Questioning Military Machismo – Against Queer Conformism


Serving as a British soldier in Ireland at the height of the war against the IRA was not the ideal posting for most squaddies. It meant months cooped up in fortified barracks, extra long working hours, and limited opportunities for socialising and romancing. There was also, of course, the danger of being killed.

For Private Pete “Spike” Smith, however, a tour of duty in Ireland had its positive side. It kept him away from his hometown, London, “the city of temptation”, where he might succumb to the hated homosexual desires he was trying to suppress. Smith identified with all things straight. Totally closeted, he wanted to blend in. His greatest wish was to be just like the other guys in his unit. Dating girls, getting married, having children. For him, heterosexuality was the good life, the right life. He wanted his share of it. Smith also convinced himself that soldiering in Belfast would get rid of “the demon” of male attraction that was “ruining” his life. It was a chance to prove his manhood in the service of’Queen and Country’.

From a working class family in east London, Smith was a Tory-voting Empire royalist who looked back with nostalgia to the hey-day of British imperial grandeur. It is not hard to see his obsequious loyalty to traditional values as a compensation for his violation of those values in his furtive, guilt-ridden, anonymous gay encounters in parks and public toilets.

Smith is not untypical. Most homosexuals who join the military are characterised by a strong mental and emotional identification with straight culture. They personify a particular type of assimilationist gay person.

To serve in the armed forces involves conforming to the rules of a quintessentially straight institution. Demanding more than mere integration, it requires collusion with a military system that actively discriminates against queers. To be complicit with this institution necessitates a hetero mind-set. That is why the majority of lesbian and gay soldiers are invariably straight-thinking, and straight-acting. Infatuated with all things heterosexual, they often want to be straight, or at least to pass for straight. These’hetero homos’ aspire to be like straight people and to be liked by them. Possessed of a wholly uncritical, hetero-worshipping mentality, they are psychologically dependent on straight society for their values and for their sense of self-worth (or their lack of it).

Becoming a soldier is, for them, becoming part of a’distinguished’ and’respected’ straight institution. It is seen as a way of recapturing the self-esteem and social approval which they believe their homosexuality has denied them. They enthusiastically embrace the straight culture of the armed forces precisely because it embodies the social norms of heterosexuality and machismo which they revere. These people are heterosexualised homosexuals. They’fit in’ easily with the armed forces’ way of doing things because military culture is all about the obliteration of’difference’ and they are happy to comply with a conformist culture that aims to create uniform, regimented, straight-acting people. After all, to be’the same’ as heterosexuals is usually their most cherished aspiration.

But why should lesbians and gay men mimic straight culture and seek validation on the terms laid down by hetero norms and institutions? As the Gay Liberation Front argued a quarter of a century ago, and as OutRage! proclaims today, genuine liberation lies in proudly celebrating our sexual difference and in winning the social acceptance of our own distinctive, worthwhile queer values. Blending imperceptibly into the straight majority and getting absorbed into their institutions, like the military, is a sure-fire strategy for the loss of homo identity and the annihilation of queer culture.

In contrast to the fawning homosexual apologia of the past, nowadays no self-respecting lesbian or gay man can base their claim for human rights on the argument that homosexuals are’just the same’ as heterosexuals, or that queers are’just as good’ as straights. The mere fact of our existence as human beings should be quite enough to entitle us to human rights, without any need for justification or pleading. In any case, the denial of difference is profoundly dishonest. There are differences between straights and queers. We are not all the same. While some lesbians and gay men do mindlessly ape heterosexual values, many do not. The sexual behaviour, relationships, aesthetics, and lifestyles of even conservative gays (let alone queer dissidents) are frequently quite dissimilar from those of the average heterosexual. That’s not something we should deny, let alone be ashamed of.

This transcending of heterosexual mores is a positive and immensely liberating experience. William Masters and Virginia Johnson studied straight and queer couples, documenting their research findings in Homosexuality in Perspective. They found that compared to most straights, queers (especially lesbians) tend to be more sexually adventurous, with a wider repertoire of sexual stimulation. On average our sex acts last longer and result in a higher level of erotic satisfaction. There is more egalitarianism and mutuality between homosexual partners. Other research has found that we’re less bound by the strictures of traditional morality and more experimental in relationship patterns. There’s no need for a marriage certificate to validate our love and commitment to each other, and we’ve adapted much better to safer sex. In all these senses, the fact that homosexuals are different from heterosexuals is a real virtue that we should all be proud to shout about. Of course, this is not to say that queers are superior to heteros. But in certain respects, perhaps we do lead the way and could teach straights a thing or two.

Furthermore, the right to be different is a fundamental human right. The acceptance of sexual pluralism and diversity is just as much a sign of a mature democracy as is the acceptance of racial difference. Conversely, the denial of the right to be different, as in the institutionalised homophobic discrimination of the military, is profoundly authoritarian. When the armed forces intrude into people’s private lives and attempt to exclude and punish those who do not conform to heterosexuality, it is taking away one of the most precious individual freedoms – the right to sexual difference.

