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Marine Boy

by Mark Simpson, Attitude (UK)

“By now you may be wondering what the difference is between Marines and gay men, seeing as they both wear camouflage trousers and dog-tags, both have short hair, both work out, both dance to the Village People, both like to have their photograph taken, and both have itchy prostates and chips on their shoulders. I’m tempted to answer that the difference is that Marines are friendly, fun, faithful, loving and great in bed and that gay men are none of these things.” – Mark Simpson

They have everything for a young man to enjoy /
You can hang out with all the boy-oys!’

The last time I saw Steve Zeeland my American military-chaser buddy was in an Enlisted Men’s Club at Camp Pendleton, home of the US Marine Corps in Southern California. Neither of us were enlisted men ourselves, but we were surrounded by hundreds of fit, sunburnt young men just in from the field and still in their camouflage gear (but already cheerfully pissed) who certainly were.

A familiar record was being played very loud: ‘Young man! Young man!/ There’s no need to feel down/ I said Young man!/ Get yourself off the ground…’ Altogether now: ‘It’s fun to stay at the YMCA!/ It’s fun to stay at the YMCA-Ay!…’ The Marines sang along in their hoo-rah! voices and spelt out the letters with their clumsy, square-set bodies.

One Devil Dog slapped me on the shoulder: ‘Having a good time buddy?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I replied. ‘Never better.’ If only all gay discos were like this.

My enjoyment of this epiphany was only slightly spoilt by Steven producing a camcorder from nowhere and videoing the whole proceedings. This, I thought, was pushing it. Amazingly, no one asked us what we were doing or rearranged our facial features. But then, at the Marine Rodeo we attended earlier in the day, none of the painfully beautiful boys poured into Wrangler jeans, T-shirts and cowboy boots seemed to object to Steve’s SureShot attentions. As he observes in his latest book, The Masculine Marine: Homoeroticism in the US Marine Corps, “Marines like to be looked at.”

The many interviews with young Marines the book contains make it clear that being looked at isn’t the only passive position that many Marines are capable of enjoying. Jarheads, the toughest representatives of the US Armed Forces, have a reputation amongst US gays for disappointing in the bedroom, i.e. failing to live up to the gay fantasy of the ‘straight top’ and selfishly ‘bottoming out.’ Hence the joke: Q: ‘What’s the difference between a butch Marine and a nelly Marine?’ A: ‘A butch Marine holds his own goddamn legs in the air!’

As Steve puts it in his introduction, ‘what could be more incongruous than the picture of the most macho of American fighting men; indeed the most potent surviving icon of masculinity (think of John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima, or Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge)   wanting to take it like a woman?’

Or as Corporal Jones might have put it: ‘They do like it up ‘em, Captain Mainwaring!’

By now you may be wondering what the difference is between Marines and gay men, seeing as they both wear camouflage trousers and dog-tags, both have short hair, both work out, both dance to the Village People, both like to have their photograph taken, and both have itchy prostates and chips on their shoulders. I’m tempted to answer that the difference is that Marines are friendly, fun, faithful, loving and great in bed and that gay men are none of these things. But then, that would just be me being bitter, wouldn’t it?

In fact, Marines represent not just an alternative to the gay world but the original model of homosociality that is also homoerotic. A cult of masculinity, if you like, but one that pays you wages instead of taking them off you in exchange for yet another PA by Gina G. Steve notes ‘the strong undercurrent rippling among men who exalt the masculine over the feminine and live and work in a Spartan environment’ and points out that dismissing this as ‘mere situational homosexuality devoid of deeper emotional meaning’ misses the point that all sexuality is to some extent situational and that ‘Marines famously, risk and sacrifice their lives for the love of their brother Marines.’

Hence the reputation for anal receptivity of Marines is not something which should be seized upon as evidence that Marine masculinity is just a sham; after all it is continually proved in so many other splendid ways (including, of course, killing people), but rather as a reminder of how absurd it is to try and base sexual identity, let alone gender identity, on what you do in bed. The Marine bottom whose ‘sexuality’ is best expressed in the line ‘Oh boy, was I drunk last night!’, is actually showing great valour, if not pig-headedness, in the face of the late-twentieth century sex pedantry.

And so does Steve, who followed his first GI boyfriend Brent (and his wife) across the Atlantic to Germany before falling out with him and in with the rest of the US Army. Initially, Steve the vegetarian bookish socialist pacifist found military men ‘coarse’ and ‘ugly’ and wanted Brent ‘divorced and discharged’. But one day, working at an on-base athletic goods store, ‘kneeling before an MP in battle dress uniform, I looked up at him and understood that (swoon) I had eroticised the lost love-object-as-soldier. Brent was gone, which only made me want him all the more. But now I had a few thousand Brents.’

Steve admits that ‘central to the pursuit of Marineness is an ‘eroticisation of the purposively elusive’, which could equally apply to masculinity as a whole. Making his project somewhat ambivalent in its objectives. “The Masculine Marine” is his third book of interviews with military men. ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’, writes Oscar Wilde in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. And while some do it with a sword or a kiss, Steve does it with a tape recorder.

By a synchronous coincidence, the publication of “The Masculine Marine” coincides with the reissue of a classic novel originally published in 1948 about a young man who joins the Navy to pursue his ‘purposively elusive’ boyhood jock ‘twin’ and bum-chum across the oceans and the Second World War, remaining true to him and rejecting the gay world he encounters along the way. When he is finally reunited with his now married ‘twin’ he is inevitably rebuffed and because this is a Gore Vidal novel rapes him. (‘The brave man with a sword.’)

The book is, of course, “The City and the Pillar” written by a man famous for his suspicion of sexual labels and chasing ‘straight’ men. Even more interestingly, Mr. Vidal’s recent autobiography Palimpsest revealed how autobiographical “The City and the Pillar” was itself by telling how the one love of his life, his ‘twin’, was a school footballer called Jimmy Trimble who died in the War taking Iwo Jima shortly before he was due to be married. Like a character from one of Tennessee Williams’ more melodramatic plays, Gore keeps a life-size portrait in oils of Jimmy by his bed.

But who can blame him? Jimmy was, after all, a Marine.

‘They have everything for a young man to enjoy /
You can hang out with all the boy-oys!’

“The Masculine Marine” by Steven Zeeland (Harrington Park)
“The City and the Pillar” by Gore Vidal (LittleBrown)

MARK SIMPSON is the author of “Saint Morrisey” (Little Brown), “Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity” (Routledge), “Anti-Gay” (Cassell), and “It’s a Queer World: Deviant Adventures in Pop Culture” (Haworth).

“Marine Boy” by Mark Simpson, Attitude (UK), June 1997 issue