Boston.--If you want a hint of what the military is going to face when it lifts the ban on gays in the military, follow me. Come on over here and reach into my mailbag.
First, may I suggest that you put on a glove. Or grab a set of tongs. Some of the letters I've gotten about gays are too slimy for the naked touch.
But put aside those wonderful missives which come regularly to every journalist from that far-flung family of foul-mouthed misanthropes who share the same name -- Anonymous. There's still some pretty interesting reading. "Interesting" is putting it mildly, and neutrally.
For openers, nine out of every ten letters I received on this subject when I last wrote about it came from men. Virtually all of the letters from men were about men. Relatively few people who wrote about gay women worried that they would get too high, but the legions who opposed gay men wanted to keep them from getting too close.
The specter of showers and barracks came up so often in my correspondence that I suspect the Army spends more time in the sack than in the trenches, more time under the water than under the gun.
A military man from Cape Coral, Florida, wrote, "This tells me as a straight man showering in the barracks, that I have no choice but to expose myself to any gay men present."
A man from Apache Junction, Arizona, who spent three years overseas in World War II remembers sleeping 40 men to a barracks. "Now suppose," he writes, "that neighbor was a man with the sexual inclinations of a woman, i.e., a homosexual."
Yet another man, this one from Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania, asked us to "imagine putting a homosexual in a community shower with 60 or so naked men." Someone from Melbourne, Florida, used his imagination to suggest that "it would be like putting a mouse in a cheese factory or a mosquito in a nudist colony."
The fascinating thing to this -- female -- reader was that nearly all the letter writers shared the same perspective: that of straight men worrying about being victims of sexual assault, harassment, lusting or just plain ogling. This garden-variety homophobia -- fear of homosexuals -- was fear of becoming the object of unwanted sexual attention. Being the oglee instead of, say, the ogler.
It's the closest that most men may come, even in fantasy, to imagining the everyday real-life experiences of women. The closest they may come to imagining a trip past a construction site, unease in a fraternity house, fear that a date could become date rape. In short, the closest men come to worrying about male sexual aggression.
A writer from Idaho put it in this rather charming vernacular: "Some of the gays are not little pansy guys but big hulking guys and if a small man said no, what is to stop him?"
I am sure that gay men and women do make some wrong passes at Mr. or Ms. Straight. I suspect this happens more often in a closeted atmosphere when communication is reduced to a secretive system of readings and misreadings.
There are instances of assault and harassment by homosexuals. There are also daily assaults of homosexuals. Consider the alleged gay-bashing-to-death of Seaman Allen Schindler a month after he told the Navy he was gay.
But -- back to the barracks -- if showers are such a charged venue, barracks such a threatening situation, how come the problem hasn't already wrecked morale and created dissension in the ranks? How come it's come up so rarely?
After all, between 5 percent and 10 percent of the military is estimated to be gay right now. The lifting of the 10-year-old ban on homosexuality would allow these men and women to acknowledge that they are homosexual without being dismissed.
It wouldn't mean that a straight man would be showering with a gay for the first time. It might mean that he would know for the first time.
Finally, the military has every right to make rules about sexual behavior. It can enforce any sort of sexual prohibition or aggression, from a shipmates' "incest taboo" to harassment to ogling in the shower. There is and should be a clear distinction between sexual behavior and sexual orientation. A difference between what we do and what we are.
And by the way, dear writers, wouldn't it be something if the military finally cracked down on sexual misbehavior because men were worrying about men?
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.