Coming to terms with queerness and fighting machismo in the confines of compulsory military service
I’m a Cypriot. Most of you know a few things about Cyprus: it has Ayia Napa (#ladsontour), halloumi and it’s hot. I remember miserably observing the graduation ritual seniors perform every year: boys running around in scooters, hooting and howling, spraying shaving foam at each other, celebrating the death of their most carefree years.
I couldn’t celebrate. Damocles’ sword was dangling above my head – compulsory military service. Twenty-five months of it, to be exact. Military service is a remnant of the 1974 Turkish invasion. The war was tragic, but the draft today is mainly posturing about a conflict that won't happen again. There are many honest Cypriot businessmen who make a good living from encouraging flimsy nationalism to continue selling shoddy uniforms and tahinopites.
It’s been a decade since I finished serving and until now I have never really written about it. The first week was a blur. I arrived at basic training, my stomach firmly knotted and all around me was a sea of shaved heads. It was 7AM and the sun was already burning me, as I watched Cypriot mothers waving goodbye to their sons.
Everything that I encountered after walking through the gate reminded me of the (accurate) adage about the army: “Logic ends where the military begins”. I was not, however, prepared for the mountain of shit the National Guard is built on.
I suppose I should explain why I simply didn't skip it, since there were ample reasons people for discharge: non-heterosexuality, allergies, gun-phobia, conscientious objection. But I was too busy drowning out my queerness and, also, I wanted to be a cadet: a civilian officer who only stays in for a few days per month and bosses people around – perfect for my laziness and megalomaniacal tendencies.
To begin, we were given uncomfortable uniforms, ill-fitting boots, and old equipment. In the health check-up we were stripped off and ushered through a room in a bizarre Salò-esque sequence, while strangers prodded, weighed and poked us.
As an unfit and repressed teen I alternated between feelings of shame and lust, trying to hide my own body and secretly ogle at every hot guy around me. And then any light at the end of the tunnel disappeared. I took a colour blindness test and failed it. I couldn’t be a cadet. That was it – I was trapped. Trapped in a cage for two years.
Growing up queer is easy in few places in the world, and even less so in a nominally puritanical, Orthodox Christian country. I say nominally because, like many other faux-pious places in the world, Cyprus has an extremely vibrant and populous queer scene. For the past few years, there have been massive strides: civil partnerships have been recognised, the first Pride parade was organised, and the Cypriot public has generally become more accepting.
However, a decade ago, this world was totally foreign to me. My repression had a very long trajectory of excuses. At first I used to tell myself that I was just "appreciating the aesthetics of the male form". This was my thought, verbatim. This was followed by the classic excuse "just experimenting". Finally, by the time I was conscripted at 18, I had settled on "probably bisexual". I was still, woefully, a virgin with both men and women. My inexperience, in conjunction with being trapped with (sometimes) beautiful men also on hormonal overload, made for an interesting combination.
Our training month was anything but boring, but came with difficulties. One guy beat me for reading. “You know you’ll never learn anything from books,” he said as his palm connected with my back and winded me. One private wrote the name of his home village on a toilet wall. In shit.
I remember spending a long time thinking about how I could possibly explore my sexuality in an environment that was both very conducive to gayness but also dangerously homophobic. The legends were not baseless about teenage miltary men having no qualms about whipping their dicks out without provocation. I remember shuffling through sleeping quarters, horny and on-edge, seeing handsome – and my standards were admittedly low in such an environment – men with their dicks out, masturbating on their beds as if no-one was in the room.
Once, in a bid to fit in, I befriended a gorgeous, muscular and almost definitely straight man during training, so I decided to "prank" him in the showers. I stole his towel to see what he would do; the horseplay paid off and he came after me naked, which, you know, I was pleased about. These were the heights of my sexual exploration in the military.
And I had to be cautious. Stories about "gays" were infrequent but loaded with bile and prejudice. Two guys were discovered mutually masturbating by another soldier on duty. The news spread all over the camp, and they both had to eventually seek excusal from service because the bullying, abuse and gossip almost led to physical violence against them.
There were also the mysterious urban legends: social pariahs, usually lonely middle-aged men, who would ring up the camp’s telephone centres and ask conscripts on duty if they wanted to pop to the gate, at 2AM, for a quick blowjob or fuck, through the wire fence. One of these urban legends turned out to be true; I was also propositioned by one of these shadowy figures: I politely turned him down, I am not one for blind dates. Cypriot men are great at differentiating performing sexual acts with a man from homosexual behaviour: "a hole's a hole," a friend who fucked a male friend of his once told me. "Was just out of necessity - there was a drought, if you know what I mean? Doesn't matter if you're not dating". I could never decide if this was an amazingly progressive or not.
So here I was, in a strange sexually charged, reclusive and very masculine environment that enabled and demonised homosexual thoughts in equal measure. I have many memories of self-proclaimed straight men hugging, kissing, even sharing a bed, and moments later devolving to talking about "those faggots". The cognitive dissonance of trying to marry almost sexual camaraderie with the desire to remain "masculine" is a common trend in every male-dominated environment; the army worsened it by adding a layer of unyielding hierarchy and abusive authoritarianism.
Did these two years perpetuate my repression for longer than it should have gone on for? Absolutely. I was in an environment that was perfect for me, in theory, to explore my sexuality. What would be more ideal than being locked up with a bunch of other horny, teenage dudes? More often than not, however, it felt like Tantalus’ punishment: low-hanging fruit turning into dust and a pool of water drying up the moment he reached for either. "Punishment" because I had the remnants of my Orthodox Christian guilt somewhere in my mind, even I’d long left that world behind.
But in the spirit of balance and full disclosure, I must admit my experiences have also moulded me into a furious polemicist and unapologetic queer. I now firmly refuse to ever back down, and that is partly due to my exhaustion at home repeatedly rejecting my existence. I’ve been jeered at by homophobes in the streets of London and the only thing I felt was righteous anger, not fear or anxiety. I jeered back. I swore back. I picked fights. Just like the army said I should.