Rich Merritt, whose book "Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star" caused a stir whe it was published in 2005, will be returning to the Los Angeles area Tuesday, February 12. 7:30 p.m., when he appears at A Different Light Bookstore, 8853 Santa Monica Blv’d., to promote his new novel, "Code of Conduct." Set in the early 1990's, the book is about what happened to Gays in the U.S. military when President Bill Clinton promised to end the ban on Queers in the U.S. military — and then reneged in the face of massive political pressure and agreed to the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
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âGay Marine Porn Starâ Returns to Los Angeles Feb. 12
Rich Merritt Hits Town to Promote Anti-âDonât Ask, Donât Tellâ Novel
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright Â© 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zengerâs Newsmagazine â¢ All rights reserved
Rich Merritt, author of Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star, opened his February 9 talk at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in San Diego by asking the audience to do a thought experiment. A president named Clinton has just replaced a president named Bush and promised to end the ban on Gays and Lesbians serving openly in the U.S. military. But the proposal to lift the ban has run into major, highly publicized opposition and as a result Clinton and a hostile Congress reach a compromise that, in practice, leaves the situation of Queers in the military as bad or worse than it was before.
No, he explained, this isnât a prediction of 2009: itâs what actually happened in 1993, when it was Bill Clinton replacing George H. W. Bush and the policy that emerged was called âDonât ask, donât tell, donât pursue.â But the âdonât tellâ parts were enforced with a vengeance that actually increased the numbers of people discharged from the U.S. military on the grounds of homosexuality â while the âdonât askâ and âdonât pursueâ parts were honored far more in the breach than the observance. This, in a nutshell, is the premise of Merrittâs new book, a novel called Code of Conduct set in the mid-1990âs in San Diego and the North County Marine base at Camp Pendleton, where Merritt actually served through much of his 13-year stint in the corps.
The publication of Code of Conduct is only the latest episode in Rich Merrittâs remarkable life. He grew up in a Fundamentalist Christian home, was educated in the ultra-conservative Bob Jones school system, joined the Marines as an act of personal liberation, came out as Gay in the service, did porn videos, got discharged, drifted into the circuit party scene and the drugs that went with it, sobered up, went to law school, became an attorney and wrote a memoir that sold well but raised the hackles of many Queer community leaders because of Merrittâs insistence on using the word âpornâ in the title. He now lives in New York with his partner Jonathan, works as a researcher on securities fraud cases, and says heâs gradually moving out of legal work to pursue a writing career full-time. âAs my attorney career is going south, my writing career is going north, so that decision is being made for me,â he said,
The lead characters of Code of Conduct are 33-year-old career Marine Don Hawkins and the man heâs falling in love with when the book opens, helicopter pilot Patrick McAbe. The villains are Congressmember Ed Coughlin from Orange County(based on real-life former Congressmember Bob Dornan), who emerges as one of the principal campaigners against Queers in the military; and Jay Gared, an investigator with the Naval Intelligence Service (NIS), feared by Queer servicemembers in the Navy and Marines because of their reputation for infiltrating Queer bars, community centers and other gathering places in search of servicemembers to bust.
âWhen I was in the Marines at age 25,â Merritt recalled, âwe lived in fear that NIS had agents in the Center, in the bars, everywhere.â Only in his book heâs drawn Gared as a deeply closeted character, Gay himself but so conflicted about it he can only have sex with men in a context of attempting to entrap them. âItâs obvious to everyone except Jay that heâs Gay,â Merritt said, âand I began to wonder if anyone would think he was real. Then along came Senator Larry Craig tapping his feet in that restroom, and I could say, âIâm not making this up. Those guys exist in real life.â
While Merritt insisted that his characters â except for Congressmember Coughlin â werenât patterned directly on real-life models, much of the book was formed out of his experiences as a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton and coming to San Diego to socialize and cruise. He read a section of the book in which Patrick is invited to an officersâ dinner at the U.S. Grant Hotel and realizes heâs the only Gay Marine there who hasnât brought a female date for cover. This was for real, Merritt explained. âWe would bring a fake âdateâ and pretend to have a girlfriend,â he said. âWeâd call her a âstunt babe.ââ
Though published later, Code of Conduct was actually written before Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star, Merritt said. He began the novel in 1993 â in that first flush of hope that President Clinton was actually going to lift the ban on Queers in the military outright â and finished it in 1997, then put it aside. After the success of Secrets, Merritt said, his editor asked if had anything else. âI told my editor about this old manuscript and sent it to him, and he loved it,â Merritt said. He did revise the book before it was published, mainly to improve the writing quality; he joked that much of the revision consisted of finishing sentences heâd left incomplete in his 1990âs draft.
