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Sitting against a backdrop, Elzie answers the MTV reporter’s banal questions about whether gays really stare at other Marines in the showers.(The consensus here is that straight men are the ones sizing one another up.) Elzie talks about the response to his national coming-out.Monday, when he walked into work, he was questioned by his superiors and met silence from his co-workers.

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Jim and his friend Glenn, both 22, seem an unlikely pair. I’m sitting in a cluttered apartment, drinking coffee with the lover Milano left behind. He read about the week-old bombing in the base newspaper. But the military wouldn’t grant him emergency leave to attend the funeral.Jim has long lashes, a wisp of a mustache, a cute face. “I’d probably sit there for a while, thinking,” he replies, slowly. Don, a sergeant, has a “Silence=Death” poster and a rainbow flag on his wall. Well, he says, “maybe they suspect.” He flashes back 10 years. When he learned which troop was involved, his heart started racing. “I made a decision after Joe died that I would never go back into that closet,” Don says. “But then again, it’s very challenging and exciting.” For 10 years Don has been afraid to discuss the issue openly, but now President Clinton has forced a national debate. MTV has descended on Jacksonville to film a segment on gay in uniform for “This Week in Rock.” Tonight, the hero of Friends Lounge is Sgt.Justin Elzie, a buzz-cut Marine who announced his homosexuality on national television hours before the Wilmington beating.Early 40s, Filipina, nearly naked, she introduces herself as Lydia. “Come sit with me,” she says, motioning toward a dark booth near the runway. Some customers park at a Mc Donald’s and walk blocks to the bar.

“I’m a dancer.” She peels back her sleeveless dress to show me her cleavage, then pulls up her miniskirt to show me her black panties. Leonard sometimes shuttles groups of soldiers to the loungeand then holds up a sheet to shield their faces as they enter the building.

“It wouldn’t bother me a bit.” “I’d do it myself,” he adds. “Yes, a lot.” Then he catches himself, starts to backpedal. It bothers me.” I don’t fully understand, I tell him. He spent the entire time clutching a bottle for dear life. Twelve years ago, the military declared the club off-limits, but owner Danny Leonard estimates two-thirds of his customers are Marines.

“Because they’re queer I don’t know.” He pounds his hand on the table. “I guarantee you there would be some killings,” he says. After he realized he was in a gay bar, Lafreniere waited an excruciating half hour before his friends finished their beers. Located discreetly behind an abandoned gas station, Friends Lounge is the only spot where Jacksonville’s lesbian and gay soldiers can safely gather.

Glenn is tubby, wears glasses, looks like the president of his high-school science club. “Then I’d say, ‘Hell man, it’s cool, but I ain’t checkin’ you out.” No surprise Jim carries an image of gay men as sexual predators. This is a city run on testosterone, a city where whorehouses, tattoo parlors, and “all-girl staff” nightclubs beckon with their plastic signs. Then, in the most innocent of ways, he touches my leg. He also has a framed photograph of one of his role models, Gen. He still reveals little about his personal life, but he now debates the gay issue with his workmates, drawing parallels to the oppression Marines fight worldwide.

Glenn knows gay men from his time living in Monterey, Calif. But a lot of people in the military, they’re gonna flip about it. “The gun’s gonna be right here,” Jim says, holding his fist to his chest. How many straight Marines have walked into the bars along U. 17 and immediately felt a hostess’ hand or their legs? Suddenly they enter a world where sex is crude and public. They treat me with respect and defend me against a drunken customer. NEAR ONE OF THE ENTRANCES to Camp Lejeune sits the Beirut Memorial, a stone monument to the soldiers who died in Lebanon.

I WALK UP to the bar at the Lucky Lady Night Club and order a Bud Light. He looks like such an innocent, this leatherneck from small-town New Hampshire. “If one of those guys came on to me, I would have hit ’em with it,” he says. It hasn’t always been easy for soldiers to visit Friends Lounge.