When people ask how we knew, and people always ask, I tell them that we simply figured it out. In an Army that told us we could not say “I’m queer,” we found ways to say it with our eyes, our lips, our bodies. We found ways to stretch a gaze as long as it could be pulled, or to navigate the narrow alleys of femininity available to men in uniform. We found a way to communicate: an imperfect, unapproved way of telling, and, by extension, a silent way of asking.
Els noticed me when my voice broke in basic training, where I attempted to swell my courage enough to respond to the unchecked use of the word “faggot.” In the still-ruffled aftermath of a group fight that rang through the basic training barracks, Els found a way to quietly ask me, directly. I responded, in my very first attempt at closeted discourse, with the painfully awkward:
“I don’t not like guys.”
My words were enough. His hands were in my shorts, and I found myself being touched by a man for the first time. We felt our way through a nearly noiseless encounter in a closet, and then said nothing about the night ever again.
A few days later, under threat of being found out by our drill sergeants (or worse, our peers), I slipped wordlessly into his bunk in the earliest hours of the day, before sunrise, before even a stir from his bunkmate. Before our comrades rose to—as we were encouraged to say—shit, shower and shave, I laid on his chest, squeezing into a twin-size top bunk, beneath a scratchy wool blanket, listening to his heart slam against his chest. It lasted no longer than a few minutes, not long enough for anyone else to chance by, and certainly not long enough for us to comfortably fall asleep, so we chose instead to obsess over every sound, every whispered vibration that slipped through the barracks halls, until the thought of danger demanded that I slink back to my own bunk.
After it all, we simply moved apart, as silently as we moved together, never speaking of the event again, never exchanging numbers or emails as we departed to our units. A silent few moments were all we needed. This was among the foundational lessons of my Army Basic Training: the silent ways in which we find ourselves needing to communicate, surrounded by an unknown threat.
“I was as Out as I could be,” I tell folks, by which I mean that I did a poor job hiding the fact that I dated men, or that I vocally opposed the policy that said we must lie about our romances. It meant that I did not hide the fact that I spent summers attending Pride events, that I stuck a sticker on my car to support SLDN, the organization leading the charge on repealing the policy, that I was comfortable speaking openly about the idea of same-sex desire, even if I was forced to speak in abstracts.
This was, in part, a negotiated defense. My caution kept me safe: safe from being thrown out and denied my benefits, but also safe from the violence of those pockets of soldiers who carried the weapon of homophobia, a hatred allowed to go unchecked by an organization that could ignore those impacted by such prejudice. Speaking abstractly kept me physically safe when older enlisted men told me “just watch the friendly fire when these fairies go downrange” and “if I knew one of my soldiers was queer, I’d beat him to death.”
Peaches did not share my sense of caution.
Peaches was flamboyant, the stereotype of a young, effeminate gay man. He didn’t walk, or march; he floated from place to place, a delicate saunter punctuated by wrists bent in a mimicry of bourgeois femininity. Peaches was the sort of queer man that television loves to make a Gay Best Friend, and he moved with the type of swish that acts like a matador’s cape for hyper-masculine American men.
Except that Peaches wore combat boots. The young twink was a tanker, a warrior trained to ride a 62-ton cavalry into battle. Peaches was trained to do damage, and he found no conflict between this identity and his delicate temperament.
Because he stood out from a crowd, I didn’t have to do much work to identify Peaches as another queer soldier. He had a reputation. Everyone from the military police to the post commander knew of “that gay tanker.” The first time I saw him, I matched the man to the reputation, but, through a moment of prolonged eye contact, Peaches figured me out almost instantly too.
“I just joined to meet men,” he told me, laughing over a mojito, just minutes after meeting me in the on-base nightclub. Peaches brought me a drink, and began chatting me up. Within minutes he had told me that I was handsome. He told me that he was considering doing military-themed porn down the highway in Van Nuys, the longtime pornography capital of the US. He told me that he shared a barracks room, but he could have the room empty on short notice. Peaches’ flamboyant candor wasn’t desperation; it was an act of unparalleled bravery. Honestly, he wasn’t at all my type—not punk enough, not meaty enough, not rough enough around the edges—yet within a few weeks, he had brought me to his barracks room. He surprised me by showing that he preferred to top.
After our encounter, he began to whisper to other soldiers, who would whisper to other soldiers, about the police officer that he was fucking. Within a few weeks, my sergeant, a hard-nosed Latina who had come up among ranks of hardened men, called me into the parking lot behind the police station for a discussion. I could tell from the uncharacteristic warmth in her voice that something was amiss.
