Last month something surprising but rather heart-warming happened. An openly gay British solider – Trooper James Wharton – appeared on the front cover of the Army’s own magazine – Soldier.
What is amazing and wonderful about our country is that openly gay men and women are encouraged and supported to join and serve in the British armed forces. This has been the case for 9 years following a European Union directive which forbade the long-held rule that openly gay men and women could be thrown out of the forces. The directive came down because it – rather obviously – breached these soldiers’ human rights.
Long-term readers of this blog will know that I have the propensity to be quite cynical. In addition, I embody that idiosyncratic British trait which is to knock this country (and of course this government!) at the drop of a hat. But actually – especially in the context of being gay in 21st century Britain (and most of Western Europe) – we have it pretty good. Even in the past 5, 10 and 20 years – things have come a long way. Of course homophobia does still exist in places – it probably always will – but we have come a hugely long way in terms of acceptance by mainstream society and in that last, final bastion of the establishment – the British armed forces.
Sadly, over the pond in the country that declares “that all men are created equal” it is a rather different story. In fact, between 1994 and 2006, 11,694 service men and women have been hounded out of the American armed forces. This isn’t simply ‘bad’ – it represents hypocrisy and discrimination at their worst.
Why is it that the British armed forces – far older, with more history and to a far greater extent a stalwart of the old, archaic order – can successfully adapt and change, but the country that so rhetorically declares itself the model by which the ‘free and civilized world’ should compare itself – cannot. I find it terribly, terribly sad for the people involved. For those that served their country to be treated the way that they have been. To be ‘expelled’, stripped of benefits and human dignity. It is absolutely despicable and is the kind of thing I’d expect to see in Iran, not modern day America.
The great thing about having gay soldiers in the media is that they represent a new wave of positive role models who break out of the standard rigid stereotyping we’ve endured for so long. Gay men are too often portrayed as weak, effeminate and shallow. Some are, most aren’t. Stereotyping is the easiest option open to any of us but it’s also the most flawed and ignorant attitude to adopt.
Anyway, the Solider website doesn’t hold past articles that I can see, but I found the article in Google’s cache and paste it below.
Pride not Prejudice
Interview: Joe Clapson
JUST ten years ago it was illegal to be gay in the UK Armed Forces. But since 2000, following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, homosexual men and woman have been able to proudly serve – without hiding their sexuality.
In an interview with Soldier, Tpr James Wharton (The Household Cavalry Regiment) explained that instead of being oppressed, gay and lesbian Army personnel are now given full support.
“I came out to the Army before I told my parents, so that says a lot for the Armed Forces,” said the 22-year-old.
“I told the Army in March 2003, after all my initial training was over – I was 18. I have always known I was gay but it wasn’t until then that I told anyone.”
The decision to lift the ban on gays in the Army came after two landmark cases heard at the European Court of Human Rights, which found that the MoD’s policy was not sustainable.
Despite the change, the other half of the UK’s “special relationship” – the United States – has not relaxed its attitude towards homosexuals in the Forces.
“I still can’t get my head round the US’ ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” said Tpr Wharton, who has served Queen and country for six years.
“Luckily I don’t have to deal with it, but clearly there will be gay soldiers in the US Army who are not being themselves – they aren’t allowed to be.”
Tpr Wharton was deployed to Iraq on OpTelic 10 in 2007 on long-range desert patrols and he says the idea of a “pansy” serving in a conflict zone is a flawed one.
“I would say whoever goes on a tour to a place like Iraq can’t really be described as a pansy – so the gay stereotype doesn’t really apply,” he said.
The Liverpool FC fan, who met his boyfriend Ryan during last year’s London Gay Pride march – the first time members of the Armed Forces were allowed to march in uniform – went on to say that although he can find himself on the wrong end of “banter”, it is not a problem.
The hard image and stories from Iraq ensure Tpr Wharton, based at Combermere Barracks, Windsor, does not fall into any gay stereotype, but by his own admission he can make himself a target for abuse.
“I can’t be late, I’m off to see Britney tonight,” he casually told Soldier before realising the potential implications of his comment.
“That doesn’t exactly sound the most macho thing to say does it? I’ve got quite a bit of ribbing for going to the concert, but to be fair a few of the lads have also got tickets.”
The very fact that Tpr Wharton – soon to be promoted to lance corporal – feels able to tell his colleagues that he is gay, likes Britney Spears and recently attended a Pink concert speaks volumes for the strides in equality and diversity made by the Army.
In the past Tpr Wharton and soldiers like him would have been turned away at the door or forced out of the Army for their sexuality. In 1999 alone, 298 people were discharged because of their sexual orientation.
“A friend of mine who is gay was not allowed to be open about it and had the Royal Military Police following him around because of their suspicions – he wasn’t allowed to be gay,” said Tpr Wharton.
“Some soldiers had to leave and others just remained quiet, so were not themselves. Now it’s completely different. I imagine it’s like being in a different Army.
“Obviously there are people who are set in their ways and aren’t in favour of the changed policy, but the whole attitude is different.”
Although he acknowledges the Army’s significant progress in diversity issues, Wharton explained that the current situation is not perfect, with potential recruits sometimes put off signing up by ill-informed personnel.
“I think there is room for improvement as far as the Army is concerned because there are still people who can’t accept the changes – but it’s 1,000 times better than ten years ago,” said Tpr Wharton.
“There could definitely be improvements in the first stages of recruitment because I know people who have been given bad advice.
“A lot of people express their worries about being gay at recruitment and some awful things have been said to them, like ‘you’re not allowed to be gay in Army time’ or ‘you shouldn’t be gay’.”
In his six-year Army career Tpr Wharton can recall just two unwanted incidents as a result of his sexuality, but neither were serious enough for him to question his career.
“Considering some people have general problems every week I’m not complaining,” he said “I haven’t got any personal problems. My problems are like every other soldier’s – bombs and bullets.”
The trooper was also keen to elaborate on the general misconceptions people have about homosexual men and women. “People tend to think gay people don’t like sport and that
they just sit and file their nails – that is not the case,” he said. “I love playing and watching sport –I’m a massive Liverpool fan and I don’t own a nail file.”
Source: Solider Magazine
Read more – How the forces finally learnt to take pride (article in The Independent).