Porn again :: Author sheds sex, lies & videotape past
It's taken years and a series of public scandals for former Marine turned celebrated author, Rich Merritt, to exorcise the many demons from his "Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star" past.
"I was so tired of living in fear that people would find out about me," he says, phoning from his apartment in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.
"Hiding and secrets were such a big part of my life, especially as someone who came from a Fundamentalist Christian background," remarks Merritt, author of the new novel "Code of Conduct." "You get used to hiding and you start repressing stuff in your life that you don't need to repress. Suddenly it all comes crashing down."
Weeks before receiving an honorable discharge from the United States Marines in 1998, Merritt was featured as an anonymous source in a New York Times Magazine feature called "The Shadow Life of a Gay Marine." His story, which struck an emotional chord among the thousands of closeted officers in the military forced to keep their orientation a secret, tapped into the downside of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" debate.
In Feb. 1999 after leaving the military, Merritt was then outed by The Advocate magazine in a salacious cover story called "The Marine Who Was Also a Porn Star." The Advocate piece, which debunked Merritt's status as a gays-in-the-military poster boy and featured photos from a series of eight adult movies he shot as porn star Danny Orliss, added fuel to a fire that had been blazing within Merritt for years.
"When the Advocate called me and asked if I did porn, I freaked out," he recalls, adding that the same magazine that condemned his "sexual impropriety" is a sister publication to a slew of skin mags including Freshmen, Unzipped and Torso. "At the time it was pretty devastating. I mean, I'm from a small town in South Carolina with a population of 1,400. Within six weeks after the story came out I started doing ecstasy which led to even more problems. I was devastated."
While pursuing a law degree at the University of Southern California, Merritt decided to embrace his porn-star past and expose the hypocrisy of the gay media and the military by publishing his own tell-all memoir, "Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star."
"Every five years or so, the Marines have to deal with a gay porn scandal, which continues to this day, and they handle it by shutting it up and pushing it out the door as quickly as possible," he says. "The flip side to the story is how do they find out about the porn? It means that someone has to admit to having watched the videos."
When the Advocate made a big deal about his skin-flick secret, Merritt says he felt "gay bashed" on the cover of the widest-circulation gay magazine in the U.S.
"With the Advocate, I figured they would eventually find out about it but they wouldn't care," he responds. "Maybe I was na?ve, but I didn't think the gay community would care that I did porn. I was wrong."
Merritt unveiled his tell-all book, "Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star," in 2005. At the time, the former Marine was working as a lawyer at Powell Goldstein in Atlanta. While the firm knew about his sexual orientation, Merritt wanted to come out of the closet about his porn past and felt it was important to be up front and honest with his supervising attorney.
According to Merritt, they fired him a few days later. The firm's human resources director told him that, because of the book, they didn't believe he'd be able to serve his clients up to the firm's standards.
"In a city like Los Angeles, you walk into a bar and a handful of the gay men there have done porn," he says. "I guess in a conservative city like Atlanta, that's not the case."
Merritt, who now lives a "boring, domestic life" with his boyfriend and continues to practice law in NYC, says his career has consistently been impacted by society's hypocritical love-hate relationship with the adult entertainment industry.
"We live in a society that represses sex so much that porn has become such a huge industry because it's something you can do in private," he says. "But the same people who denounce porn as dirty and unmentionable are the same people who tend to publicly repress sex and try to make it a dirty little secret."
Merritt continues, "I thought the gay community would be different, but they're not."
With the controversy surrounding his porn-star past out in the open, the 40-year-old author hopes the focus will shift to his experiences with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a topic he explores at length in his sophomore effort, "Code of Conduct."
"I'm hoping that once the two presidential nominees are picked, the gay and lesbian community will realize that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is a much better issue for us to push than gay marriage because the public is on our side with this one. Unfortunately, the public is still not on our side when it comes to gay marriage."
In hindsight, Merritt says he has no regrets (well, sort of) about his porn-star past.
"If I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I would not have done the porn," he concludes. "But I hesitate using the word 'regret,' because I really like where I am now in my life. I can finally, after all of these years, admit that the porn part of my past helped me get to where I am now ... and for a long time I couldn't."