What to Wear in the Minefield

Rummaging through my jumble of bras and socks, I asked Alex what I should wear.

“Whatever you want,” she said, heading for the bathroom. So I chose my lavender dress — perfect for sticky August heat. I slipped it on and was starting to do up my sandals when Alex came back into the room.

“Um,” she mumbled, her mouth full of toothbrush. “That looks good, but don’t wear it. They’ll know for sure if you’re in a dress and I’m in a t-shirt.”

“What’s a dress got to do with anything?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Already looking for my cut-offs.

***

The American military base smelled like cut grass and barbequed burgers, a comforting whiff of familiar after six months of teaching in Korea. Yet I was perched on a bleacher with a soldier leaning into my ear and I was beginning to miss the spicy dog soup and squat toilets outside the gates.

“Where did you meet Alex?” he asked, his breath reeking of beer, his wife-beater an impossible blinding white. “Are you seeing anyone?” he continued. “Where do you live?” he persisted.

Taking quick sips of Coke, I tiptoed through his minefield of questions. It seemed as if everything I said either had to be studiously vague or an out and out lie.

This was my first time meeting Alex’s work friends. She and I had moved in together a month before, making ourselves don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue roommates.

For nearly fifty years the Pentagon had officially banned gays from serving in the military because it viewed homosexuals as unstable, defiant towards society and susceptible to blackmail. Then on February 28, 1994, Bill Clinton instituted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, stipulating that sexual orientation is a private matter and that being gay is not a bar to continued service unless manifested by homosexual acts.

Sentiments which boil down to a hard, nonsense bone: service members who identify as straight may be able to get away with a queer kiss or two, but those who openly identify as gay had better be able to convince their superiors they would never practice homosexual sex. Clinton was hoping his new policy would improve conditions for gay and lesbian service members. However, he and others have since concluded that has not been the case. Despite military personnel shortages, since 1993 there have been more than 10,000 discharges based on sexual orientation.

Stuck in the midst of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Alex and I had to take precautions. We had to buy a futon for the bedroom no one slept in. We had to each bring our own money and pay for our own drinks and we had to choose our outfits carefully.

***

Just home from work Alex grabbed a beer out of the fridge and sat down to take off her boots.

“Sanchez asked me today if I thought you’d like to go to the Navy ball with him,” she said, her eyes wide and her lips pulled back in mock fear of my reaction. Fear because she knew I desperately wanted to go to the ball. She knew I wanted her to take me and she knew I had just the dress picked out-a full-length white Chinese gown with black edging-as impractical as glass slippers and the perfect match for an officer’s naval whites.

“What did you tell him?” I asked, not quite sure if I was hoping to hear yes or no. Not sure because a yes would get me an evening of dodging Sanchez’s advances. And a no would get me nowhere. Although women were allowed to go to the ball together platonically, Alex refused to take me. She said it was suspicious, dangerous, flaunting.

“I told him you sort of had a boyfriend and that I was getting a little tired of my co-workers asking you out.”

“True enough,” I said, my smile crooked. “I do have a friend who sort of isn’t a boy.”

“Yeah, and I truly am tired of my co-workers chasing after you. Though not the way I made it sound-I made it sound like I was jealous because I wasn’t getting more of the attention.”

The thought of Alex pining for the interest of John or Troy made me giggle. Laughing, I curled up beside her on the sofa and asked if this meant she was going to take me to the ball after all.

“What’s the point?” she said, stroking my hair. “It’s not like we’d be able to dance together. Why don’t we just get dressed up and go to the hill that night?”

The hill was the hotspot just outside the base gates. On one side there was a strip of straight bars with juicy girls standing in the doorways-smiling Korean women with press-on nails and short skirts. On the other side there was a cluster of gay bars, also crammed with American pop and beefy soldiers.

Intelligence couldn’t have missed the rainbow flags, but I only saw boys in uniform stomp up the stairs of a gay bar once. Generally service members could feel safe inside the bars-the only problem was just getting up the hill. In order to get to the queer section one had to pass the Eagle, an enormously popular club certain to have a co-worker cruising in front of it. In plain view of this palace of heterosexuality, one had to nonchalantly slip up the street no straight human being had any business being on. It was pure gayness. It didn’t even have a convenience store on it.

***

On the night of the ball I was trailing five steps behind Alex. We were slinking past the Eagle and I was listening to her warn, “Quickly, quickly, act casual.”

I was thinking I can barely walk in these shoes. I was thinking the ball would have been an illusion anyway-nothing but pumpkins, rags and investigations if we had stayed too long. I was thinking there is no place for us on base and the only fairy godmothers we are ever likely to have are up this hill.

***

Alex was looking in the mirror, twisting her hair into a tidy regulation French braid. And I was still in bed, groggy between the sheets. We’d been to a farewell party for one of her co-workers the night before and we were playing our favorite morning after game: do you think they know? Alex was thinking they must have figured it out, but I wasn’t so sure-people don’t see what isn’t part of their world.

“If anything is saving us from suspicion, it’s your femininity,” said Alex, spraying her dark hair into place. “They just don’t think you could possibly be a dyke.”

“What do you mean?” I countered. “I thought you said my dresses would give us away-that they made us look too butch/femme.”

“Yeah, well, that too,” she answered, now wriggling into her combat fatigues.

Stumped, I said nothing as I watched her do up her belt and slip her t-shirt over her head. I didn’t understand how I could be both suspiciously feminine and feminine above suspicion. Then as she tucked in her shirt, it hit me-the Pentagon’s Orwellian logic is contagious. I could hear it in Alex’s reasoning and I could feel it as I pulled her down onto our military-issue bed.

I despised the organization that forced us to lie; yet somehow, I found nothing sexier than camouflage.

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