Ask; They’ll Tell

Ask; They’ll Tell September 20, 2011

I don’t imagine there will be much rejoicing in these quarters over the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which went into effect at 12:01 this morning. I had planned, by way of offering consolation, to blog on the career of Prince Eugene of Savoy-Carignan, whose armies won back a big share of Eastern Europe from the Turks, and a good-sized slice of Western Europe from the French. I’d always had the idea he was gay, but when I checked, I discovered the evidence in that direction was slight. Elizabeth Charlotte, Duchess of Orleans, said Eugene had participated in gay liaisons during his childhood at Versailles, but she said this after he’d defeated France’s armies in the field. In other words, she had incentive to say anything that would, given the temper of the times, have blackened his reputation.

It’s true that, in later life, Eugene’s apparent indifference to women earned him the nickname “Mars Without Venus,” but then, 18th-century high society could match Death Row Records for machismo. Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, made a mistress of a woman whom he’d begotten on one of his earlier mistresses. If you weren’t into that kind of thing, people were bound to scratch their wigs over it.

What I have instead are the testimonials of some men and women who, thanks to repeal, now have hope of remaining in, or re-entering, the armed forces. NPR features Marine Corps Major Darrell Choat, who entered the service at the ancient age of 34 and served two deployments to Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Choat’s no Prince Eugene (nor even a Frederick the Great, about whose sexuality historians have yet to reach a solid consensus). The most striking thing about him is his average-ness — no radical ideology seems to have the slightest bearing on his thinking or actions. As he has written of himself, “I am a patriotic American. I am an officer of the Marines who loves country, Corps and my Marines. I am doing the best to serve proudly and honorably and I happen to be gay.”

What first won me over, many years ago, to the cause of repeal was the late Randy Shilts’ Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf War. With one exception — a man later denounced by his commanding officer to researcher B.G. Burkett in Stolen Valor as “the goofball of the Vietnam War” — all the subjects seemed to have squared-away, button-down, corporate-type personalities. Before that, I had gotten into the habit of imagining gays (though not, to the same extent, lesbians), as bearers of disorder, lords of misrule — envigorating for the art world, and perhaps even for society as a whole, but not necesarily for the military. Shilts taught me just how reductive my thinking had been: some gays are just plain bland.

Dan Choi, however, does not seem to be one of them. The former U.S. Army lieutenant and Arabic linguist has confessed to playing the “attention whore” in his role as full-time activist for repeal. Along the way, he has been arrested for handcuffing himself to the White House fence, and for participating in the Moscow Pride demonstration in defiance of a municipal ban.

Choi’s uncompromising nature has made him — well, to put it in Army terms, a movement of one. According to a GlobalPost profile reprinted in Salon, Choi’s desire to re-enter the service has ensured “he doesn’t have many friends in the anti-war community.” He has told his mother that if she won’t come to his gay wedding, he won’t come to her straight funeral. He also intends to cancel his remaining disability benefits, though he believes he may suffer from “mild traumatic brain injury.”

It’s a fascinating read, that profile — if for no other reason than that it spells out the temptations, as well as the terrors, of the activist life.

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