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Gay and in the army: Pt2 - Real men can kiss (each other)

Sat 27 Apr 2013 In: True Stories View at NDHA

Rudy Paul In the first part of his story a young and naive Rudy Paul joined the army and absorbed military culture and comradeship. Like the late Corporal Dougie Hughes, he was in the army for ten years before he started to come to terms with his homosexuality. Starting as a Regular Force Cadet in 1981, he joined the Corps of Engineers and was posted to Papakura, where he became a storeman, a role he was to stick to for the remainder of his time in the army. He was posted back to Waiouru, then down Linton near Palmerston North, then back to Waiouru, back to Linton again and then Wellington. In the army 'the love that dare not speak its name' was truly invisible. "Back then you're in that culture where you don't even go there," says Paul. "It's not even spoken about." Is that because other soldiers will lose respect for a gay man in their midst? "I suppose that's part of it... How can I explain it..?" Paul searches, struggles, to find the words to convey his thoughts. "The only role models we had were all these effeminate drag queens and there were no 'straight-acting' gay role models that I could relate to," he says. "I couldn't relate to myself, I couldn't put a label on myself... I knew there were other men like me, I knew there must be other men like me but where were they? There were those strong gay people who were out there and saying 'this is what I am, take it,' but I couldn't relate to them because they were so totally different. I could only relate to role models who were 'straight acting,' who weren't 'gay' or who I didn't think were gay." Is being straight important in the military? "Yes it is... or maybe not being straight but being macho..." He pauses again then: "No, it's being straight... there was no gay." The landmark and hard-fought for human rights legislation which made it illegal to descriminate against gays, or almost anyone, in employment and other fields, and which the military did not seek an exemption from, was only passed two years later, in 1993. Before that, by being known to be gay Paul knew he would be putting his job on the line." "You feared coming out. Even when I was becoming more secure in my sexuality, I still felt alone. And to stand up and say 'I'm gay'... you just couldn't do that." Would that mark a soldier out as being different, as being weak? "No... as 'dirty' I think... you're just a 'poo pusher.' Our firemen, they get called 'shirt-lifters,' and even I looked at them like that." So he didn't want to be seen as less of a man, less of a soldier? "Well, you have proven it, you've done the same courses as everyone else, you've done the same physical activity." Is that need to be the same as everyone else important to the way the army works? "Yes. I don't mean that everyone's like they are pumped out by a factory and think the same... you're still allowed your own mind... the further up you go you're allowed [more individuality]... "But you're a cog and if you're the wrong cog the machine will break down and you're removed. And you as a cog might be fine but if you're gay the other cogs might not interlink with you." Amongst Paul's fellow soldiers the attitude to lesbians was not the same as to gay men. "There were quite a few lesbians and no one batted an eyelid. Because, when it comes to the crunch 'you women are going to be back there... it's the men who will be up front.'" (NB: in more recent times female soldiers have come to be posted to front line positions alongside their male counterparts.) REAL SOLDIERS CAN KISS (EACH OTHER)! Ten years into army life he was Lance Corporal Rudy Paul, but his little-understood feelings for men had not gone away. Then he got a lucky break. "The ten year point was when I first realised... because that was the first male contact that I had... on the lips... you know, you're a bit drunk and you get that gaydar thing... at that stage you've got your own room in barracks and separate ranks have their own bars or pubs. And this one night I met this other guy, we went back and found that we were left alone... we kissed and then everything just... I'm not sure how to explain it, it was just 'Wow! Hallelujah! Is this what the other guys are talking about when they kiss a girl...?' Because I'd had girlfriends right throughout that time, just one of which was a sexual relationship." "But once I met that guy I realised it's definitely males that I want... I can't explain it." His new awareness of his attraction to another man helped clarify some aspects of his life, but not completely. "It's like you knew you wanted males but you didn't want to be put in the box of being 'gay.'" Furtively, incredibly furtively, the highly closeted pair instantly formed a relationship. No one could know. "Even when I'd hooked up with this guy and we became partners I still had girls coming back to my room. I'd come back from the bar and they'd be naked in my bed! This was on base! To have a girl in your barracks is highly illegal. If you get caught it's quite serious! "We were both living on base, in Trentham. He'd just come back from Singapore. We weren't living together. We weren't 'boyfriend and girlfriend.' He had another guy who was married with kids. We'd be in the room and this guy would arrive and he'd jump through the window because the other guy had no idea... he knew who I was but he didn't know there was a relationship going on. He had no idea." Their life together was completely compartmentalised, totally camouflaged. "When we go to work we're just professional. We don't hold hands or show any public affection." Perhaps in private? "Just a quick kiss and that was it. Or we'd go for a drive... but it was really restrained." Because lurking in the background all the time was the military environment... "What if they find out. What if our mates found out! What if our subordinates found out! Even when you're alone the sense of repression is still there, it doesn't go away, definitely not, you can never relax." Over the coming years the pair lived a seriously double life, "to the extent that at one stage we were living in the same house off base with his sister for about two years and even she didn't know." Did Rudy Paul want to be like other guys, to be able to curl up on the couch with his partner, that kind of thing? "Definitely... definitely!" In small ways the pair managed some semblance of being a couple. "We'd make each other dinner and spend a lot of time together and with the sister. In