Searching for Queer Masculinity in the Military
Young, Gay, and in Command
What does it mean to be masculine?
What does it mean to be a man? What happens when a man with a suspect sexual orientation steps into a role where tropes about manhood matter the most?
I’m a gay man. I was a Marine Corps machine gunner and later an Air Force intelligence officer long before gay men could serve openly or legally in the US military. This is my story. It happened a lifetime ago, but when I close my eyes, I’m right back there smelling stale coffee and fear.
West Berlin, 1985— Marienfelde Air Force Listening Post — 0300 hours
I’m dead bored. Not even glancing at the glowing map of a plot wall that’s the front of the room. No air traffic to look at. I just wanna get off work at 0700 and go home.
Bill is quizzing me.
Senior Master Sergeant Springwells. He’s wearing rumpled cammies that do nothing to hide his blooming belly. I’m wearing a sharply creased blue shirt fresh from the cleaners, three pathetic ribbons perfectly centered over my scrawny chest.
“I dunno, Bill,” I yawn.
“Come on, LT. Figure it out.”
Rob kicks me. “Even I know this one, sir.” He takes a swig of Mountain dew and grins at me as he tosses back some Doritos.
“Then you answer, damn it!”
He smirks and stares into his console.
“OK, OK,” I grump, “Uh, Third Air Army Magdeburg?”
“Buzz! No Final Jeopardy for you!” Bill slams the training manual shut and slides it at me. “Hit the books, kid.”
“That’s Lieutenant Kid to you, old man.” Bill snorts and Rob throws a Dorito at me.
A young airman up front twiddles his grease pencil and looks nervous. He’s not used to our bickering. Doesn’t know what to think. This ain’t Basic Training. He’s cute, though.
I smile at him to try to put him at ease. “Hey, Chad. C’mere, man. You study for me, huh? Bill’s a fucking task master.”
The kid turns bright red just as my headphones crackle to life.
“S&W, this is Data. Multiple targets, 3rd Army Air Defense. Lighting up everywhere.”
I jerk up in my chair, thrust the manual out of my way, and glance at Bill. He looks half asleep. “Chad,” I snap, “Take plot on B.” I fiddle with my mic selector. “Robin, get in here and help Chad. Break’s over.”
“Rob, pull up a product template.”
He’s already done it. His face is inches from his monitor, fingers flying.
“Radar, whatcha got?”
“Lighting up all over the board, sir. 2, 3, maybe 5. Gimme a minute.”
Robin runs in and grabs a grease pencil while she throws on her headset. The board starts to glow with red dots.
“Bill, what the ..?”
“Take it easy. We’ve done this before.” His voice is low and calm.
No, the fuck we haven’t, I think. Not at three o’clock in the goddamn morning with no warning.
I start to sweat.
Excited voices from four different channels fill my headset. Bill and I are the only ones who hear them all at the same time.
“Helis outta Hagenau, sir. Running straight at the border.”
“More MIG 29s, sir. I got three in pattern. Squadron commander’s in the air.”
“S&W, Radar. More lights, sir! They’re everywhere!”
“Comm!” I bark. “NATO chatter report. Now.”
“Quiet, sir. I got nothin.”
Fuck! The whole fucking Soviet Air Force is swarming over East Germany and I’m the only guy in theater who knows? This is fucking nuts!
“Ready, LT.” His thumb is poised over the send button.
Bill is scanning his report over his shoulder. “Get over here and read this, sir. Right now.”
I bump him out of the way and scan the CRITIC. “What do I do, Bill?” I mouth at him.
He starts to speak. I can see the command forming on his lips. Then he presses them shut and looks lazy again. “Not my job, sir. I’m not wearing bars. You got this.”
I could swear he’s trying not to smile. I close my eyes and think for two seconds. “Reporter, send it. Now.”
Rob’s thumb hits the button and makes me sick to my stomach.
Bill, Rob, and I trade nervous looks for a second. Then we get back to work. The main phone jangles a few minutes later. Chad picks it up. “Uh, sir, the colonel wants you.”
I walk over, heart thumping. Slip the phone under my noisy headset. “Yes, sir?”
His voice is sleepy and rough. “Son, did you just scramble NATO and wake up the president?”
“Um, yes, sir. I’m pretty sure I did.”
He starts to laugh. “You’re pretty sure, huh? Did you go by the book?”
My stomach clenches, but I know the answer. “Yes, sir. Absolutely.”
“OK, Jim. Good job. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be there in twenty.”
Like I have anywhere to go. I feel Bill’s rough hand squeezing my shoulder. He’s been trying to listen in. “Soon as the old man gets the hell outta here, I’ll take you to the NCO club and get you drunk. You deserve it.”
Maybe I did. I’d just spent millions of dollars of Uncle Sam’s money. Dozens of fighter pilots had scrambled on my call. NATO bases all over Europe were buzzing hornet’s nests because of me.
The Russians were laughing at us as they flew back home, but I felt like an authentic man for the first time in my life.
I wrote this piece of lightly fictionalized memoir a couple of years ago — part of my quest to understand masculinity in young queer men.
I’ve written other stories that deal directly with issues of queer masculinity and the military.
This one is about me, a bulldozer, cops, and life-threatening violence. This is when I finally understood that masculinity has nothing to do with macho.
While these stories are true aside from dialogue and details fictionalized for dramatic purposes, I’ve also written a novel that’s loosely based on my experiences serving in 1980s Cold War Berlin.
The novel is much more exciting than my real life. I didn’t actually fall in love with the son of a senior Soviet Air Army commander and help him flee Germany with the KGB on his heels.
Or did I?
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.