasion. The former Marine is a charming spokesperson for gay servicepeople:

I have tons and tons of friends that were in the military at the time who knew I was gay because I confided in them. Everybody had the same reaction: "What's the big deal?" . . . The respect was still there. Your job is what you're doing at its best. Your personal life, your private life, is something you do after work. What's funny is, when I was based in San Diego, Calif., people would go to a gay club and everyone would have a haircut like mine. They had their dog tags on. But come Monday morning, nobody talked about it, nobody dealt with it, everybody was back to work.

Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2007

Since coming home he's thought about what he and his buddies were doing over there:

"If you ask how the war changed me, I'd say it's that I am now so against the war," Alva said. "I was a Marine for 12 years and I still feel all Americans have a duty to defend the nation. I went to Iraq because I believed that's what we were doing. That turned out not to be the case."

Alva said he became disillusioned with the shifting reasons given for fighting in Iraq and the lack of any clear-cut end goals. He does not, however, believe in the peace movement's goals of bringing every troop home immediately.

"I support the troops; I don't support the cause," he said. "I'd pick up a rifle and go back if I could, but I know from conversations with friends still in the Marines that they've grown disillusioned, too."

Kansas City Star, Feb. 27, 2007

Sounds like a good guy who kept his word and sticks by his friends, just the kind of person anyone but the homophobic U.S. military would want for a soldier.

The current moment, when the Army has been forced to raise its age limit and lower its educational standards in order to keep the flow of cannon fodder coming, seems like a good time to campaign for the end of "Don't Ask; Don't Tell." Interestingly, the Clinton-era exclusion policy that was enshrined into law by a cowardly Congress makes it harder for the armed forces to do what they've historically done in time of war: just pretend the queers aren’t there and let them serve as long as the military needed them. Later they got booted.

The late journalist Randy Shilts chronicled this pattern in Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military, published in 1993. During Gulf War I, some particularly over-the-top practices included commanders seeking waivers to allow the inclusion of HIV-positive soldiers in combat units (some of these were the same commanders who had once sought to discharge the same soldiers). Gay Arabic linguists who'd been purged in the previous decade were begged to re-up. "A lesbian [medical] reservist told her commanding officer she was gay and the Air Force demanded she produce a marriage license showing a woman as a spouse to prove it." No, there was no jurisdiction issuing such a thing, then.

Shilts insisted

the military seemed less determined to rid the services of gays than to make it appear that no homosexuals served.

Keeping up appearances is harder to pull off now, when gay marriage really is on the national agenda and polls show most citizens see no reason for the military to exclude gays. It may be that the armed forces actually have to police their ranks more rigorously now to keep gays under wraps, since gays have less need of the closet in civilian life.
Personal post-script: this has never been my issue. Why gays should define the right to kill people for the U.S. government and elites as a central mark of full citizenship is beyond me. The Shilts book contains a completely false story of a pacifist punching out a gay vet at a lesbian conference in 1991 -- I was the pacifist and the fight didn't happen, though quite a few of us did successfully filibuster her attempt to speak from the main stage about her proud accomplishments in Iraq. In 1993 at the Gay March on Washington, my partner and I gave away hundreds of bright green stickers reading "Homosexual not Homicidal -- Fuck the Army." They were very popular.

This is a different time and perhaps I'm a slightly different person. These days, I am overwhelmed with horror about how poorly our government treats its soldiers. They lie to them (as Eric Alva learned), use them up, and throw them away, as many media outlets have been documenting recently in reference to Walter Reed Hospital. They don't even equip them properly for their fights. Along with Iraqis, U.S. soldiers are victims of this war whose only beneficiaries are neocon politicians, the profiteers and the oil companies.

But I still don't see why getting into the Army is a first tier gay issue.

(H/t America Blog for the picture with caption.)


sfmike said...

You certainly do get around. I love the bumper-sticker phrase "Homosexual not Homicidal." And Randy Shilts never did get anything right, from his stupid Patient Zero fantasy to the story about you. Oh, well.

I also share your ambivalence about military inclusion being a "first tier" gay issue, but it is important, just on a class basis. The military is still the only way some poor young people can get out of their small towns, and enlisting in what amounts to a single-sex institution tends to attract quite a few "questioning" young characters. When they do figure it out, they shouldn't be penalized in their careers.

Having said that, I personally have always felt happy that I didn't have to get married or join the military because there was a readymade excuse. I'm a homo.

janinsanfran said...

I was rather fond of Randy, but in this he was cribbing from a not-very bright lesbian journalist and so the story started. The book however documents a lot of stuff we aren't supposed to know or remember so I'm sorry it seems to be out of print.

Yes -- the military has been an escape hatch for lots of gay kids who figured out the awful truth later -- sort of like some religious vocations. :-) Wish it did as good a job today of creating upper mobility opportunities as it did 60 years ago when the GI bill meant something.

sfmike said...

I didn't care for Randy, partly because of his public sanctimoniousness about gay male promiscuity while privately he was indulging in same.

And as far as upward mobility, who knows? Maybe the new career path paradigm is lowly-paid soldier-for-hire for the United States graduating to highly-paid soldier-for-hire by Halliburton et al. Depressing but possibly true.

Arcturus said...

Enjoyed how you weave several things here - I like 'messy' stories myself.

60 years ago when the GI bill meant something

which also accounted for other good stuff unrelated to upward mobility, like the influx of students at the SF Art Institute after the war . . .

unfortunately, mikeis probably right that mercenary work is the only upwardly mobile option left for them now

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