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Thursday, November 02, 2006
An e-mail exchange with a friend the other day got me to thinking about sailors, and why they hold a place in my imagination, particularly an erotic place. As a child, growing up in Wyoming and then on Navy bases, it's perhaps understandable that first cowboys and then sailors would come to dominate my early conceptions of masculinity. Cowboys enthralled me as a toddler. It was probably a combination of being surrounded by the trappings of the Western lifestyle in Wyoming and the fact that my heroes were the Lone Ranger and Zorro. But as I grew older, and more adults not related to me came into world, most of those men were sailors.
The result of this was that, as I was becoming aware of sexual feelings within myself, the men I found myself looking at were, more often than not, sailors. That image of the sailor was not only becoming my conception of "what a man looks like" and "what a man acts like" but was also leading to a discovery that what I liked looking at was men. At this point the entire notion of homosexuality was completely foreign to me. I seriously doubt I'd ever even heard of a "gay man" at this point. As far as I could tell, I was the only boy in the world who really enjoyed looking at men and couldn't understand what was so special about looking at girls. Well, me and one other boy in the neighborhood, but that's not a story for here.
My first exposure to the concept of homosexuality was actually in health class. Someone, apparently, had decided that we should have this AIDS business explained to us, because it had been in the news and didn't seem to be going away any time soon. AIDS, we were told, is a disease you catch by being a gay man. A gay man is a man who has sex with other men, instead of with women. So as long as you're not gay, you don't have to worry about AIDS, we were told. As the rest of the class nodded at the sagacity and logic of our teacher, I was deep in thought over something that had never occurred to me: men could have sex with men!
Of course, simply knowing about the existence of gay men didn't make me any more astute necessarily about what I was. Simply knowing that there were such things as homosexuals didn't make me able to spot them. Which is where the sailors come in again. At this time, we were living in Italy, in a small city north of Naples. A good chunk, perhaps even a majority, of the population were American military families and expats from other English speaking nations. Two doors down from our house was a small house that two enlisted men rented. We didn't mix much. They were too old for me to be really concerned with them, and as my dad was an officer, being needlessly social with them wasn't really done. Both men had apparent girlfriends, two young women also in the service, but they only ever seemed to be over about once a month, when the men would throw parties for a small group of enlisted men and women. Eventually one of the men was transferred to another base and the other moved out of the house.
It had never occurred to me at the time, but it now of course seems patently obvious that the sailors were gay, and furthermore a couple. That the "girlfriends" were more likely than not lesbians who also found themselves in need of a convenient cover. And that the parties had such a limited and select guest list out of a sense of self-preservation rather than exclusion. And I don't come to those conclusions out of any desire to sentimentalize my childhood or create some sort of proto-gay role models out of whole cloth. I simply never realized until later that the men had to have been gay. Shortly after they moved out, me and...another boy in the neighborhood, in searching through their empty house and discarded boxes and trash (as we did, often...the sheer number of empty, half-constructed and ruined buildings made our neighborhood into a wonderland for boys in early adolescence), discovered a small garbage bag containing pornographic magazines, all consisting of pictures of naked men and men having sex with other men. It didn't mean anything to me at the time, nor to my friend I would guess, other than that it was porn. Porn of any kind, because of its forbidden nature, was immensely cool. If anything we were pleasantly surprised to discover that there was porn featuring naked men. That the only kind of man who would own gay porn is a gay man never occurred to me until I was older.
Some time after my father retired from the Navy, we talked briefly about the time we lived in Italy. He told me that one of his specific job duties was the investigation of servicemen suspected to be gay. It was not, he told me, a job he enjoyed doing. He'd have much rather the Navy spent time and money discharging stupid people than gay people (a particular favorite example of his was the pilot who kept crashing his plane into trees, refusing to believe the radar operators who told him he was flying too low). From time to time I think about those men. I don't remember their names. I don't even really have a clear memory of what they looked like. When I think of them, I wonder if my father knew what the real story behind them and their girlfriends and parties was. I wonder how my life would have been different if I'd have been aware enough of the world around me to realize that I wasn't the only gay person in the word. Would I have been less frightened of myself, and of the world? Would I have been more confidant as a teen? Would the other boy and I have felt less guilt, shame and terror over the things we were doing?
I often think of those men on those days when I get damn sick and tired of my very existence being used by politicians to exploit the prejudices of their voting base. I think of the unlikelihood of those men finding each other in the first place. I think of those men having to hide the truth of their lives. And I think of what it must have been like for them when they learned that one of them was being transferred. And I marvel that the world is just as petty and stupid now as it was then.