The armed forces help sustain homophobia and injustice. Lesbians and gay men should refuse to serve in an oppressive straight institution that tramples on human rights.
Throughout the Second World War, in the colony of Malaya, British soldiers fought side by side with the Malayan guerrilla army. We trained them and armed them. We praised them as heroes who helped us defeat Japan.
However, as soon as the war was over and the Malayans dared to ask for independence from Britain, our government denounced them as communists. British soldiers were turned against our former allies. Thousands were massacred. Tens of thousands were interned without trial. Hundreds of thousands were forcibly uprooted from their villages and deported to barbed-wire encampments under British military control.
The brutality of British soldiers in Malaya (and subsequent wars) raises a major ethical dilemma for those who support lesbians and gay men serving in the military. How do we reconcile our demand for equal treatment by the Ministry of Defence with the often oppressive role of the armed forces?
Of course military homophobia is wrong. We should always defend those who are being victimised because of their homosexuality.
But do we really want lesbians and gay men to participate in a military system which suppressed the freedom of the Malaysian people? One which has continued to be involved in human rights abuses, such as torture and assassination, according to Amnesty International and the European Commission on Human Rights?
Over 300 people have been killed by the British Army in Ireland, most notably the 14 peaceful republican protesters who were shot dead in Derry in 1972. During the Gulf War, British and American forces bombed and strafed indiscriminately, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Iraqi civilians.
By calling for the right of homosexuals to serve in the armed forces, gay rights organisations are effectively demanding our right to participate in these acts of brutality and slaughter.
This is the paradox: we demand human rights for ourselves as lesbians and gay men, yet we want to be part of an army which tramples on the human rights of other people. Where’s the morality in that? It smacks of selfishness. We care about queers but don’t give a damn about the suffering of anyone else.
The argument against lesbians and gays in uniform is, of course, about much more than the frequently repressive nature of the military. It reflects the wider debate around assimiliationism. Do we want to mindlessly copy everything straight people do? Or should our claim for human rights be discerning, based on a recognition that not every aspect of hetero culture is worthy of queer emulation?
Instead of licking the arse of straight institutions like the armed forces, it’s important to maintain a healthy scepticism towards hetero culture.
Our experience of queer-bashing ought to give us a loathing of violence and a compassion for the suffering of others, making us disinclined to militarism and war. Yet many gays happily endorse the belligerent values of the armed forces.
The demand for homosexuals to serve in the armed forces implicitly sanctions what the military stands for. It also assumes that all the rights straights have are desirable and that gay people should have them too, including the right to kill other human beings.’Onward queer soldiers, Kill! Kill! Kill!’ is, it seems, fast becoming a de facto hymn of the gay rights movement.
There is one very obvious question that requires an answer. Why should we spill a single drop of queer blood to defend a homophobic society that denies us equality? It’s crazy to risk our lives defending a country that treats us as second class citizens.
The military defends the nation-state. Since the state is homophobic, part of what the armed forces are defending is that homophobia. They protect the nation, including all its heterosexist institutions. The military is thus not only anti-gay in its own policies, it defends the whole system of social homophobia. We queers should have nothing to do with it.
* Peter Tatchell’s new book, “We Don’t Want To March Straight – Masculinity, Queers & The Military,” is published by Cassell, £4.99.
Gay Liberation Humanist, Volume 15, No 3, Spring 1996.
Alternative version published as “Wannabe equal on a level killing field?” Gay Gazette, 16 August 1995.