By Mark R. Probst
My current writing project is a piece about a gay soldier in a famous historical battle. It is a unique challenge to write a fictional story with fictional characters and have them interact with real characters and true events in a historically significant battle, especially one as well-known as the one I have chosen. I have to envy fantasy writers as they have the liberty to completely invent the battles to serve their characters. However in my case I must delicately weave the threads of my fictional story into the tapestry of history while carefully avoiding collisions that would alter true history.
My first step was to thoroughly research this particular battle to see where my story would best fit in. I read a book written by an authority and I also dug up all the information I could find on the internet (isn’t Wikipedia great?)
In my case it was necessary to choose a specific real-life troop to which my soldiers would belong, and map out the logistics of the story based on all the known facts about this troop. If a battle is large and complex, a writer might get away with inventing an entire troop. I didn’t have this luxury as the specifics of this battle are rather well documented. Research can be either fun or a drudge. For me, reading non-fiction materials comes under the drudge category, while watching all the movies about this battle is definitely on the fun side. As a film buff, I like to pattern my writing style after classic movies. This particular battle was immortalized on film a number of times, and it is quite interesting to compare all the different interpretations. Though I do have to be careful, because some of the movies I encountered in this instance took a ridiculous amount of artistic license to reinvent history!
I found that with my one other published work, I had the most success by marketing it as a traditional romance since it did fit within those guidelines. Now, writing about war, I’m making a departure from that genre. Because I am striving for authenticity, it occurs to me that “happily ever after” rarely exists in war. Sure, being away from home and under extreme duress, soldiers often found comfort in the arms of lovers. But once the conflict ended, they returned to their wives or families and left these temporary wartime romances behind.
One problem I see in a lot of gay historicals, is what Erastes has coined as OK homo – the tendency to make it a little too easy for gay people to live and be happy in a historical context. While it is certainly pleasant to imagine a happy idyllic gay couple living in the 19th Century, it’s just not realistic. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against these feel-good gay historical romances, after all I wrote one myself! It’s just that my goal with this new story is to create a believable environment in which a soldier knows he has romantic yearnings for a comrade, and also knows that to reveal these desires would be fatal.
The whole subject of gays in the military became a rather conspicuous news story 17 years ago when President Clinton made a campaign promise to lift the ban; and then again as our present administration announced its intention to abolish “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that by the time President Obama leaves office, gays and lesbians will be proudly and openly serving their country.
So the fact that gay and lesbian military personnel have had to serve in secret throughout history makes for a rich landscape in which to cultivate stories. For inspiration, check out Randy Shilts’ wonderful book entitled “Conduct Unbecoming” that documents real-life gay and lesbian cases all the way back to the Revolutionary War. You will be astounded to know the very large number of dishonorable discharges that were processed every year for homosexuality as the U. S. military was actively entrapping and ferreting out gays and lesbians. Not to mention the cases of soldiers who actually spent years in military prisons after being court-martialed for sodomy. What is absolutely inconceivable to me is that in 1975 decorated Viet Nam war hero Leonard Matlovich was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force after publicly coming out. He sued the Air Force for reinstatement. While he was never reinstated, he did get his discharge changed from dishonorable to honorable. The Air Force did this mainly to rescue their eroding PR, but policy did not change and thousands of men and women continued to be ferreted out.
In closing I’d like to bring your attention to this submissions call. We are looking for good stories that demonstrate what life must have been like for gay and/or lesbian military personnel in a historical setting. Whether it’s 18th Century English Naval officers, 19th Century cavalry soldiers, the men storming the beaches of Normandy on D-day, or the draftees of the Viet Nam War, homosexuals were present and participated in these events and its time they got their due.
And finally please allow me to mention a few of the books that have been written with major gay characters in military settings: The upcoming Transgressions by Erastes (English Civil War) and False Colors by Alex Beecroft (One of those English Naval Wars), A Different Sin by Rochelle Hollander Schwab (American Civil War), Ransom and all its sequels by Lee Rowan, Captain’s Surrender by Alex Beecroft, and last but certainly not least The Charioteer by Mary Renault.