“Moll,” she began, firmly, but unsure how to begin. “I need to talk to you about something. Relax a bit.” We leaned against the sand-colored walls of the station, looking over the rows of police vehicles parked before us. “There are these rumors going around, and, listen, I don’t know if they are true, and I don’t want to know if they are true.”
I knew then what it was we were discussing, and my throat sank into my stomach.
“It’s just… let me start again. You know Peaches, right?”
I tightened, unsure how to proceed.
“Yes,” I stuttered. “Yes, sergeant.”
“The thing is, there are these rumors going around, and, well, you’re free to do what you want, but you’ve got to be careful, you know?”
“I mean careful. Discreet, you know?”
“I know, sergeant.”
“I can’t ask you what happened, and I don’t need you to tell me, but you’ve got to be careful.” As the word rolled out for the third time, I tried to swallow what it meant. I returned to the danger that had rocked in my stomach, the feeling that had quivered my hands as I sulked down the Spartan hallway to the door of Peaches’ barracks room. I recalled that at any moment my desire could be folded into violence.
“The thing is,” she paused, shifting off the wall and straightening the tight creases in her camouflage uniform. “The thing is, Moll, we can’t have rumors going around about the company having a gay military police officer. You have got to be careful. Do you really want to be known as ‘that gay MP’?’’
I worked long nights. Being a police K-9 handler for the US Army meant shift work, and, being the new guy on the team, I was frequently the one left to strap on my belt for the overnight shift. This mostly meant driving in a circle for hours with a dog in the backseat of a patrol vehicle. Shift work also meant that I missed out on a lot of barracks parties, which meant that I would instead swing by while working, ostensibly to make sure everything was in order. Of course, the visits were to subdue my fear of missing out, and to be seen looking cute in uniform.
This isn’t really a story about a boy. This is a story about a girlfriend.
“Hey, babe,” Sara, the woman I had been seeing for the last few months, shouted from across the wide-open lawn as I arrived. Like everyone else there who wasn’t in uniform, she was holding a red plastic cup and smiling. Sara moved her short, athletic body toward me; she offered me her crooked smile and wide eyes as she hurried to tell me some news. Sara bought into a certain idea of professionalism about being military police, so even in her excited state, she resisted hugging me while I was armored in my utility belt and Kevlar vest.
“His name is Tommy,” she blurted, half whispered, with her drawn-out Tennessee accent.
I stared back without recognition.
“That boy! The one you told me you thought was cute and interested in you.” Sara grinned and flipped her shoulder-length hair over to rest on one shoulder.
When we met a few months before, she seemed apprehensive about having a bisexual boyfriend, but part of her seemed intrigued by my attraction to men. Now, several months in, she got excited any time we discussed the topic. A week earlier, I mentioned to her that I had chatted with some new guy—a thin, neat boy from Kansas, just out of medic school and a bit shy. Tommy and I had spoken for almost an hour before the other medics from his squad dragged him away from a party I had thrown.
“I’ve been talking to him all night, and I think you’re right about… you know.”
“About… you know,” I teased back. “And how did you arrive at that?”
“He’s just, he’s just so sweet,” she sipped from her cup between sentences. “And he’s polite, and kind, and… I don’t know. He’s cute.”
I smiled, nodding in agreement.
“You go get back to work, Specialist Moll. I’ll bring you up to date on everything when you get home in the morning.”
The mornings never came quickly. After a round through the lawn in front of the barracks building for high fives and be safes, I went back out to the Jeep, where my dog Johnny slept quietly, as tired and as bored as I was, working on a Friday night. We drove and drove, circling the quiet desert base for hours on a particularly quiet night, bearing the top-40 music laced with PSAs that rang from the on-base radio station. We drove until that silent hour, after the parties died, before the sun rose, when Johnny could eat and rest in his kennel, and I could turn over my pistol and head home.
I flipped through my keys as I approached my barracks room. I rarely expected to come home to an empty bed. Because I was in a special unit, I was lucky to have a room to myself, but Sara had been staying over more and more frequently lately, choosing to share a bed with me instead of a dorm with her roommate. As I grabbed the door handle, Sara spoke hurriedly from behind the door.
“Hold on—hold on for just one second,” she ordered from behind the door. “I’ve got a surprise for you!”
I paused, puzzled, expecting her to be asleep at this hour, huddled in the king-sized nest I had created by pushing the two full-sized, standard mattresses into a single unit.
