COLUMBUS, Ga. - For 48 hours, I took the pulse of America's infantry, the soldiers stationed at Fort Benning. And on the subject of sleeping side by side with a gay soldier, burrowing into the same foxhole and scrubbing under the same shower head, their collective pulse raced. Their blood pressure soared.
Their hearts pounded inside their male military chests.
For 48 hours, this public stethoscope heard all. And I concluded, albeit sadly, that many of these muscled, shaven-head soldiers suffered from a phobia that has no scientific name - fear of the unknown. What they knew best and most profoundly was that they did not want to serve with gay soldiers.
Here are some of the reasons why they opposed President Clinton's decision to lift the ban on gays in the military:
"You have to spend a lot of times in close quarters, and I wouldn't want to have to worry about some guy making a pass at me. If I don't know he's gay, then I won't worry about it unless he starts acting strange."
"If they change the laws, the gay population would become more aggressive, more outgoing and that would bother me."
"Homosexuality decreases their (soldiers') comfortableness, and I don't want to put my men in an uncomfortable situation."
"When you're out in the field, all you often have is your buddy. Once you've got doubts (about a buddy's sexual orientation) you might not take risks. Trust is the big thing."
Implicit in their reasons were stereotypes: gays were untrustworthy, or cowards, or not smart enough to do the right thing, or oversexed, or flagrant in their sexual behavior.
Many veterans, apparent heterosexuals who fought proudly in Vietnam, voiced some of the same sentiments. Nearly all of two dozen or so enlisted men, veterans and retired officers interviewed in Georgia had never known well a childhood friend, college buddy or fellow soldier who was gay. But they felt certain that they knew how a gay soldier would react in a foxhole, on the battlefield, in a bunk room or in the shower.
In a dinner conversation with three Columbus-area businessmen, however, attitudes about the president's decision varied, from opposition to understanding.
Did these men hold liberal political views? Had they voted for Clinton? The variable seemed to be a friendship or personal relationship with a gay person.
The men were electrical supply salesmen, who had stopped for a drink at Simon Malone's, a bar-restaurant in north Columbus.
Wayne Ryle, 33, moved to Columbus from Macon, Ga., four months ago. He has never served in the military. He knows no one who is gay.
To Ryle, the president took an "oath of office to uphold the law."
"I don't think he has the power to say we're going to turn our heads and ignore that part of the law," he said, referring to the military code of justice that outlaws sodomy.
Maiben McKinley, 41, served in the Air Force between 1972 and 1976, in the closing days of the Southeast Asian conflict, and has tried to maintain a "live and let live" attitude on the gay ban, despite "old Southern prejudices (that) put gays and blacks and Mexicans" in the same category. Over Christmas, McKinley learned his nephew was gay.
"Do I love him any less? No. But I would have a hard time rooming with a gay," McKinley said. "I was in Vietnam. I was in very close contact with guys for a year. Had I been with gay people at that time, life would've been a little more difficult. In the military I wanted somebody next to me who can carry his own weight."
McKinley said he often fights the Southern, macho "pound your chest" mentality. A gay soldier would have to go through "a proving process," he said.
But, he added, "Being accepted in the military has nothing to do with performing your job. I quit (the military) because I got tried of being chewed out for doing something I didn't do, to follow directions without rebuttal."
"If they put me next to a gay and said, `Do it.' I would do it. Like I did it when it was a woman," he said.
And yet McKinley said he did not think less of his nephew, his intellect or his ability to act responsibly, since learning of his sexual preference.
"I don't think he's going to attack me," McKinley said.
Mark Register, the third businessman, has never served in the military. About a year ago, he learned that a friend, a business associate from New York, was gay. Before his friend told him his secret, Register said he and his wife had gone to visit the man in Manhattan, stayed at his apartment, had a wonderful time.
When he learned of his friend's sexual preference, Register admitted he was shocked.
But did it change his fondness for the man or alter their friendship?
No, said Register. "He's a terrific guy."
Gay veterans and soldiers with whom I spoke believe that lifting the ban won't necessarily improve conditions for gay soldiers or raise the tolerance level within the military. They won't necessarily be any more accepted. The notions of what might happen in a foxhole or a shower won't necessarily disappear. But they might.
For one soldier, a 26-year-old Marine from South Carolina, removing the ban would relieve the pressure that comes with living an "artificial life."
"When you're on base or with your friends, you're a different way," said the Marine, who dates women to avert any suspicions about his sexual preference. "It's an immense pressure. You feel like you're losing touch with reality. You are being drawn into this straight world so much that you forget who you are as a homosexual male."
If the ban is lifted, the Marine said, then perhaps gay soldiers can confide in their colleagues who are friends.
"The reason we're different is because we can't let anybody get close," says the soldier, who had his first homosexual experience after he joined the military seven years ago.
In part, the Marine said, the stereotypes of gay men persist because of the public's perception that homosexuals are effeminate.
"There is a whole society of masculine men who are homosexual," said the Marine, who did not want to be identified for fear he would lose his command. "As time goes on you're going to see that we're going to emerge as the majority. We can't afford to be hypocritical in the future, and we need to let our friends know who we are. Once they know a gay person and they decide they want to be that gay person's friend, these stereotypes will be gone."