After joking that he tells people who ask if theyâre in the novel that if theyâd been important enough for him to write about, theyâd have been in his memoir, Merritt said he thinks novel writing is more satisfying. âI love fiction,â he acknowledged. âI personally believe that memoirs are not the best way of telling a story. Thatâs what Norman Mailer said, and now that Iâve written one I see what he meant. â Merritt explained that if youâre writing an out-front autobiography youâre stuck with your recollections of what âreallyâ happened, but when youâre writing a novel âyou can take all these little bits of things and put them together.â
Asked about the likelihood that the âdonât ask, donât tellâ policy will be repealed after President George W. Bush leaves office in 2009, Merritt said, âThe key number to look at is public opinion. In 1993, 42 percent of the public was in favor of allowing Gays and Lesbians to serve openly, and over 50 percent were against it. Now those numbers have turned around. Today itâs over 60 percent who support allowing us to serve openly. Thatâs why it will eventually change. Itâll be easier to repeal it if both the President and the Congress are Democratic, but I think even John McCain would sign a bill to repeal âdonât ask, donât tellâ if a Democratic Congress sent him one.â
Asked whether his memoir had been used by any of the Queer lobbying groups working on the repeal of âdonât ask, donât tell,â Merritt said rather ruefully that âthe Gay and Lesbian groups run as afar away from my book as they canâ because of what he called âthe hypocrisy about pornography among Gay leaders. Iâve received so many e-mails [from Queer activists] saying the book was great but I shouldnât have put the word âpornâ in the title. I was booked for an interview with a Gay radio station called Twist, and then they cancelled me at the last minute, saying they were owned by Clear Channel and they couldnât broadcast a show with someone whoâd written about doing porn. No Gay/Lesbian organization working for repeal will use my memoir â or even my novel, because my name is attached to it.â
Similarly, Merritt reported that the word âpornâ in the title of his memoir had kept major chain bookstores from doing author events with him. He said the frequent argument that it doesnât matter if independent Queer-oriented bookstores close because people can now buy Queer-themed books at mainstream stores or on the Internet is belied by his own experience â including the cancellation of an event at the Borders in heavily Queer Fort Lauderdale, Florida because the manager flatly refused to promote a book with âpornâ in the title. âThis time around, Iâm having better luck because the word âpornâ isnât in the title,â Merritt admitted.
Merritt said that this was his 10th event promoting Code of Conduct, and some of the previous ones had been in rather unlikely places â like Melbourne, Australia and Hawaiâi â because he was vacationing there and seized the chance. He also got to do an event at the Chelsea Barnes and Noble in New York â which, he joked, was good because he and Jonathan could push all their friends to go â and has appeared on Sirius satellite radio. After his San Diego appearance he was scheduled for Acres of Books in Long Beach, an appearance before a Queer student group at USC Law School (where he attended after he left the Marine Corps) and A Different Light in Los Angeles. Admitting that âmost authors are afraid to talk in publicâ â a problem he didnât seem to have â Merritt said that they nonetheless have to accept that they have to do tours to promote their books.
Asked if heâd had any interest from the movie business in either Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star or Code of Conduct, Merritt said heâd actually written his own screenplay based on his novel. He did a reading of the script with 10 friends, âand halfway through we decided it was terribleâ â mainly, he decided, because heâd indulged in a common failing of novel writers who try their hands at plays or scripts: heâd made it too wordy and written unnaturally long and detailed speeches for the characters. âThe problem is that authors like words,â he said, âand on the screen you have to show other things.
Not that heâs expecting either of his works to hit the big screen any time soon. âIâve had a lot of interest in Secrets from producers, directors and studios,â he said, âbut the problem is whoâs going to pay for it and whoâs going to see it. They just donât make Gay movies. Brokeback Mountain was three years ago, and that was the Gay movie for this decade.â
Original: "Gay Marine Porn Star" Returns to L.A. Area