our eyes this was our dinner, except that she was there, part of our shared time. It was quite bizarre. But it worked. I'm not sure that if we had been out it would have lasted as long as it did... but we were 'the only gays in the camp'... to us we were the only gay people." Did he have any idea where else such a relationship could go? "No, not at all." BEING GAY IS OK! But eventually they tentatively started to break through the wall of fear and subterfuge. "We came down to Wellington and I met 'straight-acting' gay guys and then we both realised that we were not alone. When I first went down to Wellington he was already there and he went to bars that weren't identified as being gay. He was based in [Fort] Dorset and he knew the bars and one night we went to Caspers gay bar and it was fantastic!" The excitement and exhilaration of that moment even now infuses Paul with smiles and wide-eyed wonderment. But, despite their new-found 'after dark' freedom, they were still deeply in the closet in their daily life. "We were still in the military and we were paranoid, we were always watching the door, always. We'd go round different blocks and approach Caspers from a different way if we even thought we saw someone we knew... or we'd be gone. We knew no different until we got to knew a few people. " At one point Paul and his partner even went to a gay sauna. "It took a lot of time to get up the courage, but we went. And we saw some of these more senior army guys there. We just ignored each other. The reaction was: 'If we look away they're going to go away.' When they saw us they looked away and then they left." Paul was partnered up for almost six years, though there were long periods apart on separate bases. He estimates their actual time together to have been about two and a half years. But on the occasions when they came together they would swap notes. "'See him... he's a homo! He's family.' 'No, he's not.' 'Yes, he is!' But they all had families and they were hiding behind an even bigger facade than we were." But Paul wanted to escape the paranoia, to be able to openly talk about "us." He wanted to stop hiding. He had never actually had to lie, was never confronted by someone wanting to know if he was gay. No one suspected and he'd never had to outright deny it. Yet, he wanted to escape the fear of exposure. His wanting to be more open about being gay placed a stress on Paul's partner: "No, if you tell them you're gay then they'll know that I am too!" "The cloak and dagger stuff in the military was too much," he recalls. "I'd had enough." NEW BEGINNINGS, A NEW LIFE The relationship, such as it was, foundered. Towards the end of his time in the army, "in about 1999, I met this French-Canadian guy." This time the man was a civilian, "and we were down south, in Dunedin, and my sister was down there and I took her around and said this is our kitchen and this is our lounge and this is our bedroom and she was 'Hang on, backtrack... there's only one bed... and then she went 'Ahhh, whatever!" The reaction from the rest of the family was fine too. Eventually Paul would come to know that, of his nine siblings, three sisters are lesbian. And, in retrospect, he says, after coming out nothing really changed. This was, now, post-human rights legislation and a slight loosening up in the military regarding homosexuality. Paul recalls gay rights campaigner and ground-breaking educator Eugene Moore holding seminars explaining the reality of homosexuality to groups of uniformed service people around the country. "Brilliant! It was amazing! You could see guys' minds changing, that they weren't angry, and always it was the younger soldiers that came through. The younger ones were throwing up the questions and it wasn't the negative questions, it was questions I could relate to." Their lack of judgmental attitude impressed the still fairly closeted Paul. "Once my family knew I told some real close army friends and they told other army friends... You know, all that paranoia I had building up, it was just my own fear of the unknown and the Army was the only place I could have got that fear from. There were some who didn't know how to react and I wasn't going to push them... I hadn't changed. There was no bad reaction, perhaps because several very senior people were totally out." Though to some people, he laughs, many of the other out gays could still be written off as "nurses, not soldiers." In the still macho ethos of many in the army gay men could be firemen or nurses. "You're gay?" laughs Paul, "Well, that's ok because you're not a soldier, you're a nurse!" And yet, of course, army medics are trained to perform their life-saving work in the same battlefield conditions as regular soldiers. But for Paul, steeped in the macho ethos of the Corps of Engineers, the openly gay medics and weren't practical role models. There were others who might have been some kind of role models for Paul, and "the gaydar bells were going off but they were married and they had kids," he says. In 1999 Paul left the military. He'd had enough. "By then I had really strong friends who led normal lives and had their boyfriends and I realised 'That's what I want!'" Years later, the apprehension around people knowing he's gay is still ingrained and automatic. "Even doing this interview, thirteen years after leaving the army, I've still got the hang-ups about who's going to know," he says. "Even though I'll never hear it, someone somewhere will be saying "I told you so!" For Rudy Paul his eighteen years with the New Zealand Army took him from being a nervous kid with a minimum of education and and even less awareness of the world - and no idea at all of his sexuality - to being a more confident gay man, in touch with his feelings and able to negotiate his way through life without lies or subterfuge. Some of that progress was because of his life in the army, some of it was in spite of the army. Paul emerged self-aware and strong. But Dougie Hughes was not so lucky. Ten years into the military, on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, with his gay self craving love and the intimate company of a man like himself, everything turned bad. Worse than bad. In the next part of this interview, on Tuesday, Rudy Paul reflects on some aspects of Dougie Hughes army life and suicide that have become public; and he tries to understand a little of what might have been going on for Hughes.     Jay Bennie - 27th April 2013

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Saturday, 27th April 2013 - 10:35pm

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