CLIFF DUNN, EDITOR
“Ye lads of grace and sprung from worthy stock, do not begrudge brave soldiers: speak to them with your beauty. In cities of Chalcis, Love—who spreads legs—thrives side by side with Courage.” Aristotle, 4th Century B.C.E.
I will never forget a moment some years back when I was waiting in line to use the men’s room at a local Irish bar, when I noticed the guy standing in front of me. I was looking at the ground when I noted that the color of his pants was a U.S. Army dress green, as, I observed, was his shirt (and the other military accoutrements upon his collar and epaulets confirmed his occupation as an armed servicemember).
He must have intuited that I was taking in the back of his collar—I swear, it was the back of his collar—because he glanced to his periphery and—busting me in actu —nodded politely. Having finished his business inside the stall, the young corporal—whose rank I determined from his collar insignia and whose age I placed around 25—smiled with what I thought was an expression of politeness, but which quickly dawned on me was more akin to that of familiarity. (Although this is going to sound like a story about how cool I am, the fact is that, when I am dressed a certain way, and under the right lighting—squinting helps, too—I am occasionally mistaken for ex-military—or, in even worse light, an officer of the law.)
As I squeezed past him into the stall, I nodded in acknowledgement, and he gave me the briefest of winks. And then I heard him say, very softly—but in a tone that clearly carried his words in the short distance separating us—“Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t swallow.” Memorial Day, like many of our most cherished celebrations, has been diluted through the years until its raison d’être has lost all meaning. Originally called Decoration Day, it commemorated the nation’s dead from both sides of the violent and bloody (625,000 total dead, over 400,000 wounded) American Civil War.
Its theme eventually evolved into one that celebrates America’s exceptional place in the world, along with our international role as—in the words of President Ronald Reagan— “the arsenal of freedom.” I would offer, as well, that as gay men and women, we have a duty to honor the brave and pioneering individuals whose willingness to risk both professional and personal safety in coming out of the barracks closet helped to dismantle the egregious and un-American Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy.
It was their courage in coming out, while under orders not to do so, that provided the impetus for removing an unfair and irrational obstacle that stood in the way of future openly gay patriots. As Adm. Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2010, “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”
The opponents of repealing DADT were blinded by bigotry, and the desperation to defend what was clearly a lost cause, two things that prevented them from seeing the long view of history, which records thousands of years of open homosexual service in the military forces of antiquity. The most often-cited example of homosexual soldiers in the ancient world is that of the Sacred Bands of the Greek city-state Thebes (“a band cemented by friendship grounded upon love is never to be broken”), a kind of Bronze Age “special forces” who were said by Plutarch to have died to the last man— all 300 paired lovers—against the forces of King Philip II of Macedonia in 338 B.C.
The king—whose son, Alexander the Great, is another “gay icon” from antiquity—was said to have been so moved when seeing their bodies, that he exclaimed “Perish miserably any man who suspects that these men either did, or permitted, anything unseemly.” The ubiquity of “gay” relationships in the militaries of the ancient world was cause for scandal in its day, as well, but only because it made some generals nervous that too much emphasis was placed on “gay unit tactics.” “Placing your loved one next to you seems to be a sign of distrust,” rebuked the 4th Century Greek commentator Xenophon, adding rather smugly— in comparison, that “[we Spartans] make our loved ones such models of perfection, that even if stationed with foreigners rather than with their lovers, they are ashamed to desert their companion.”
The greatest warrior-statesman of ancient Thebes, Epaminondas, had two male lovers, one of whom, Caphisodorus, died with him in battle. The couple was buried together, a practice that was reserved for husbands and wives in Greek society. The warriorlovers Aristogiton and Harmodius are credited with the downfall of tyranny in Athens, and became the emblem of the Greek city-state. As we celebrate this Memorial Day, let us commemorate these great warriors, for having lived and died in the manner and as the persons they were born, and let us thank Col. Marguerite Cammermeyer, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, Lt. Dan Choi, and so many other LGBT patriots for their service and their commitment to freedom for us all.