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Profiles in Patriotism

25 Words or Less


Brett Edward Stout
corporal USMC

Joining the Marines was arguably the most coordinated action in my life up that point. However, my memory of enlisting remains a blur of shouting, standing, giving out all my energy, and holding in every comment.  In my mind, boot camp plays like a comic montage of fluently ridiculous insults, impossibly stupid human error, and incomprehensibly clean and efficient ways 80 men can use the same bathroom in under 120 seconds. The world of starch, sweat, and boot polish seems far removed from the college town in which I now live and attend school. To this day the artifacts of my past hang in my closet, my mind, and in my demeanor. From time to time, my service becomes a topic of conversation, and I delight in the questions, looks, and curiosity that ensue. The casual college student seems thrown by the information whereas the postman or father seems to smell it on me as if the odor of honor was seeping from my bones, bones that still clung to the rigid postures instilled by imposed discipline. The question that invariably commands the most interest is always the same. “What was it like to be gay in the Marines?” The absurdity of the question is the expectation of its answerability. How could it be possible to detail an attitude, a condition, a false discord, and a conflicted bond in 25 words or less?

The tangible, the tawdry, and the visceral experiences, which comprise the memory of my service, are as inseparable from me as my skin. How can you elaborate on the dichotomy of living two simultaneous lives that were too complex and multifarious to be confined in an isolated conversation? Attempting to answer this question led me to write my first novel, Sugar-baby Bridge, but the catharsis and depiction have proven too vast for a single book and my writing has continued. How do I summarize the turmoil of interpreting my own identity and, how in a paragraph, (or even a book) could I tell someone that while the independent parts of my persona were not at odds with one another, the forced secrecy created considerable conflict?

Every Marine is a composite of congruencies and inconsistencies. I may have never considered joining the Marines if my brother had not done it first. The choice seemed irrational for an opinionated boy who spent his days with his head hung over his poetry. My mother had always been my champion but my determination to be the recipient of my father’s attention and pride was chief among a myriad of justifications for what most thought was a reckless and futile pursuit. I had failed to steer myself down any other path, and the Marines was the first forward-thinking option I had considered. When my guidance counselor attempted to dissuade me from enlisting, she was met with harsh words from my mother who was furious that anyone would attempt to undermine the, albeit unconventional, life-choice of her child. Perhaps it is this common listless attitude in regards to our futures that formed the foundation for the bond we learned to flaunt and take for granted during our service. We were a band of misfit brothers who had shed our common awkwardness and united under one another’s protective custody.

When I arrived in San Diego for basic training, I was in the best shape of my life, having just come off six years of competitive swimming, but still I was a day later than the rest of the pack. It came as a shock to the recruiter when I was prevented boarding the plane due to my lacking a driver’s license. We returned to Chicago after a brief trip to the Iowa border to collect my non-driver’s ID and after one more night in the hotel, I joined the other recruits who had been held back. Unlike myself, my tardy travel companions were purposely delayed as a means of tracking the “at risk” populations. Each of the men I spent the next 90 days with had colorful stories of inner city poverty, gang involvement, drug abuse, legal difficulty, or less than favorable ASFAB scores. Coming from an affluent two-time National Blue Ribbon winning high school in Iowa, I could not have imagined any group more unlike myself, but once we took our seats on the white buses, our histories ceased to matter.

After boot camp, the 80 of us parted ways; heading to schools across the country to learn our military vocations. Many of the men ended up side by side to start their studies of infantry tactics. I landed in Monterey, California at the Defense Language Institute’s Russian Language School.  At DLI my social life molded to the joint service environment and we all fell into a predictable pecking order of rank, skill, and branch of service. On the base, our internal differences seemed trivial when compared to how foreign the world beyond the gates now felt. Except for the uniforms, formations, inspections, and PT it was not entirely unlike high school. But freedom from the obligatory silence of boot camp meant freedom to gossip. There was a pressure to maintain the status quo. If you were a Marine, that meant you were expected to act the part of a playboy.

While there is equal dignity across the branches of service, the Marines undeniably remain the apex of aesthetics, attitude, and discipline. The life of a Marine on a joint-service base is one of intense scrutiny.  My perception of this constant observation changed shape a year into my service when the cold reality swept over me that my sexual orientation was no longer something I could ignore or refute. The realization that my feelings were not just a “phase” was a cold actuality that troubled me deeply and filled me with the dread of losing all that I had worked so hard for. I made drastic and harsh decisions with my friends, cutting contact with anyone who might endanger my career. Every friendship, every clothing choice, every reaction to a joke became a potential liability. More and more I found myself compiling mental scrapbooks of people’s comments, euphemisms, and behaviors so that I could maintain the highest degree of social vigilance. This condition of cautiousness persisted when I arrived at my duty station in Hawaii.

My arrival on Oahu was tainted with a suspicion that jump wings and recon training could not disguise. It had been some time since I had a girlfriend and single was an unacceptable and mistrusted state for an attractive Marine who had exchanged one paradise for another. Slowly, and before I had realized it, my off base liberty became detached and hidden from my on base life.  I began to resent the constant editing of my on base conversations and became comfortable to speak freely only in the company of my gay friends. It was hardly that I was ashamed of my being gay; it was more that I didn’t want to burden my beloved brothers with the illicit truth and bind them with it. I despised the idea that speaking freely with the men I would sacrifice my life for would force them to be complicit in defying a law I found onerous and unnatural to abide. Withholding the details of my weekends, my failed friendships, and romantic blunders filled me with bottled sadness and frustration. When I reached the peak of my anxiety, I made the determination to undermine the regulation by following it to the letter. I had grown weary of being without adequate recourse and reinforcement to stand up for myself. I made the conscious decision to live openly ambiguously: don’t ask, don’t tell meant that I would no longer hide or change the subject. I would attack it by boldly being honest about not answering the tainted questions concerning my orientation.

The reaction to this tactic was mixed. While it relieved my tension in certain ways, it complicated my life in others. The curious salivated over the provocation, the offended hatefully conspired, and the skeptics explained away the inconsistencies. The one thing they had in common was their insistent search for evidence of my personal life. Most unexpectedly (and retrospectively it should not have been,) was that I was once again trustworthy. While agreement over my orientation’s place in the unit was contestable, the game of honest ambiguity brought me closer to my fellow Marines than the tricks, half-truths, and outright lies ever had. It was easier to be understood and disagreed with than to be a dubious anomaly. The unimportance of my sexuality fell in line with the other distinctions we strove to illuminate in our world of nearly identical haircuts and uniforms.

Though at times a source of stress, my resolution to ambiguously out myself was still only a partial step toward egalitarianism. The metamorphosis of my treatment by my brothers in arms did not reach maturity until after my service had ended. Not being able to freely share myself with my fellow Marines is still one of my life’s deepest regrets. Months after being honorably discharged, I met up with a few friends from my unit at the Wave nightclub in Waikiki. There was a rapture and relief when they turned to me and said, “We had always wanted to ask you…” and I replied, “I had always wanted to tell you…” The burden of an unjust divide that had been forced upon us evaporated. That evening we hugged, we bought rounds, we told stories, laughed, and danced. I cried more deeply that night than I had the day I’d first received my Eagle Globe and Anchor. After 5 years of service had already ended, I was finally, completely, and utterly a Marine.

© 2008  Brett Edward Stout