Out of Step – J. Lee Watton (A&M Books)

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Buy it direct from A&M Books

The official end of
the U.S. Armed Forces “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” stopgap ruling recently is one
of the last scenes of this book. The author, briefly a Navy ensign in the
1960’s, is back in contact with most of the women she served with four and a
half decades earlier, and they celebrate the end of this farcical ruling with
celebratory “it’s about time” phone calls across the country.

Most of them had
been involved in a 1965 lesbian scandal at the Bainbridge, Maryland Navy base,
where all of them had hoped for some kind of military career.

In that era, not
unlike today, the military was one clear cut area where non-exceptional women
without college educations could serve their country and at the same time earn
a real living, which if perhaps not equal to that of a man, came closer than
most jobs. The loss of their positions therefore meant a significant economic
step back for all of these young women. Most of them, like the author, came
from working class backgrounds, often from troubled families, and from military
lineages—Watton’s father was a Navy man and her son later joined up. And Lee
actually was exceptional: in later life she became a singer-entertainer, and
then a successful journalist

Out of Step is the story of that single forced mass
resignation, as well as the story of what led up to it, and what happened to
the women after it all came down. The book concentrates, of course, upon the
life and varied careers of the author, whose autobiography it mostly is, but we
catch up with some if not all of the others too and so we can see the ripple
effect upon those pushed out as well as other who remained in the military for
more years.

Their ouster is a
dark and shameful episode for the country—although as we now know it is by now
no means unique. Back in the 1970’s, my friend, Paul Popham, first President of
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, told me that he remained in the military
specifically so he could be a defending attorney for gay male cases of this
sort. It’s shameful   because it shows so
clearly why all of this intolerance had to end, and why the military in this
country finally had to open up to Gays and Lesbians in the Service of which
they form so large a portion.

Five women on the
base had formed a group that they and others referred to as The Family. Most of
them, including Watton, had no sexual experiences of any sort by that time. And
of course it was those excluded from the group who turned on the women, with
such vituperation that ONI, the Office of Naval Intelligence (i.e. Intolerance)
was called in to “investigate.” 

That investigation
was a black farce equal in cold-bloodedness to any scene from Orwell’s 1984 or Koestler’s Darkness At Noon: in other words American Military Fascism at its
most trenchantly effective. At all times, the Navy’s assumption was that
everyone being “looked into” was a priori
guilty, either by deed or association, i.e. exactly the opposite of the
assumptions of the U.S. Judicial system, not to mention the guarantees of the
U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The women were never once legally
represented, and in effect they were badgered, and lied to. Attempts were made
to have them turn on each other and when that failed, they were then railroaded
into resignations. In all this horror, they were unsupported by any officers,
including women who probably were themselves gay and who were better able to
hide the fact, or better protected by their position.

No wonder our
narrator admits that for years she still harbored rancor toward the military —
and this from a young woman all but dying to serve. It’s ironic that the very
qualities that would have made her an excellent navy woman were turned against
her by her superiors. Based on that, this book, like Margarethe Cammermeyer’s Serving in Silence, remains absolutely
required reading for anyone GLB or T who is considering going into the
military. It’s this reviewer’s own opinion that ruling change or not, it’s
going to be a long time before the culture which fostered this despicable type
of action can change for the better.

As a book, rather
than as a guide and warning, Out of Step
is also okay. Watton eventually went to work for a second city paper and her
style is clear, neat, colorful, and emotional when need be. Her women characters
are nicely drawn and individualized; the mysterious figure of Kate Harrison,
the author’s first real love, remains mysterious and desirable right up to the
end: not an easy trick. The others are more simply limned. But their
connection, their camaraderie and the idea of them rapidly forming that rare
group that would last throughout their lives is one I bought completely.

Watton has enough
style and verve to keep one interested, although I was put off by her very
short and succinct, Attention-Deficit manner chapters, all too typical alas of
much current non-fiction. Her use of nicknames, pop culture references and at
all times her Naval language and usage is mostly cute and winning. The early
chapters overly articulated attitude of “Gee-I-like-her- but- I-
can’t-possibly- be- a- dyke” is a little overdone; as is the forward-shadowing.
But none of that is deleterious.

Just to clarify,
this reviewer is himself the same age as Watton,  and during the 1960’s he would have eaten
ground glass on toast points  before ever
signing up for the military or allowing himself to be conscripted. How gay men
connected up, including into long term relationships, in that era was markedly
different than how the women did, if this book is any guide. The reviewer also
remains baffled how it is that some women like Watton could go from intense
passionate lesbian relationships to less passionate straight ones, including
marriage with a child. At the same time that the reviewer admits that many
women born in the 1940’s and 1950’s did exactly that — and not a few men too!

© 2012, Felice Picano  

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