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December 2006

Gay Warriors

Aspects of a Lost Tradition

By Dusk Peterson

It is a thing that happens on campaign, where women are scarce, every commander knows that; but sometimes, as with those two, it becomes a part of life. . . . Each of them [strove] to be worthy of his friend, each to make the other proud of him; and I have known the love of a yellow-haired girl to make life too sweet and unnerve a man's sword hand, before now. "Give me a whole squadron of such sinners – so that they be young – and I'll not complain."
—Rosemary Sutcliff, Sword at Sunset (1963)
* * *

Earlier this year, I received a somewhat testy e-mail from an author who was considering submitting a story to the Military Men issues of True Tales. Among other things, he wondered why it would take me a whole month to respond to his submission.

I sent him a long e-mail back, answering his questions and explaining that a one-month submissions response was fairly standard among e-zines. However, I added, I was between projects at the moment and could examine immediately any work he submitted.

His next e-mail was politely worded, thanking me for my letter. The reason he had been worried about the time factor, he explained, was that he was a soldier and might be sent to Iraq within the month.

This author's letter reminded me that – not surprisingly – many writings over the centuries about the military have been composed by military men themselves, some of them gay. Three of the finest poets of World War One – Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen – were soldiers who are also known for their homoerotic writings.

The current troubled relationship between gay military men and the United States military establishment is so well publicized that I need not spend time recounting it. People who argue in favor of allowing gay military men to be open about their sexual orientation often stress that gay men are capable of self-restraint and are unlikely to engage in sexual relationships with other military men.

Ancient commentators on homoeoriticism in the military put forward a different argument.

If only, then, a city or an army could be composed of none but lover and beloved, how could they deserve better of their country than by shunning all that is base, in mutual emulation? And men like these fighting shoulder to shoulder, few as they were, might conquer – I had almost said – the whole world in arms. For the lover would rather anyone than his beloved should see him leave the ranks or throw away his arms in flight – nay, he would sooner die a thousand deaths. Nor is there any lover so faint of heart that he could desert his beloved or fail to help him in the hour of peril, for the very presence of Love kindles the same flame of valor in the faintest heart that burns in those whose courage is innate.
So spoke Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium, composed in Athens in the fourth century B.C. Phaedrus' vision – which was already being partially followed by many Greek armies – flowered into fully reality shortly thereafter. Neighboring Thebes started an elite troop made up of one hundred and fifty hand-picked couples. For fifty years, this Sacred Band provided the military might of Thebes. It was finally defeated by Alexander the Great's father, King Philip, who wept when he learned that all of the slain soldiers had been lovers.

The Roman writer Plutarch later commented, "For men of the same tribe or family little value one another when dangers press; but a band cemented by friendship grounded upon love is never to be broken, and invincible."

Plutarch undoubtedly underestimated the love that military men can have for their families and countries, but his belief in the military value of homoerotic relationships between soldiers is in stark contrast to present-day condemnations of such relationships, even by proponents of gays in the military.

* * *

This year's issues on Military Men include contributors who have served in the military or are partnered to those who have served, contributors who have carefully researched life for gay soldiers in past wars, and contributors who simply found that a military setting best suited the type of tale they wished to tell.

Mixed in with all these, as in the past, are non-military stories on various topics. Submissions on any topic concerning masculinity and power continue to be welcome.

The long delay in getting out this fifth issue of True Tales is partly due to the difficulties I encountered in publishing large issues last year. This coming year I'm taking a different approach, publishing smaller issues, but more frequently than last year. Comments are welcome at the truetales blog or through e-mail.

Post comments about this article at the truetales blog.

The passage from Plato's Symposium is from a translation by Michael Joyce. The passage from "Pelopidas" in Plutarch's Lives is from a translation by John Dryden.

About the Author

Copyright © 2006 Dusk Peterson. All rights reserved.
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