Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book review: "Playing By the Rules", by Justin Elzie

I just finished reading the new memoir from LGBT rights activist Justin Elzie, the first Marine to be discharged, then reinstated, under the recently repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell and I am filled with a mix of thoughts and emotions. "Playing By the Rules" tells the story of a young gay man's struggle for parental acceptance and understanding in his youth on the family farm in Wyoming, to taking on the United States Marines for the right to serve his country openly, honestly and with honor.

You may know Justin from his many appearances on TV news programs over the last year speaking out against DADT, or from his arrest at the White House fence with a dozen other GetEqual anti-DADT protesters, or his arrest at the Manhattan Marriage License Bureau in February 2010, where he and three other activists blocked the entrance to the building by chaining themselves to the railing in a call for Marriage Equality. You may also have seen him in May of this year hosting a GetEqual rally in DC's Lafayette Square.

But what you may not know, is that Justin has been fighting the military's ban on open service since way before DADT was signed into law in 1993. Remember, before DADT, there was an outright ban on gays in the military. DADT was supposed to be a compromise that would allow us to serve in silence.

"Playing By the Rules" provides an inside look into the day to day life in a hypocritical military system that values honor above all else, but punishes gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers for trying to live their lives with honesty and honor. The title of the book is inspired by the author's gradual discovery over many year's that the notion that playing by the rules will bring you success and happiness is an idealistic myth. Justin played by the rules of his parents, his church, his small town and the U.S. Marine Corps only to discover the bitter hypocrisy lurking just below the surface.

I'm one of those who always wants a look behind the scenes. I'm always curious about someone's back story and how they got to the point in their life where I first encountered them. How does a leader become a leader, especially when no one is following?

What Justin's story illustrates is that anyone who cares about telling the truth, standing up to injustice and who is tenacious enough, will ultimately succeed. What is most striking to me about this story is the irony. The Marines trained this young farm boy to be a soldier and warrior who would win at all costs, then tried to get him to shut up and go away when he applied this training to his innate sense of right and wrong and his need to be true to himself.

Justin tells of the stress of living his closeted life in the Marines, the thriving secret gay subculture in the military, his ongoing struggle for acceptance by his homophobic, conservative Christian family, his difficult decision to come out and the toll it took on his career and personal life and relationships. Despite the occasional doubts about whether it was worth it, he kept going, driven by nothing more than the knowledge that what he was doing was right.

Now for the nuts and bolts. "Playing By the Rules" is not the best written book from a technical perspective. It is riddled with all sorts of grammatical and structural problems that would make any English Composition teacher wear out several red pencils. It would have benefited from some better editing or perhaps a co-author to help give it more polish. It often reads like a blog or personal journal. I get the feeling that Justin writes the way speaks, which is what most people do. It may not always be grammatically correct, but it's honest and to the point.

However, once you get past all of that and pay attention to the story, you get a sense of the man in a way that more polished works often miss. As a blogger, this quality hit home with me and kept my attention. I found it endearing that this man had the guts to tell his own story in his own unvarnished, unpretentious and unapologetic style. That seems to be a recurring theme in Elzie's life. He doesn't let the fact that he is in unfamiliar territory or may not know the rules stop him from completing his mission, to serve as an out and proud gay man in the U.S. Marines. Despite all the setbacks, obstacles and disappointments life has thrown at him, Justin remains at heart the often naive, optimistic farm boy he always was and it comes through in this work.

I'm not a professional book critic, but in this age of ghost-written celebrity autobiographies and reality TV "stars" getting famous for doing nothing, I am all too happy to showcase someone who has actually done something with his life and did not seek out publicity, except as a means of furthering the fight for LGBT equality.

"Playing By the Rules" fits well into today's of trends of citizen journalism and self published music. We may be seeing the advent of a new literary genre that values substance over style. It is my hope that Justin Elzie will continue his writing. He has so much more to say.

"Playing By the Rules" is published by Rebel Satori Press.

Two thumbs up!

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