Friday, August 7, 2015

Negotiating the Gender Politics of Military Life: Lauren Gallagher's RAZOR WIRE

It seems almost impossible to imagine that fewer than four years lie between the repeal of the American military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the U. S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Until September 20th of 2011, gays and lesbians who disclosed their sexual orientations could be discharged from service for creating "an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order, and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability" (10 U. S. C.  654(b)). But by June 26, 2015, gay personnel were not only free to talk about their sexual partners, they were also guaranteed the right to marry them.

Given the short span of time the American military has had to adjust to such a head-spinning change, it should be no surprise that military culture does not often provide support to or even tolerance of its homosexual members. Particularly if those members are women. Just by being women, lesbians challenge the traditionally male-centric culture of the military. And by refusing to desire the men who embrace that male-centric culture, lesbians in the services are doubly "tainted." As naval police officer Kim Lockhoff explains to her partner about her former posting:

"I was . . . I didn't party with the guys, that's for sure. I pretty much kept my head down. When a guy came on to me, I tried to be polite about not being interested, but somehow that got turned into me being a cold fish . . . . One of the guys spent half the Naval Ball hitting on me. When I turned him down for the hundredth time that night, he went and told the others he couldn't get through the razor wire in Lockhoff's pants." She laughed bitterly. "And the [nick]name stuck" (58).

To Kim, "Razor Wire" is more than just a disrespectful moniker. It's a potential threat: "A few times, I overheard guys in my command saying I just needed a dick to pound some sense into me so I'd stop being such a bitch" (59). And so when she is posted to Okinawa, Kim decides to present herself entirely differently, a friendly, hard-drinking party girl. But this self-presentation doesn't mitigate the problem:

"I tried to be what I thought they wanted girls in the Navy to be, and . . . It's like, now that they think I'm a slut, they're offended as hell if I reject them. All the guys at my last command thought I was a bitch for shutting them all out. All the guys here think I'm a bitch because they think I'm sleeping with everyone but them" (61).

Given Kim's reputation as a "whore," it's little wonder that she's more than a little reluctant to report a sexual assault she experienced. Add the fact that her attacker is a respected superior officer, and reluctance turns to outright rejection.

Readers might expect that a fellow woman serving in the naval police might have more sympathy. But when Kim turns to Reese Marion for advice, she's hurt, but not all that surprised, to find that culture trumps gender. Reese has already formed an opinion about Kim Lockhoff, and it's not a flattering one:

Alejandro always thought it was entertaining as hell, watching me straighten out girls who had no business in the Navy, never mind as cops. Especially when the girl in question was a vapid twit like MA3 Lockhoff. The kind who used her pretty little smile and her petty not-so-little tits to bend every man on the island to her cute little will. MA3 Lockhoff was one of the reasons we got emails before every formal event reminding the female service members to please not dress like whores this time. Women like her drove me insane, and Alejandro lived to watch them do it. (10)

As Reese has learned over her years in the navy, "fitting in with these guys was the safest approach. If they're being crass, be crasser. If they're drunk, get drunker. If they think a girl's a slut, declare her a whore with a pussy like a wizard's sleeve" (45). Even if you're nauseated by the sexist motto espoused by many of those same guys, that "you can't rape the willing," it's almost impossible not to let the assumptions behind it infiltrate into your own unconsciousness, to automatically assume that any woman who makes an accusation of rape must be lying.

Even, horrifyingly, when you've experienced sexual assault yourself.

Only when Reece forces herself to step back from her own preconceived judgments, and truly listen to what Kim has to say, can the two women take the first tentative steps toward friendship. And then toward something even stronger. . .

A former high school teacher of mine often argued that you "can't legislate morality," a contention I frequently challenged with no little vehemence. As the Supreme Court's decision this June shows, you can legislate morality. Culture, though, may take a little more time to catch up.

Photo credits:
Master-at-Arms t-shirt: Cafe Press
Navvies kissing: The Virginia Pilot online

Razor Wire

Riptide, 2014

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