|Von Steuben Statue in Lafayette Park, Washington, DC|
When I was young and naïve I did something I sometimes regret: I joined the Marine Corps and got into a special ops unit called Force Recon. I was cocky, considered myself tough, and bought into a lot of (unfortunately still common) bullshit myths and misconceptions of manhood and masculinity. Like most 20-year-olds, I was confused; I thought learning to kill and going to war might clarify things.
The Marine Corps emphasizes pride and tradition, forcing a lot of distorted history into young, vulnerable brains during boot camp. I learned all about past warriors, medal-of-honor winners and men who influenced and shaped the Corps, the U.S. Military and warfare in general. And, of course, I wanted to be like them. One such "hero" was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.
A Prussian military officer, von Steuben distinguished himself in the Seven Years War and served under Frederick the Great. But he was discharged in 1763 and fled to France, where, years later, he met Benjamin Franklin, who urged George Washington to recruit von Steuben to train rebellious farmers into a proficient, disciplined enough force to take on the British. And so he did. Arriving to the colonies in 1777, he began training troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. He did a pretty good job: von Steuben is widely considered the second-most-indispensable hero of the American Revolution after Washington. I learned all that in Marine Corps boot camp.
What I didn't learn until years later is this: von Steuben was gay.
Most biographies of Steuben cautiously state that his homosexuality is "speculative." But here's a bit of evidence: He was discharged from the Prussian army and fled Germany because he was accused of "indiscretions" with "several young men;" He arrived in America with a "handsome" 17-year old Frenchman he was unusually close to; He became the protégé of Pierre L'Enfant (another gay man who George Washington hired to design our nation's Capitol city); He settled in New York (a gay-friendly city even then) and hung out in gay "social sets;" He died a bachelor in 1794 and left all his property to two men he was close too. And so on. Sounds pretty gay to me.
"Gay propaganda," I've been told, when I bring up such things. "Sketchy and speculative at best." Perhaps. But I can relate to von Steuben: Not only did I also serve honorably in the U.S. armed forces, but I share his apparent fondness for young men. Maybe I (and other gays) look a bit too reaffirmingly into such matters? There's evidence Lincoln was gay, as well as "bachelor President" James Buchannan, and Frederick the Great and Alexander the Great and other greats who were likely gay greats. Why should it matter? And that's the point: It matters mostly because it shouldn't matter.
To suggest an historical figure may have been gay seems akin to accusations of murder, or thievery, or some fundamental flaw in their character. Particularly if they don't fit the stereotype. Sure, we don't speculate if historical figures were straight. It requires no solid evidence to attribute what most of society considers "good" traits to our heroes, even when proven false. We know George Washington didn't really cut the cherry tree down, and likely told a few fibs in his life (who hasn't?), yet we still pass the story on as a lesson in honesty and integrity. The Marine Corps puts strong emphasis on honesty and integrity; unless, of course, you're gay. Homosexuality has been viewed as a flaw, a crime, and such serious allegations require solid proof: Innocent until proven guilty. Don't DARE accuse an American war hero of being (egads) gay!
In von Steuben's day, there were no terms to describe same-sex attraction, though it was said such men had an "abstracted manner" or were "affected." It was in von Steuben's homeland, Prussia (while arguing to repeal sodomy laws in 1869) that Karl Maria Benkert coined the term "homosexuality." When I was a teenager and felt freakish and confused about my attraction towards men, I did not know what "gay" meant. I occasionally heard the terms "fairy" and "light in the loafers," as my dad used to say. I knew I wasn't one of those. I knew I wasn't like Elton John or Liberace. I played football. I hunted and fished. I was going to be a Marine!
I felt sick and thought I could beat it. What better place to prove I was a tough, macho straight guy than the Marine Corps? Why not follow in the footsteps of other tough, macho heroes like, well . . . like von Steuben!
Maybe if I had known about the speculations -- maybe if I had been taught that men like Lincoln and Buchannan and Alex and Freddy the Greats were likely gay -- then maybe I would have felt a bit more secure and comfortable with my own self. Just as Marines are motivated by past warriors; just as blacks and women are inspired by leaders who came before them, it helps (at least for me) to know there were people like von Steuben. We don't hesitate to talk about the great women behind the great men of history, and the influence they may have had. What influence did that young handsome Frenchman have on von Steuben? Perhaps, he too is a hero? Who were the great men behind Lincoln and Buchannan and the Greats? And why are we so reluctant to teach such things? Why the shame? Why the cynicism? Why should it matter?
I spent much of my life in various stages of denial, suppression and living a secret, double-life. My shadows loomed large with shame, guilt and sorrow. There have been mental and emotional consequences in pretending to be something I'm not. If I had been more secure in my manhood, more understanding and comfortable with whom I am, I likely would not have felt the need to prove some misguided notions of masculinity. I doubt I would have joined the Marine Corps. And even if I did, I would not have done the things I did. (It upsets some of my gay friends to say so: but I am not sure I would have been a very good Marine if I had accepted and been comfortable with being gay.)
Since I came out, I have change a lot of people's views about being gay. I don't fit the "stereotypes," I am told. "You don't act gay," people tell me. Yet I fall in love with men; I have sex with men -- I'd say that's pretty damn gay.
I have a job now in which I play on my Marine Corps special-ops background to persuade people that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" statute ought to be repealed, and that gays should be able to serve openly and honestly, and be treated equally and fairly, in the very armed forces von Steuben helped create. The message is this: "Look at me! I was a courageous, decorated, special ops Marine, and I'm gay. See: we gays can do it!" I am uncomfortable with the role. The truth is, I was a coward pretending to be someone I wasn't. Certainly, gay people should not be discharged from the military for being gay. But why the hell would they want to serve in the military? Why would anyone (gay, straight or otherwise) want to learn to kill? I wish I hadn't.
Perhaps I am non-stereotypical because I never felt comfortable being stereotypical. It seems a bit twisted that my defiance of the stereotype (derived from years of pretense based on fear of an ignorant, non-acceptant society) now helps create acceptance. I don't want to be accepted as a gay man because I was capable of acting straight; acceptance based on pretense is not true acceptance.
Maybe Elton John and Liberace should have been my role models. Perhaps I should have worn light loafers. Or better yet, maybe our society should teach the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, and help people grow up more comfortable with whoever they are.
Certainly, I would have lived a healthier life more true to myself. Maybe von Steuben would have lived differently, as well, if his "abstract manner" were seen as natural and normal. But that's all in the past; it's history, as they say. If von Steuben hadn't lived the life he did perhaps we would not have gained independence from Britain and arisen as a nation dedicated to the ideals of liberty.
Ironically, in von Steuben's homeland, a gay person can now serve openly in the military. Here, in the good-ole-U.S. of A. (in which von Steuben played such a pivotal role in the fight for freedom) you can't. Fortunately, there are still heroes amongst us who continue the quest for equality. Some of them are gay.
Postscript: The other day I walked to Lafayette Park in DC to check out a statue of von Steuben. He's depicted sitting down, clad in little but a helmet, reaching out to a muscular, toned, naked young soldier holding a large sharp sword pointed towards von Steuben's crotch. The inscription reads: *MILITARY*INSTRUCTION* Nearby, I saw two hot guys holding hands. It was beautiful.