By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The bar now called Cheers has been hosting seamen since World War I. In the basement are cartoons of sailors that may date back that far. Three enlisted women are making the rounds tonight, dressed to party. But pretty as they are, their faces are familiar to the men who frequent this bar, and no special draw. In order to attract sailors, Steve throws a keg party. It's brought out a motley crew.
There's Griff, who offers a detailed account of his workout routine when asked about his buff body. There's Mark, who drops his shorts on the slightest dare. There's Bax, who tried to get discharged by telling his commanding officer he was gay. But the c.o. advised him not to worry, confiding that his own brother is a homo. Packard is here with his fiancée. He recently posed for Steve in the bar's basement, while his girl encouraged him to show his butt. The shots ended up in a gay stroke book called Honcho. Packard shrugs.
None of these men except Bax would call himself gay. But sailors have a reputation for flexibility that is centuries old. Steve quips that if he had the money he would open a bar in Bremerton named after Winston Churchill's famous description of life in the British navy: "Rum, sodomy, and the lash." This mystique is why so many military chasers are drawn to sailors: They are icons of availability, and for the most part very friendly. The boys at Cheers merrily drink the night away, and the party ends near dawn with a dare to this reporter, who avoids getting a tattoo only by pleading his Jewish faith.
According to Steve, this openness isn't limited to chasers. There's a range of erotic activity on ships, from group masturbation to rituals with the flavor of a drag bar at sea. It's all part of the bonding that makes it possible for men to live together in a cramped space for months at a time. Because these homo rites are functional, they are toleratedup to a point. Steve tells the story of one base where two close friends started lounging in each other's laps. At first they were called fags, but soon the other men were doing it, too. Finally, a lieutenant intervened. "I'm getting really tired of seeing this," he barked. "Clinton didn't lift the ban. Quit laying all over each other."
This culture of casual homoeroticism exists in all the military branches. For every soldier drummed out for being gay, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, who pass through homosexuality without thinking they are homos. This ethos is catnip to chasers, drawn by the presumption that neither they nor their partners are gay. The feeling between them is merely manly, and its goal is friendship, not mating. Male military couples will go to great lengths to protect this understandingeven at the risk of leaving love unspoken.
Seaman Mark lives in town with a chaser named Tony. Or at least he did until he used Tony's Jeep without permission. In revenge, Tony called Mark's girlfriend and introduced himselfto her intense dismay. Mark gave Tony a black eye, and then, Tony says, "I beat the shit out of him. I've never understood the domestic violence thing. Not that he's my wife or anything. We don't have a committed relationshipit's more of a hug-and-wrestle thing. My biggest fear is that the minute we get superphysical, he's gonna turn gay, and that would really ruin my idea of who he is. If you open the box, you get the whole package, and I don't want that."
Tony's father was a military man. He remembers being tossed around by his dad's shipmates at family barbecues, and the thrill of showering with servicemen on base. He also recalls his father's frequent absencesshipping out for nine months at a time. In this small community of chasers, several men have similar stories. But Steve's is more enigmatic. His first love enlisted and left for Germany, and Steve loyally followed, only to be dumped for a woman. He stayed on, discovering a whole new world of iconic men much more attractive to him than the gays he had known. The pattern has been reinforced by years of success. "At 40," he jokes, "I'm just coming into my own as a chaser."
For a long time, Tony was the boy seeking older military men, but lately he finds himself in the father role, which his friend Mark clearly appreciates. Fistfights notwithstanding, their relationship has lasted a year, and tonight they have reconciled. While Tony drives the Jeep, Mark rides on the roof, flinging his limbs across the windshield. "He's young, and he does a lot of things I don't consider manly," says Tony. "I try to encourage him to man up to his responsibilities."
The lesson includes an expectation that Mark will date women, just as Tony does. "I don't consider myself gay," he says. "And I'm not bisexual, because that's a 50/50 proposition." The word he prefers is not usually used as a noun. When Packard's fiancée asked Tony to define his sexuality, he replied, "It depends on the situation." She concluded that he was "situational."