“Now come in,” she called from inside, mischief trilling her voice.
When I entered, tossing my belt and vest onto the couch, I found Sara smiling from the pile of pillows and comforters, wearing her matching panties and camisole set, cuddled next to a thin, shirtless boy from Kansas.
“Hi,” he murmured as he smiled at me. “Sara told me that she wanted to do something nice for you.”
I nearly tumbled over as I raced to take off my boots. We were young, and we were striking, and we were careless. There was kissing, and touching, and, as often happens in group situations, the lines between bodies became blurred. Because this sort of thing was not only frowned upon by the U.S. Military, but also actually illegal, there was law breaking in the military police barracks until just before dawn, when we began to navigate the delicate politics of cuddling.
Those who engage in bed sharing of any type regularly know that managing the space of two people in a bed is difficult enough. Managing three is a circus. In situations like this, everyone finds themselves navigating their own comfort, the expectations of how nice everyone expects it to be, and the social dynamic between each person involved.
“I don’t want to be on the outside,” I told them as I slipped my boxer-briefs back over my butt.
“Well, no one wants to be on the outside.”
“I don’t mind being on the outside,” Tommy offered, still blushing at the edge of the bed.
“At least two people need to be on the outside.”
“How about I spoon you, and he spoons me?”
“Oh, I don’t want to be a big spoon.”
“At least two people will need to be big spoons too.”
Before the pile finally settled, Tommy, who was convinced to be the big spoon closest to the light switch, turned the room dark and nuzzled up behind me.
The first light had already begun to shine through the curtains; we rolled around until dawn. Soon the rest of the military base would wake. Soldiers would be running in formation. The speaker playing a reveille horn would sound. The buzz of day would return.
We packed tightly together, so it was only minutes before the heat of three people cuddling became too much.
“I changed my mind. It’s too hot. I don’t want to be in the middle.”
A feminine sigh sounded in the dark.
“I think that I’m just going to go,” Tommy murmured. “This was nice, but… I’m just going to go.” Sara and I sat up and made a half-hearted offer for him to stay as he pulled on his jeans and t-shirt. “This was great though. Maybe do all this again some time?”
We did not. I didn’t talk much to Tommy after that night, despite the fact that he was just my type. We would nod to each other at barracks parties, maybe even say hello every now and then, but the truth was that the night wasn’t for us. We realized afterward, maybe we even realized the night it happened, that those early morning hours were about an idea, an adventure, a story we could tell down the line, not because the experience was magical, but because we each of us would make it part of our mythologies. The night was about a young woman excited to bind three bodies together in the type of story that each will whisper about for years.
The military provided me with plenty of opportunities to meet men who were much more attractive than me. Martinez was no exception. He looked simply beautiful, from his perfectly groomed eyebrows to his flawless smile to his meticulously cared-for body. He was smart too, an Army medic training to be a registered nurse. And he was brave: gay men’s magazines were displayed prominently on the end tables of his consistently spotless barracks room.
He was the first man to show me how to live openly, even when muzzled. There was no need to resolve “is he or isn’t he” with Martinez. The medic was, and if anyone wanted to throw him out because of it, he knew the army needed medics more than he needed the army.
“You just keep these out?” I asked, fingering through the stack of glossy issues of Advocate and OUT on his nightstand.
“Sure, why wouldn’t I?”
“You don’t have inspections come through?”
“I do. My sergeant came through here just last week.”
“And he tried to tell me to be careful, and I told him that I had no need to be careful about the material I choose to read.”
I watched Martinez as he navigated parties. He never wore his queerness as a costume. Unlike me at the time, unlike Peaches, Martinez knew who he was. He wasn’t trying to pass as straight in some hyper-masculine way, either—somehow, in his mid-20s, he had already resolved the questions of masculinity, desire and identity that so many of us were still stumbling through. Even then he resisted the assimilationist politics of “we’re just like you.” The other queer soldiers brought their flamboyance to parties, wore it so they could fly the flag for those looking for it. But Martinez sipped his beer, smiled at the men he wanted to smile at, and talked openly and honestly about everything, just short of saying the words we all knew we could not say.
And one day he smiled at me. We never slept together. I wasn’t that to him. He was something to me, though: a moment, a comrade, a model for living. He was one of many men I would meet over the years who I stole a tiny bit from, a small piece of being that would help me complete the puzzle of what it means to be oneself, queer and whole.