Back in the ’60s when I was a cadet at the Citadel, the word “gay” didn’t have the same connotation that it does today. “Homosexual” was the academic term, and “queer” was the popular pejorative. Faggots everywhere had to wait until the 1968 Stonewall uprising before we got something better to call ourselves, along with the first stirrings of public visibility, collective pride, and activism.
I wasn’t even sure I was gay at the time, and I certainly didn’t want to be. All I knew was that I was somehow different: feminine curves and wiles held no charm or excitement for me. But all the gorgeous young men in tight-fitting uniforms … even though I wouldn’t have known what to do with one if he’d fallen into my lap.
I tried not to think about it, but I was thwarted at every turn by even the most routine aspects of daily life at an all-boy military college. Knob-year customs included giving your classmates “shirt-tucks,” helping a fellow cadet to form-fit his shirt to his torso as he folds it into his open pants. Communal shower parties were ordeals of suppressed excitement. I’d never been thrown into such enforced intimacy with other guys before. Most shrugged it all off; I couldn’t.
It got better once I was an upperclassman: no more holding your buddy by the hips or naked togetherness. My then-athletic appearance, bass voice, and a carefully cultivated macho demeanor made for good cover.
Close friendships blossomed — some of which I still cherish, 40 years later, “straight” though most of them are. But several of them inspired secret longings for something more than just companionship and conversation. I caught rare flashes of possible reciprocal interest from certain, er … “effete” cadets (the beginnings of “gaydar”) but they came to naught. Terror — no doubt mutual — prevailed.
I would sneak off to the library’s remotest corners, where I furtively devoured whatever sparse literature I could find about the homosexual beast. Among other things, I learned that the world of mainstream psychiatry considered it a pitiable, perverse disorder.
Pervert? Oh, GAWD, not me — the Colonel’s son, inheritor of a three-generation tradition of military service. Much was expected of me. And there I was, at the ultra-conservative, southern bastion of old-world tradition, preparing for a life of duty. That included getting married and presenting a brace of grandchildren to my parents (which I ended up doing). Besides, I never did anything queer while there — never even came close.
But where could I go? Whom could I confide in? The first psychologist I consulted after graduating told me I was sick and prescribed matrimony as the sure cure. I ended up staggering out of the closet nearly 20 years later, after wrenching divorces from both my military career and the poor, good woman I married and made miserable.
Yet social change has penetrated even these forbidding walls. I was proud to witness El Cid’s integration as a cadet and later followed from afar the agonizing public process of finally admitting women to the corps. The matter of gays — both at and from the Citadel — remains the final, unspoken civil rights obstacle that continues to separate some of her sons and daughters from the main fold. Society has come a long way in terms of gay acceptance. Still, “don’t ask, don’t tell” remains official policy for current cadets, particularly if they have military aspirations.
So I’m mighty pleased and proud to be a fledgling member of the Citadel Gay and Lesbian Alliance network. At last, we’re finding out who we are and beginning to talk about where we need to go.
We’re not much more than a social-and-support network right now, but it’s a start. And it’s a safe haven for gay or questioning cadets (we’ll never tell you which ones). It’s good to know that no current or future cadet need suffer what I and others of my generation did. And it’s about time.