Bremerton, Washington—They may say, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But a better way to describe what goes on in the military is the motto hanging over Steven Zeeland’s guest bed. “They will tell you no,” it reads, “. . . and you will tell them yes.”
On this bed, Steve has photographed dozens of sailors from a nearby naval base. They aren’t shy about showing their stuff, and not a few have spent the night here or shot a load, courtesy of Steve.
Most of these sailors are rural boys who feel more comfortable in Bremerton than in Seattle, an hour’s ferry ride across the Puget Sound. Seattle is where the hot bars are, but most women in such places don’t realize that a squid isn’t just something gooey with ink. It’s also a nickname for sailors.
To seamen who can’t tell a latte from instant coffee, the bars around their base are a more reliable source of company. Bremerton has more tattoo parlors than discos, not to mention a supply of local girls known disparagingly as “bremelos.” It’s also home to a small group of men like Steve whose lives revolve around pleasing sailors willing, sometimes eager, to be pleased.
Steve calls his kind “military chasers.” They can be found anywhere men in uniform are stationed, but especially around marine camps and naval bases, which are often located near big cities. Many of these devotees are pushing middle age, but some are no older than the men they admire. Mere youth is not the attraction. It’s the fresh-faced look of a boy trained to kill, and the stunning effect of basic training on the body. At least a dozen pornographers specialize in photos of military men with these assets. Films of marines masturbating in and out of uniform are a staple of gay video.
There’s money in this trade, and military men are notoriously strapped for cash. But there’s also the joy of being appreciated, something jarheads and squids—especially in the lower ranks—seem grateful for. Much of this action occurs online, but some chasers dedicate their lives to the physical pursuit of military men, traveling from base to base like bedouin in search of water. The fop-rocker Momus captures the spirit of such devotion in a song that includes this couplet: “When I die, mix my ash/With the piss at Camp Pendleton.”
At Pendleton, in California, marines can choose from chasers circling the base in impressive cars, or call the numbers listed in graffiti offering “GOOD $$$ 4 BJ 4 USMC.” But San Diego is the capital of chaser nation. There, the concentration of enlisted men draws a dedicated fan club. Steve spent four very active years in San Diego, but he hated the sunshine and the lifestyle, so he set out for Bremerton, where neither sun nor brunch is in ready supply. Seafood is another story. Sailors fill the local bars when a carrier docks at the base for repairs. The more impatient hit the back-room bookstore where Christmas lights cast a ruddy glow on men waiting for a willing mouth. Even in the semidarkness, Steve can pick out an off-duty sailor by his demeanor, his tattoos, and especially his hair, cut in the manner Steve prefers to wear: high and tight.
Sailors, as the late Quentin Crisp observed, “are the ones who go away.” That’s no small part of their appeal to chasers, who tend to shrink from marriage, especially of the same-sex sort. But some of these relationships last until the ship leaves port or the tour of duty is up. It’s not unheard of for a seaman to live off base with a chaser, and once in a while a pickup leads to a lifelong bond. Steve has had four long affairs with military men. He cherishes his photos of them, some of which grace his books of interviews with chasers and the men they love too much.
You might think this is a risky business—and chasers do get bashed, especially when they push too hard. But Steve insists there’s less homosexual panic than one would imagine. Most military men who get into this scene know what they’re doing, if not necessarily why. The main thing for the chaser is to be cool and buy the drinks. If anyone has to watch his ass, it’s usually the sailor. Some chasers are predators—one of them goes by the name Vulture Dick—but many are nurturing by nature. It’s this attentiveness that draws lonely, uprooted sailors to men like Steve.
A woman willing to nurture a squid might give Steve a run for his money. But it’s hard to find a bremelo who thinks sailors offer more than hot sex, and the number of eligible enlisted women pales before the horde of horny men. This is why, despite the attractions on base—such as a pub, a state-of-the-art gym, and barracks that seem more like college dorms—there’s no shortage of sailors who prefer the bars of Bremerton. But when they enter these saloons, they find mostly other men. The one bar where women gather is shunned by sailors, since it’s known to be gay-friendly. Instead, they go where the real men are—including Steve.
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 tolerated—up 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 understanding—even 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 himself—to 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 relationship—it’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 absences—shipping 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.”
Steve likes the term “pre-gay,” with its evocation of a time when homosexuality was an appetite, not a sexuality. Anyone was capable of committing the sin of sodomy. As for the current model of gayness—in which you are what you do and with whom—Steve says, “That comes at the expense of 90 percent of the population, who have feelings that can’t be consigned to gay. I don’t mean that people are basically bisexual, because it’s more complicated than that. Even in the same act, the two partners have such different interpretations that it’s hard to define its meaning. And when it comes to communicating desire, it seems impossible. What people don’t tell each other is the potential they’re aware of. I don’t think homosexuality is contagious, but I do think it’s a potential.” Not an identity.
The military life comes close to meeting this pre-gay ideal. It’s a world where grunts can whack off together in the barracks, sailors can don dresses at sea, marines can get fucked on leave—all without feeling gay. But times have changed. The row over gays in the military has made servicemen hyperaware of homosexuality. “That may help people who embrace a gay identity,” Steve says, “but progress has come at the expense of a certain traditional freedom among military men to enjoy physical intimacy without any implications for their identity.”
Instead of allowing out-and-proud gays to serve, Steve would rather see the ban on sodomy lifted. Any sort of sex off-duty would be permissible—and uncategorical. Don’t ask, don’t name.
As dawn breaks over Bremerton, Tony and Mark stagger off to bed together. I conk out on Steve’s guest bed. Sleeping where so many sailors have posed and reposed, it’s impossible not to consider the sum of all these connections. They add up to memory and need. Fantasies of men in uniform preserved from childhood like pressed flowers, yearnings for the blessing of the brotherhood: These are things anyone with a powerful homosexual drive might understand. But there’s also the reciprocal need of straight men for the devotion a father once provided—if he ever did. Far from home, in a city where everyone seems to know more and have more than you do, the connection with a worldly man who adores you can be irresistible, even arousing.
Each of these needs is met in the union of a chaser and a squid. All that’s missing is a love that lasts, for, as every chaser knows, the sailor is the one who goes.
Steve has seen Tony drunkenly moaning Mark’s name after one of their fights. Yet to a stranger, Tony seems resigned to their inevitable separation. “He’s gonna be leaving soon for Oklahoma,” Tony says. “It’ll be hard, but we need a break. I don’t get attached. I like knowing from the start that they’re not gonna be here for long.”
Steve understands. “Of course, you ache for something that will last,” he admits. “But it’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to walk off into the sunset with anyone.” Why would he, when there are so many military men willing to bond for an hour, a night, a year or two? It’s a life, and as Steve says, “I’m a lifer.”
The names of sailors have been changed to protect their security. Steven Zeeland’s books include Sailors and Sexual Identity and The Masculine Marine (Hayworth Press).