The contemporary war lit corpus of poetry, fiction, and memoir has covered a lot of ground, but has had little to say so far about the presence of gay men and women in uniform. Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them contains a gruesome male-on-male rape scene, and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood features a cameo appearance by a closeted company commander, but that’s about it in terms of fiction published by big-name publishing houses. Poetry, nothing comes to mind, either, though an exhaustive search of vet writing anthologies and web publishing sites would surely turn up something. Jeffrey McGowan’s memoir One Gay Man’s Life in the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Military, published in 2005, is interesting, but McGowan left the Army in 1998. Playing by the Rules, by gay former Marine Justin Elzie, was published in 2010, but Elzie was out of the Marines long before 9/11. Amazingly, as far as I can tell, no book-length memoir by a gay or lesbian Iraq or Afghanistan veteran has yet appeared. Please, somebody, tell me that I’m wrong.
Maybe what I’m describing is a good thing. Everyone’s more accepting now, right, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed and gay Americans can finally serve openly. There’s nothing about a service member’s sexual orientation that would by itself make it an interesting subject for fiction, verse, or memoir, correct? No war writer I know is a homophobe (or misogynist or racist), so I’ll bet if you asked them about the absence of gay characters in their works they would say it just didn’t occur to them, given the story they were trying to write. Heck, hetero-normative soldier sexuality has barely been touched in published fiction, save for, on the crude side, passing references in a number of works to FOB port-a-pottie coitus, and on the deft side, the short fiction of Siobhan Fallon and the under-the-grandstand quickie flamboyantly described by Ben Fountain in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Maybe that’s fair—too much relationship and erotic stuff and a war novel becomes something other than a war novel, the way these things are probably understood by those most interested in writing and reading war stories. Romance, maybe, or erotica, or least interesting of all, women’s fiction, whatever that phrase means in the minds of book buyers and readers.
Whether all the above is a result of publisher decision-making or authorial disinclination to address Don’t Ask Don’t Tell-related issues, I don’t know. But these musings bring us to Scott D. Pomfret’s You Are the One, which came out earlier this year. Pomfret is a many-times-published author in the thriving gay literature underground; You Are the One is one of six books he’s written for gay-oriented publishers. You Are the One contains thirteen stores published in gay literary journals between 2005 and 2015, four of them directly portray gay military members before, during, and after deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan and all interestingly open up heretofore unexamined vistas on the lives and worldviews of soldiers that both help describe modern sexual behavior and transcend the merely prurient sexual. In “You Are the One,” a super-femme civilian narrator finds himself in strange cahoots with his lover’s company commander to guard the sexual orientation of the narrator’s lover. In “Transport,” a battle-hardened sergeant preys on one of his junior enlisted soldiers while on mission in Iraq. “Swagger” describes a bar hook-up between a special operator and the son of a Vietnam veteran. In “The Casualty Assistant,” a gay casualty assistance officer consoles the widow of a soldier killed overseas.
All are interestingly conceived and plausible enough, given what I’ve seen and read over the years. Though Pomfret is not a veteran, he gets the details right and his stories engage on many levels beyond the erotic; he is a fine writer in terms of his eye for nuance and ability to craft a quality sentence. All the stories, save “The Casualty Assistant,” contain graphic sexual scenes, which though cool in terms of frankness and cheap voyeurism, distract somewhat from the larger tales being told. In “The Casualty Assistant,” on the other hand, we learn that the narrator is gay, and it matters in terms of his perspective on things, and because the story is not about seduction and getting off, it speaks more clear-mindedly to what gay soldiers must have always already been noticing about the hetero-dominant culture in which they furtively served during the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As such, it hints at what insights we might garner from other LBGT-authored stories, should they ever make it into print.
Scott D. Pomfret, You Are the One. Ninestar Press, 2016.