I’ve been commuting more alone lately, since Hanna and I switched schedules due to the advent of the new semester and Hanna’s new job at the Countway Medical Library), and because of that and also because of metadata entry at Northeastern, I’ve been listening to a lot more NPR than I have had the chance to for a while. Last week, I happened to catch this segment on Talk of the Nation regarding the American military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay and lesbian service members.
The strange history of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the position of queer service members as openly closeted (is that the best way to describe it?) is probably not unfamiliar to y’all. The good news: I was impressed with the number of eloquent military folks who phoned into the show supporting the repeal and affirming that a person’s sexual orientation has no bearing on their ability to serve. Several spoke in no uncertain terms about the burden of responsibility should not be placed on queer folks, but upon the military structure for disciplining and educating folks who exhibit homophobic behavior.
The piece I actually want to comment (rant?) a little about in this post is the commentary of retired Lt. Col. Bob McGinnis, who was part of the task force that originally studied the issue in 1993. What he circled around, and didn’t quite actually say in several exchanges, was that he’s squeeked out by the idea of non-straight folks sharing dorms and showers with straight folks of the same sex.
I really don’t understand this. Or rather, I don’t understand how the solution of segregating folks by sexual orientation for sleeping arrangements makes sense to anyone. You feel uncomfortable around people who might find you sexually attractive? Okay, everyone’s allowed their own subjective experience. But what I find fascinating is that these folks don’t seem to understand that regardless of whether they know they move through a world of diverse sexual orientations they do: this is not about allowing non-straight folks to serve in the military. This is about allowing non-straight folks who already serve to be honest about their orientation without fear of official reprisal. Do guys like Lt. Col. McGinnis not understand that they shared dorms and showers with gay and bi men when they were active soldiers? Do they not understand that they share their swimming pool locker room, sauna, spa, with non-straight guys in various states of undress? I’m just . . . baffled.
I wonder, sometimes, if we grew up in a culture with more casual, non-sexualized nudity whether this would just not present as much of a problem. In America, so many people seem to think naked automatically equals “nekkid,” or nakedness in a sexual context. We strictly segregate men and women, boys and girls, from one another in any situation that might lead to nudity, the assumption being that only in homosocial space (among folks of the same sex/gender) can you be protected from the gaze of those who find you erotic (the idea that it’s good to have protection from that, as if it’s something harmful — even for adults — is also a particular cultural assumption). Nudity can be neutral. Physical closeness can be neutral. Only in the modern, relatively privileged world of the industrialized West have been been able to afford to segregate such activities as washing, dressing, sleeping (and even love-making!) in spaces of literal privacy. In the past, cultures have had to negotiate customs of “privacy” that supported the need of couples to have intimacy even within conditions of severe overcrowding. We might do well to consider how they did so, and how we might adapt some of these expectations to our world, with its fluid understanding of sexual orientation and gender (people!! there is no–nada-none!! feasible way we could provide separate facilities for every sub-group of human beings categorized by sex, gender, or sexual orientation. So we’re gonna have to learn how to be secure in our bodies and minds without being surrounded by folks whose bodies and minds work (or whose bodies we imagine work) precisely the same way as ours.