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Reading Gay Men’s Book Club

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2 Reviews for

“Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star” by Rich Merritt.

When we started the meeting with me explaining why I'd chosen this book, I said that I'd made some bad choices recently & wanted to choose something that was indisputably a book of rich merit. Unfortunately Nick thought I was talking about life choices - I didn't think any of the group knew about them! No, the real reason was to try to horrify Henry with the title. That, & the fact that it looked like an interesting memoir: someone who's done quite a lot with his life & written about it honestly. (The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek: literally true but it's a coming-out story & a messing-up-my-life-&-sorting-it-out story. Well, I think the last is still a work in progress.)

I think we all found it a good read, but perhaps I identified with him more than the rest. Not that I've ever been an American, a fundamentalist, a marine, a drug addict or a porn star. (And it was the Christian amongst us who said: "That picture's been cropped: he's buggering someone".) But Merritt's conformist religious Southern background where so much went unsaid, or only said very indirectly, seemed like an extreme version of my old-fashioned-for-its-time middle-class Anglican upbringing, & while thankfully I haven't made a lot of the life choices he did, I can understand most of them. Which is presumably why I ended up liking him more than the rest of the group did. He came across to them as often egocentric, but I took that as evidence for his honesty.

So what's it all about? Well, his life so far. His brief fame provides the focus for the opening chapters, but then it goes into chronological order. It mostly makes sense, though as so often I sometimes had trouble remembering who someone was who hadn't been mentioned for a while. Like most people's lives, there's no great story arc, & the end seemed to tail off rather before a completely unexpected minor climax, if one can call it that.

Though it is of course his life, there are points where I felt we should have had more about - particularly the marines & training. He'd wanted so long to be accepted into a band of brothers, so what was it like getting in & being brainwashed/homogenized? I'm sure there are accounts of initial US marine training I could find, but why not tell us about it, & its effect on him?

I was interested to hear about "Don't ask; don't tell" in action: I'd assumed the "Don't ask" was aimed at those in authority, but thinking about it, of course it would have to apply to everyone - which in turn means everyone would have to know the rules (e.g. you COULD ask someone if they went to a gay bar, which was not quite too close to the bone). I was intrigued enough to look at his website afterwards - and discovered the previous day the policy had finally been abolished! I'd assumed it had gone as soon as Dubya replaced Bill, but no, de facto tolerance lasted through both his terms and well into Obama's, until finally the gay Republicans persuaded the courts that gay servicemen had a constitutional right to be open - with general public support, even from voters who identify as Republican or evangelical. So, thankfully, there is such a thing as progress.

Review 2

So there you have it: If you allow gay men to serve in the military then they are quite likely to embark on a self-destructive binge of promiscuous sex, fuelled by drugs and alcohol. Not content with seducing their juniors in the ranks, they will set themselves up as porn stars, before being driven predictably to the edge of suicide. The lurid libellous and delirious rant of some raving right wing anti-gay bigot? Actually in this case we are talking about the frank recollections of a real-life gay man who served in the US marines.

However Rich Merritt's memoirs are rather more than a terribly cautionary tale of how not to live as a gay man and a soldier , but more a moving and searingly honest account of one man's attempt to find himself. It explains a lot that he grew up as a fundamentalist christian in the American deep south, attending the notorious fundamentalist Bob Jones University. Growing up gay in an culture of almost unrelenting hostility towards homosexuality might have unbalanced any man. However Rich's rapid path from almost total self-denial (eschewing even the almost obligatory young man's outlet of the sin of Onan) to one of almost orgiastic self-abandon is perhaps not as surprising as it might seem. I have long believed that puritans and lechers have far more in common with each other than they do with more balanced folk. Both believe that we are essentially in the grips of almost uncontrollable sexual urges. The one group fight these demons with all their might, the others surrender unconditionally. Small wonder there are defectors from one camp to the other, bypassing those of us who believe that there are also other things in life. Rich's choice of the Marines in the era of "Don't ask don't tell" made the need for the double life, and the depth of deception need that much more dramatic.

In the process Rich loses one apparently loving relationship and almost loses his life. Oddly it seems to be his relationship with his parents, strained as only those of any gay man from a fundamentalist family can be, that starts to pull him back to a more balanced point when he realises that they have gone from being barriers to his happiness to people who now actually need him. By the end I really did feel that Rich had learned quite a lot from his extraordinary early life, and that he might just be set to find the kind of happiness and equilibrium that we most of us long for. I certainly hope so, and will keep an eye on his future writings and activities.

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