'Conduct Unbecoming': In Defense of Gays on the Front Line

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

' Conduct Unbecoming" could not be more timely. Randy Shilts' epic about gays in the military will hit the bookstores in mid-April, smack in the middle of the six-month period President Clinton gave the Department of Defense to come up with a plan to end discrimination in the armed forces against homosexuals. Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on the issue begin today.

Shilts' book shows that there have always been gay men and lesbians in the American military, many serving with distinction, and that there has always been hostility toward gays in the military, reaching a peak with officially sanctioned purges during the Reagan Administration.

The book's publication date was shifted from October to April in part to influence and capitalize on the debate and in part because Shilts has been hospitalized for the past two months with a collapsed lung and other complications of AIDS.

At 700-plus pages--even bulkier than Shilts' landmark 1987 bestseller about the AIDS epidemic, "And The Band Played On"--"Conduct Unbecoming" will inevitably be called monumental, and it is too big and too good not to be a major force in the debate.

Shilts' moving stories of gay and lesbian servicemen and women pressured to denounce other gays and threatened with prison terms will make it much more difficult to defend the current policy. Whatever readers think about keeping gays out of the military, they'll see that the policy has often been enforced cruelly and capriciously.

Shilts starts right off by outing Baron von Steuben, the Prussian officer who whipped George Washington's troops into shape after Valley Forge and was largely responsible for the final victory against the British at Yorktown.

In the military history of the last 50 years, where Shilts concentrates his effort, there is obviously no precise record of who was gay. Most homosexuals had to hide, and Shilts must sometimes fall back on phrases such as "rumor has it. . . ."

Interviewers will most likely press Shilts to prove assertions like: "The most elite staff of all, General William Westmoreland's own, was among those with the most gay officers," or another significant, even astounding, statement about recent history, for which Shilts does not give a source: "Every service has had at least one gay person at four-star rank since 1981, and at least one gay man has served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in that time."

Another item for the "Conduct Unbecoming" guessing game will surely be Shilts' claim that "recent gay general staff officers have included one Army four-star general who served as head of one of the most crucial military missions of the 1980s."

Shilts goes so far as to out a ship as "the gayest ship in the Navy," the USS LaSalle, based in the Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain and flagship of the U.S. Navy's Persian Gulf fleet. Crew members from the late '70s and early '80s estimated that at least 60% of the 500-member crew was gay.

Where possible, however, Shilts is careful to give sources, although the evidence is necessarily anecdotal and not statistical. His intention is not to out particular people but rather to set the record straight in response to the official line that there are not now and never have been gays in the U.S. armed forces.

Ten years ago, a two-star general, whose glittering name Shilts does supply as his punch line, made a strong defense of gay exclusion for the court record in a gay-rights case.

But off the record, to a lawyer on the case later interviewed by Shilts, the general "unofficially admitted he expected that the regulations would fall within a few years. He added that would be fine with him, because he knew many fine gay soldiers." That general was Norman Schwarzkopf.

Shilts dismisses the argument that gays are susceptible to blackmail as a meaningless relic of the McCarthy Era. (One recruit, Perry Watkins, who told the Army he was gay when he was drafted in 1968, had to laugh when he was later informed he was a security risk; he regularly performed in full drag at officers' parties.)

Shilts argues that, for the services, accepting gays is more a public relations problem than a question of morale or morality. The military, he contends, "is less concerned with having no homosexuals in the service than with having people think there are no homosexuals in the service."

Sometimes gay service people display unusual bravery because they have something to prove. One moving example is Jess Jessop, a Navy hospital corpsman from Baltimore who, unsure of his sexual identity, he told Shilts, volunteered at 21 in order to prove he was a real man.

In despair as he realized he was homosexual, he extended his enlistment and volunteered to go to Vietnam with a Marine unit. During a fire fight, with Marines dying around him, he ran toward a machine-gun nest, hoping to be killed. Because he took the time to fire a second shot into the enemy gunner, Jessop blamed himself for allowing a wounded Marine beside him to die. He declined the Silver Star.

Having service people with a strong need to prove themselves is probably not a liability. In the late 1980s, Vice Admiral Joseph S. Donnell, commander of the Navy's Atlantic fleet, composed a memo exhorting his staff to ferret out and discharge lesbian sailors.

He offered this tip for identifying lesbians: "Experience has shown that the stereotypical female homosexual in the Navy is hard-working, career-oriented, willing to put in long hours on the job and among the command's top professionals."

The villains in Shilts' story are the Naval Investigative Service and the Army Office of Special Investigations, which, as he sees it, went after gays because it was easier than dealing with drug dealers or more violent offenders.

Shilts' informants in those agencies include a young gay woman trainee in the NIS and a gay male veteran of the OSI, neither of whom was recognized as gay by colleagues. But Shilts didn't have to dig deep to discover an astonishing waste of time and money, and behavior ranging from foolish to brutal.

At one point NIS agents in and around Chicago fanned out to gay bars known to attract military personnel and began asking searching questions about someone named Dorothy. Homosexuals, they had learned, often referred to themselves as "Friends of Dorothy." The investigators didn't recognize the phrase as an allusion to the Judy Garland character in "The Wizard of Oz."

The investigative tactics are offensive; the waste of resources is maddening. An Air Force captain Shilts interviewed estimated that it had cost the service $4 million to $5 million to train him, figuring in the cost of jet fuel and aircraft time--money lost when he was forced to resign.

Not surprisingly, the services were not prepared to handle the problem of AIDS with compassion. In this section of the book, Shilts is at his sharpest and most authoritative. In general, servicemen who fell ill with AIDS in the mid-1980s were not medically retired, as service people with serious diseases customarily are, but separated, without pension or medical benefits, on grounds of homosexuality--as if AIDS were proof.

For all the seriousness of its subject, "Conduct Unbecoming," is surprisingly engrossing, entertaining and optimistic. Shilts is obviously a great interviewer, alert to those moments when people describe their humiliation or pain, and highly aware of ironic juxtapositions and funny details.

And he's certainly not a reflexive radical. He sharply criticizes the gay activists who were loath to support one gay recruit because they didn't sympathize with his desire to return to the armed forces.

"Conduct Unbecoming" is at its heart a patriotic book, full of respect for the men and women who are good soldiers and sailors. To hold the kind of outrage Shilts has and to persist in writing 700-some pages on the subject, an author has to have strong expectations that things can get better.

Former President Bush's secretary of defense, Richard Cheney, questioned by gay congressman Barney Frank, didn't defend the policy of excluding gays. Instead he answered, "I pilot a big ship. It takes a long time to turn it around." Shilts' work here is one very powerful tugboat pushing on the bow of that ship.

CONDUCT UNBECOMING: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military, By Randy Shilts , (St. Martin's Press: $26.95)

Military Gays: A Timely Epic

"Conduct Unbecoming," Randy Shilts' epic about gays in the military, could not be more timely. Reviewer Constance Casey points out that it will hit the bookstores in mid-April--right in the middle of the six-month period President Clinton gave the Department of Defense to come up with a plan to end discrimination against homosexuals in the armed forces.

"Conduct Unbecoming," Casey writes, will inevitably be called "monumental."

"Shilts' moving stories of gay and lesbian servicemen . . . will make it much more difficult to defend the current policy. Whatever readers think about keeping gays out of the military, they'll be convinced that the policy has often been enforced cruelly and capriciously."

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