Sunday, May 30, 2010

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Riis Park, and DADT

Perry Brass in May, Battery Park City.

My friend Toby Grace, whom I adore and who is the editor of Out in Jersey, one of my favorite gay papers, and one of its founders, has an interesting weblog on WordPress called, “The End of DADT - The Begining Of The Right to Die For Insanity,”  in which basically he iterates all the reasons why beautiful young gay men should stay out of the service, and by extension, out of war. He’s right: war is not just hell, it’s Shit & Hell. The best thing, in my opinion, ever said about war was from Oscar Wilde. The divine Oscar said: “As long as men feel that war is evil, they will continue doing it. It is only when they realize that it is downright vulgar that will they stop.”

War is downright vulgar. It’s sloppy, ugly, ruthless, and goes directly to the mangled corpse of the human soul.

It’s the game where all rules are off. Which is probably why at heart humans love war. They adore it. It goes back to those scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 when our near-chimp ancestors duked it out with sticks, stones, and bones.

The only problem is that war has outstripped our capacity to control it. We can’t control war no more. (Forget about “I ain’t gonna study war no more!”—that only worked in a Pete Seeger song.)

At one point (certainly up to World War I, although some historians might say I’m washed up here), war was still a vaguely civilized thing. You still had the “Rules of the Game.” Soldiers in nice uniforms did it, and left the civilians alone. They even broke off for things like plowing and harvesting. Wars went on for so long that people forgot what they were about. You had the Hundred Years War and the Thirty Years War, which went on endlessly until even the nobles who were put there for war’s sake got bored and called it off.

War is no longer like that: it involves millions of innocent people of all sorts, from the aged to infants, and the “women and children first” idea is completely kaput.

But resending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is not about war, even vaguely.

What it is mostly about is giving a lot of impoverished kids who are gay the same chance as everyone else. The service has become a minority profession, whether it is a racial minority, an economic one, or a social one. Huge numbers of kids now sign up for the service because the choice is simple: the Army, or Walmart.

And the Army, believe me, wins.

It is no longer the option of the last resort, that is, an option when you have no future option; it is the “option” of the first resort, because at least with the Army you get 1) a chance at learning some skill that might (you hope) result in a real job other than dishing out fries, and 2) a COLA (Cost of Living Allowance) which means that if you get married and have kids (lots of them!), you’re going to be paid more money.

Now, for a lot of striving, professional middle-class people, this sounds ridiculous and about as enticing as Laura Bush’s recipe for Kraft potato salad. Why would you want to have kids in numbers when you can be doing things like taking yoga classes, or getting a degree in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence—at Mom and Dad’s expense of course? But if this not the world you come from, or any part of the world you’ve ever known (in other words, you and Ugly Betty grew up together), even if you are gay (or queer as it’s fashionable now), then kids may be on your horizon, one way or another. And the Army can help you do that, certainly if you’re a man. Being a woman in the Army with kids is, again, Shit-&-Hell. But for many barely surviving minority women, it’s no worse than being outside the Army either.

So what DADT is really saying is that if the Army is your own chosen way out of the mess we now call survival in the US; and/or you are an immigrant from an immigrant family, and your parents and brothers and sisters (and aunts, uncles, and cousins, say) are sleeping in parked cars and picking grapes to stay alive; and/or you actually believe in a patriotic route to the American Dream and that route is the service—and most important you are attracted to your own sex (again, one way or another)—you can combine all of the above without feeling that at any moment you’re going to be drummed out, tarred-and-feathered, and screwed to the wall any time you fall out of the closet even for a nano-second.

So, in a nutshell, DADT is going to be very important for a lot of people.

How I know all of this is simple: as part of my own "Lost Gay New York" life, I was an Air Force “wife” for 3 + years, when I became involved with a handsome young Air Force sergeant whom I’d met in New York when he was on a weekend pass to the city, back in the mid-70s. We met on the bus to Riis Park. I sat next to him and a few minutes later we were talking.

(Talk about Lost Gay New York: who the hell does that now on a bus?)

Riis Park then had a nude section (oh how I miss that!), and soon we ended up in the water together exploring each other, then home in my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. The weekend stretched on for another day, and then he was shipped off to an Air Base in the sticks of what was West Germany. We started writing each other twice a week (real letters, stamps envelopes), and fell in love by mail: a wonderfully romantic process that I would not recommend to my worst enemies. After a year of this, I decided to leave my rent-controlled apartment and go live with him two miles from his base in a small stone house by a brook, in a village with him, 2,000 Germans, 2,000 Airmen, and lots of mooh-cows.

It was a difficult transition. We lasted for about a year and a half together in rural Germany, until I had to go back to the States; we were separated again geographically. After another year, we called it quits: he was stationed in the Midwest, and I’d met the partner I am now with.

But I did get to see what life was like in the service for gay men without being one, and it wasn’t pretty. Although we managed to pull it off, several of Joe’s (I’ll call him) friends were under constant investigation, surveillance, and threats of being disclosed and thrown out: their jobs and careers destroyed, their pensions cut off, their lives ruined.

I got to know at least a dozen gay Airmen (on a base with 2,000 guys, this was not a small number: mostly men met off base in the neighboring towns, and somehow through sheer gaydar connected again back on base), and saw that for many of them the service was their only option. They were not going to be the next Isaac Mizrahi: they were cops, cooks, mechanics, clerks, nurses, lab technicians, grunts, and just plain soldiers. The politics of some of them was slightly to the right of Genghis Khan.

I was shocked by this: I had this naive idea that all gay men were at least somewhat politically liberal. (Ha!) But what I did find was that even back then, among these men, race was not much of an issue across working and friendship lines. For the most part, guys were not judged by the color of their skins, but by how well they did a job which at some point might save your life. I also found that gay Airmen were often more open to mixing with Germans (especially sexually) than straights were, who usually stayed exclusively on the base and among themselves.

I also found that even in the late 1970s a lot of straight men in the service were willing to be friends with men they knew to be gay. You had to work for Uncle Sam (known affectionately as “Uncle Sugar”), and the fact that Uncle Sugar didn’t want you didn’t mean that they didn’t. This did not mean that I never encountered extremes of homophobia: I did. I overheard conversations that turned my stomach, and while I was in Germany a local married German man was murdered by a young Airman who said that the German had made a pass at him when he picked the Airman up hitchhiking. Using the “queer-panic defense” got this kid off: his superiors saw that he was safely shipped back to the States before any case could be built up against him by the German authorities. He got off on “self-defense.” It was horrible. Since I was working as a freelancer for several magazines at the time, I decided to investigate it myself: no one on the base would talk to me, and even the local Germans felt that there was “something not right” about their married neighbor if he had made a pass at the young Airman. (And they believed that story without questioning it.)

So now we’re at Memorial Day weekend, and DADT is working its way out of Congress. I wish its demise to come soon. But no matter what, it won’t be easy for gay, lesbian, and bi men and women in the service. But the real question I feel is what alternatives to the service do they have, and how can we support them?

You can learn more about Perry Brass at his website, . You can order his new book The Manly Art of Seduction from Amazon in regular paper format or on Kindle . You can also learn more about his books at SmashWords , the complete Internet marketplace for all things EBooks and otherwise, and on his Author Page at Amazon. The Manly Art of Seduction was recently named a gold-medal winner of an IPPY Award for 2010, from Independent Publisher. It was also a finalist for a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award.

1 comment:

  1. Perry,

    Somehow I missed this article the first time around. It is a brilliant article and one of the best appeals for the repeal of DADT I've ever read. Now that O'Bama has signed this into law, the real struggle begins as you eluded to in this piece.