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Moral Murder Machine

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A FEWER GOOD MEN:
THE FUROR OVER GAYS & LESBIANS IN THE MILITARY

Lifeline Theatre
at the Organic Theater Greenhouse Lab

"[If] an army could be made up only of lovers and their beloved," says Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium, " . . . such troops although few would conquer pretty well all the world. For the lover would be less willing to be seen by his beloved . . . leaving the ranks or throwing away his arms. . . . And to die for another--this only lovers are willing to do, not only men, but women."

Exalted words--but pagan. We don't go for none of that heathenism in the good ol' U.S. of A., no sirree. And that means no queers in our armed forces. Homosexuality is incompatible with military fitness--don't go citing Alexander the Great around here. Gays are bad for unit cohesion--never mind the Sacred Band, ancient Thebes' elite corps composed entirely of same-sex couples, who fought to the death rather than surrender. This here is a Judeo-Christian country; don't go spouting that Greek garbage about honor. We want a moral murder machine.

Actually, neither honor nor morality has much to do with the U.S. military's treatment of gays and lesbians. Not content merely to reject or eject such personnel, the armed forces have historically gone on purging binges, ferreting out sexual minorities with a zeal that would have done McCarthy or Torquemada proud. Relying on informers (jealous lovers and rejected suitors are especially useful), unfounded rumors, intimidation, and psychologically brutal interrogation tactics, the military sex police conducted 3,663 separate "Homovacs," many involving scores of subjects, just in 1986-'90, discharging 5,951 people in the process. (The Reagan/Bush era was especially fruitful for this kind of activity.) The bill for these investigations is enormous: millions of dollars in legal and administrative expenses, not to mention the money wasted training the people eventually expelled despite often exemplary records.

When President Clinton ill-preparedly announced his intention to overturn the military's antihomosexual policy (I'm still not sure who was dumber, Clinton or the gay advisers who underestimated the opposition), little information reached the public concerning the financial and human costs of persecuting and prosecuting gay and lesbian service personnel. Instead we got shower-room paranoia and predictions that masses of fags and dykes would turn the nation's boot camps into San Francisco-style gay-pride parades. In fact, most homosexuals who end up in the military are young, idealistic squares from small cities and towns, unsure or even unaware of their sexual orientation until it's too late for them to say, "Hey, I've changed my mind."

The three case studies at the center of Lifeline Theatre's A Fewer Good Men: The Furor Over Gays & Lesbians in the Military are fairly typical. Jack Green, raised in Tecumseh, Oklahoma, had studied at Bible college before enlisting in the Air Force; Barbara Baum, a marine MP, hailed from Mishawaka, Indiana; Ken Truitt enlisted in the Navy from Marion, Illinois, while his friend Clay Hartwig's family lived in Cleveland. These people entered the military looking for a clean, disciplined life in the service of a great, just, fair, Republican-ruled nation--and found themselves used and abused for being different. Baum, court-martialed in 1988, was treated with unusual harshness because she held off naming names. Green, stationed in the Netherlands, became a political patsy for elements in the Dutch military who wanted to make trouble for their progay government; they leaked information about Green's Dutch boyfriend to their U.S. counterparts, who deceived Green into leaving the Netherlands for less-protected circumstances in Germany. The pressure at one point drove him to attempt suicide.

Hartwig may not have even been actively gay before he died at age 24 in a 1989 explosion aboard the U.S.S. Iowa. Unable to defend himself, he became a scapegoat for Navy spokesmen who wanted to blame the tragedy on a suicidal homosexual rather than on officers' incompetence. Luckily Truitt, accused of being Hartwig's lover, was able to fight back--he was alive and certifiably straight. But after the Navy denied Truitt reenlistment, surely in revenge for his outspokenness, his marriage crumbled--perhaps a delayed reaction to an inquiry in which his wife was asked such questions as "Has he ever fucked you up the ass?"

Drawn primarily from Randy Shilts's exhaustive book Conduct Unbecoming, this production is an eye-opening examination of witch-hunting at its most rampant and repugnant. Its approach shifts between documentary directness and theatrical stylization--straightforward narration alternates with ensemble rituals, including a symbolic disrobement: the characters take off their uniforms in rejection of a system that has rejected them. This play, written by Gregg Mierow and directed by Ralph Flores, like the book suffers from its reluctance to probe the psychology of its subjects. What we can infer from a few bits of information--Baum was the victim in childhood of domestic sexual abuse, Green served as an informer in a military drug sting--has unexplored implications about the extent to which these victims may have subconsciously participated in their own victimization.

But though a little more drama might have bolstered the docu, there's no faulting the fine acting by Jean Campbell, Peggy Dunne, Thomas Gebbia, Michael A. Shepperd, Ed Shimp, and Dorothy Milne (a heroic last-minute replacement for ailing Marla Weeg). Their understated realism gives additional credibility to the sometimes infuriating information supplied in this instructive piece of political theater.

FAMILY VOICES

Babaganouj Theatre
at Cafe Voltaire

Harold Pinter's 1980 Family Voices, meanwhile, could do with more information to back up its psychological content. Stylishly enigmatic and stereotypically Pinteresque--lots of ambiguous pauses and ominous irony--this 50-minute one-act, like A Fewer Good Men, depicts a small-town youth on his own for the first time, facing his uncertain sexuality and the outside world's expectations of him with anxiety and confusion.

Given no identity other than Voice 1, the under-21 hero describes his strange experiences in a boardinghouse in a series of speeches--which may or may not be letters that he may or may not have written or mailed home to his mother. (Present as Voice 2, she never gives any indication of having received them.) In one "letter" the lad says he's drunk--then contradicts himself, noting that of course he never drinks. In another he tells of being sexually approached by another boarder, a middle-aged man, in the bathroom they share--but he doesn't record his response one way or the other to the man's come-on, or to the flirtations of the mother and daughter in whose house he's living.

His mother's "letters" begin with hopeful encouragement of her son's move to the big city, though of course she misses him, then degenerate into nagging peevishness, bitterness (at one point she speculates that he's become a male prostitute), and finally resignation at losing him, just as she lost his father--who also speaks, from the grave. Or maybe just from his chair. Who knows?

One is tempted to add, who cares? But even in this rather superficial exercise in interlocking monologues, Pinter's lean, ominously refined language is slyly humorous and compellingly listenable (the play was originally written for BBC radio). And Babaganouj Theatre's appropriately minimalist staging, well suited both to the text and to the claustrophobic confines of Cafe Voltaire's basement theater, features sharply etched performances by Doug Steckel as the boy and Julie and Bowen Schumacher as his parents. The delicate intensity of their delivery (even when competing with clunking footsteps from Voltaire's upstairs restaurant) conveys intriguing nuances in Pinter's writing. Julie Schumacher, in a role created by Dame Peggy Ashcroft, is riveting as her subtly changing facial and vocal inflections chart mum's wounded pain and anger at her son's incommunicativeness. And Steckel effectively registers his character's alienated observations of the strange actions going on around him, even though neither he nor we know what they mean.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.

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