(Book cover image of Justin by Randy Davey. Photo of Justin in 2010 by Jo Ann Santangelo.)
“PLAYING BY THE RULES” by Justin Crockett Elzie
A Marine’s True Story
“Gays in the military” has been a hot topic for decades. Since even military experts acknowledge– perhaps reluctantly– that gay men and women have served honorably throughout history, a more accurate term would be “the right for gay men and women to serve openly and safely in the military”. It seems like everyone has something to say about this divisive (and, as it turns out, distinctly American…) issue– particularly since the recent overturning of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 2010. Despite that recent decision, however, it still promises to be a long and tough road for GLBT’s struggling for full equality in the Armed Forces. Justin Crockett Elzie, author of the new book “Playing By the Rules”, is a hands-down expert on the military’s policy on gay and lesbian soldiers. As the first Marine to be discharged under the President Clinton-era military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Elzie became something of an accidental activist: an openly gay, model soldier who wanted to stay in the Marines and was willing to fight for his cause. Elzie challenged his discharge with a Federal lawsuit, and was re-instated. He wound up serving four years as an openly gay Marine before retiring in 1997.
The author opens his fast-moving memoir with a recollection of the day he planned to come out… in a big way. Emboldened by then-President Clinton‘s promise to overturn the ban, Elzie decided to come out publicly on ABC Evening World News in January 1993. The tension is clearly palpable as the soldier was guided by an almost compulsory force: “I had an instinctive internal drive, almost animal-like, to come out in a public way, and nothing was going to stop me. I felt like I was on a train to destiny that I couldn’t get off, even if I wanted to.” Elzie’s decision led to a parallel struggle: While fighting the military’s anti-gay policy one slow battle at a time, he also struggled concurrently in his personal life as well. Specifically, this was the lack of approval or support by his parents and by the most of the rest of his family (Only his sister, he points out, was supportive.) as well as opposition by his then-boyfriend, who was also in the military. At one point, he described the dynamic between him and his parents as something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy itself.
Readers, especially those who have never served in the Armed Forces, will likely find the story of Elzie’s journey from Wyoming farm boy to seasoned soldier to be very interesting. When the book is looked upon a statement about equality in the military, the most effective aspects of “Playing by the Rules” are Elzie’s deconstruction of the theory that being openly gay or lesbian can damage military security or cohesiveness. Alongside the details of his struggle to stay in the Marines, he incorporates his own military fitness reports throughout… and those reports are consistently no less than superb. Still, the military powers that be stood by their core “reasons” for pursuing their discriminatory policy– despite unwavering evidence to the contrary. For the reader with any level of intelligence, the arguments that were used to attempt to discharge Elzie and countless other soldiers ranged from inane to ludicrous: Ludicrous to the point of almost being funny. As so often in the case of gays in the military, the discourse always seems to be reduced to talk about “foxholes and showers”. It’s no joke, however, that the effort to identify and discharge gay soldiers was very real. Elzie often addresses this specific issue, usually through the stories of many of his peers who dealt firsthand with this modern-day “witch hunt”.
Typically, I’m not too crazy about the almost perfunctory beginning chapters of most biographies where the authors talk about their childhood. Yet with Elzie’s book, it seems almost vital to learn about his past to understand his adult journey. Elzie reveals having felt something of a “kinship” with The Village People when seeing them on TV as a youngster, and he recalls his fist rumblings of same-sex attraction as a child as well. He also writes about having been bullied by other children. With the issue of bullying finally getting the attention it deserves in the media, his insight couldn‘t be more timely or important. Later on in life, while fighting to stay in the Marines, we learn that Elzie had many opportunities to settle for a so-called “compromise“. Elzie refused– and in retrospect, we believe that his struggles in childhood may be the source of his tenacity in adulthood.
“Playing by the Rules” deserves to become an important book in the library of GLBT history. What the book is NOT, however, is an indictment of the military as a whole or a portrait of Justin Crockett Elzie as a victim. Indeed, the author makes it a point to tell us about the moments of pure joy that he experienced as a gay military man — most notably about spending time with his fellow gay and lesbian soldiers (He considers them as family.) in various “safe zones” throughout the world. In addition, Elzie reminds his readers many times that he still has an unbreakable love and respect for the United States Marine Corps.
“Playing By the Rules” tells the story of a man who took on a personal battle, and wound up succeeding on a much bigger, more universal level. Readers will likely relate in an equally big way.
You can purchase “Playing by the Rules” at Amazon.com here