BOOK REVIEW / Fear and loathing behind the lines: 'Conduct Unbecoming' - Randy Shilts: Penguin, 12 pounds and 'Gays and the Military' - ed Marc Wolinsky & Kenneth Sherrill: Princeton, 10.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
JEREMY BENTHAM may have been the first to spot an anomaly in the attitude of armed forces to homosexuals, when he noticed that it was in law a graver offence to encroach on a sailor's chastity than to sell the secrets of the fleet - both crimes were capital, but the sovereign could mitigate the penalty for treason. More recently, President Clinton has requested that the American military come up with a more rational code.

Randy Shilts's Conduct Unbecoming is a history of what Clinton is up against. Its time span is from Vietnam to the Gulf, although anti-gay statutes are always more loosely interpreted in time of war - when, if gay servicepeople really presented a risk to order, the consequences would be painful and obvious.

Even gay readers may be amazed at the visibility of gay servicemen at some times and in some places. One pharmacy technician on the USS Enterprise in the early 1980s concocted his own lubricant, using the pharmacy blender, and advertised it in the ship's gay newsletter. Security officials at an air force base in California in 1977 tried to find out how the Voice, organ of the Coalition of Gay Servicepeople, was being smuggled in - unaware that gay military police were dropping off the bundles on their rounds.

When crackdowns came, there was grotesque comedy and terrible cruelty in the way the investigations were conducted. Servicewomen were told that reading Vogue was an indication of lesbianism. A Navy chaplain who stood by his gay son had to retire. After the USS Iowa explosion in 1989 - which cost 47 lives - the Navy chose to blacken a dead sailor's character, turning him into a murderous suicide, rather than acknowledge that explosives had been improperly stored.

Shilts's primary concern is with gay men, but he shows that military women were more routinely harassed, either treated as tramps or stigmatised as lesbians. Sometimes, though, he strikes a false note. When a young Navy woman is thrown into prison for insubordination, he mentions that 'for most girls Harris's age, the most difficult dilemma is choosing a dress to wear to the high school prom'. If women in this age group are old enough to serve, they are old enough not to be patronised by Shilts. And if gay people are so diverse, why do they all sound the same here? The narrative is flatly journalistic and rarely rises above the level of a-crowd-of-eight-hundred-sat- in-light-blue-upholstered-chairs-finishing-a-Dijon-chicken-luncheon.

Shilts's sense of history, too, is less than assured. In a whistle-stop tour of the 18th century, he seems to think that a reference to 'intercourse' between two men is significant. In more recent history, he is disproportionately fond of the cover of Time or Newsweek as an indicator of the seriousness of a trend or movement, and he describes a 1982 Calvin Klein underwear ad as marking 'a turning point in the relationship between men and women in the United States'.

There is also, in this book, a curious ideological slant. Shilts describes early gay liberation as 'a movement to allow every gay person the right to be a homosexual leftist'. It's perfectly true that gay servicepeople must have seemed in early days an archetypal category of the self-oppressed, with a low claim on sympathy. But at least gay lib had something Shilts lacks: an analysis, a point of view. The military was about the construction of masculine identity, and not about national defence at all. Homophobia was not a by-product of military order but its fuel, making possible the fragile romance of esprit de corps.

By writing as if there was no inherent reason why it should be harder to integrate gay people into the military than, say, the US mail service, Shilts must perpetually be surprised by the rage and hatred he uncovers. He is doomed to describe the erotically charged humiliations that traditionally attend a sailor's first crossing of the equator as if their resemblance to stylised gay sex was incidental and merely ironic. It's hardly irony when something looks like what it is.

Shilts's position precludes any real criticism of US foreign policy. Its puzzling antipathy to homosexuals turns out to be the military's sole defect. Above all, there is no reason why Uncle Sam, having softened towards his gay nephews and nieces, shouldn't turn all comers into gung-ho imperialists: 'There are few proving grounds so sure as combat . . . War cements the bonding between a person and his or her nation. If the combat carries some overriding ideological purpose, it weds one to some higher good. Participation in war, therefore, can cause one resolutely to shed childhood insecurities and can create a place for the individual in the broader network of community, nation, and even God.' Let's face it, this is recruitment-poster prose, and Conduct Unbecoming is a strange hymn to the god of battles.

Gays and the Military is an altogether tighter book, a collection of affidavits in a single case, heard in a civilian court: Joseph Steffan, a model midshipman, was brusquely discharged from naval academy for answering 'Yes' to the question, 'Are you a homosexual?' To achieve his reinstatement, his lawyers needed to show that gay people constituted in legal terms a 'suspect' or 'quasi-suspect' group, in which case discriminatory regulations would be subjected to extra scrutiny. In effect, they gave Judge Oliver Gasch a crash course in gay studies and showed, in the crispest and most enjoyable parts of the book, that the arguments against gay servicemen in the 1990s are identical to the ones urged against black servicemen in the 1940s.

The expert witnesses phrased their testimony tactically. John Boswell argues that strictures have historically been against acts rather than orientation - as if that was a satisfactory policy; Kenneth Sherrill, portraying the extent of persecution, describes a Houston experiment in which policemen posed as gay, not for once to entrap homosexuals, but to apprehend homophobes who assaulted them. They made 13 arrests in a week.

None of this impressed Judge Gasch. In the words of the editors: 'The expert evidence is ignored and, in its place, the court relies on anecdote, two book reviews, personal preconception, and prejudice.' Certainly Gasch raised, as the government's lawyers had not, the spectre of Aids as a pretext for discrimination.

The great irony of the case was that the nominal defendant, Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense, had described the security aspect of anti-gay regulations as an 'old chestnut', thereby removing their only rationale. Judge Gasch was well into his eighties, a decade that rarely renders the judicial brain more flexible. A higher court has since decided the issue in Steffan's favour, but it should be remembered that when Gasch used the word 'homo' in court, the appeals court declined to order his discharge. Apparently the use of a derogatory term was no bar to his deciding a case about discrimination.