Lesbian and gay people, because of our different sexuality and lifestyle, help make a more heterogeneous and interesting society. That’s a good thing. There is nothing great about social homogeneity. It is boring and results in social stultification and sclerosis. In contrast, the existence of difference, including sexual difference, is a force for social innovation and renewal. It enlivens and enriches our whole culture.

One of the many valuable aspects of being part of a minority community is that it makes us queers more likely to develop our own self-determined individuality and question the constricting taken-for-granted traditional values of mainstream society. It is from scepticism towards hetero institutions that uniquely queer insights and innovations evolve. This dissent is what helps push forward homo progress. In maintaining an anti-assimilationist, autonomous queer identity, we are thus safeguarding our independence from the dominant straight culture.’This is not only good for our own psychological esteem and well-being, it also helps sustain the sub-cultural’abnormality’ and’deviance’ which are essential for oppressive social norms to be challenged and for liberating cultural change to be effected. Rebelling against the hetero status quo and seeking the sexual transformation of society has the potential to benefit both gays and straights. Since we are all harmed by the sex-negative nature of the dominant straight culture, the queer refusal to conform to hetero expectations is of much wider social worth.

From the perspective of valuing sexual difference, homo conformity and assimilation is anathema. The integrationist strategy of the homosexual establishment assumes that lesbian and gay freedom is about queers adapting to, and being accepted by, straight society. It involves homosexuals conforming to heterosexual laws and values. That’s not liberation; it’s capitulation! And it doesn’t win us respect or human rights either.

Lieutenant Elaine Chambers of the Royal Army Nursing Corps found that out the hard way. She was a model soldier. Very discreet about her sexuality, she conformed in every way to straight expectations. But her exemplary record and feminine respectability didn’t help her one iota when she came under suspicion of being a lesbian. Military investigators took apart her private quarters and subjected her to two marathon non-stop interrogations, one lasting fifteen hours and the other nine. She was treated with all the harshness that would normally be meted out to only a saboteur or spy. They even tried to pin charges of sexual assault on her, which drove Chambers to contemplate suicide. Within three months she was dismissed from the British Army, very lucky not to have been court-martialled and imprisoned. So much for idea that blending quietly into straight society affords any protection.

Irrespective of how badly the armed forces mistreat homosexuals, there is a more fundamental question that needs answering. Why would queers want to join a homophobic straight institution and conform to straight expectations? Is heterosexuality really so great? What about the alarming rates of divorce, rape, wife-battery and child abuse within heterosexual families? Can anyone honestly say that straight life is better? Happier? More fulfilling? For some, maybe. But many of us would not wish the hetero hell of marriage, children and a mortgage in suburbia on our worst enemies. Moreover, as the London Gay Liberation Front asked: “Do we really want to be integrated with a society we regard as sick? Do you really want to be accepted by so-called normal people? On whose terms?” (Come Together, No. 4, February 1971). This recognition of the often ugly reality of straight society suggests that queer emancipation is not contingent on us adapting to the heterosexual status quo, but on us radically changing it. The problem is social homophobia, not queer deviance and dissent.

Winning law reform and equality with straights, although an advance, has its limitations. It means homo conformity with hetero society. We comply with their system. The end result is parity on heterosexual terms – equal rights within a framework determined and dominated by straights. However, lesbian and gay people are valuable in their own right. Our worth should be measured on our terms, as opposed to the criterion laid down by straights. Allowing the values and choices of queers to be judged by heterosexual society, based on its traditions and norms, is an invitation to permanent rejection and exclusion.

Ultimately, assimilationism is just another means whereby heterosexuals continue to call the shots. It obliterates any distinctive queer identity and culture, creating homosexual versions of heterosexual lifestyle and morality. Moreover, assimilationism means us giving up the unique and enriching aspects of our own lesbian and gay experience. It requires our surrender to heterosexual norms. We have to become’hetero – homos’ and uncritically adopt the dominant straight values in order to be accepted. Absorbed and invisibilised, we become mere facsimiles of heterosexuality.

In addition, an assimilationist strategy implies that the lesbian and gay experience embodies nothing worthwhile, innovative or liberating. It suggests that queers have nothing positive to contribute to society, nothing that straights can learn from or benefit from. That attitude is as much a nonsense as it is insulting. We have got something positive to offer. There are lots of queer insights that can contribute to the enrichment of heterosexuals and the betterment of society. Compared with most straight people, for example, lesbians and gay men are more willing to transgress the boundaries of traditional masculinity and femininity. As a result, many gay men tend to be less macho than straight males, which means fewer crimes of violence and vandalism. Because lesbians are usually less reliant on men than their hetero sisters, this greater independence and assertiveness has enabled them to make a pioneering contribution to women’s advancement in previously all-male occupations.

What finally clinches the case against assimilationism is the fact that it has not succeeded in securing dignity and human rights for lesbians and gays. Being deferential and straight-acting hasn’t saved queers from job discrimination and queer-bashing violence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the armed forces.

Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer blended perfectly into the US military. A model of American womanhood, she was no’bull dyke’. Her career was impeccable, from volunteering for Vietnam to winning the Bronze Star. After leaving the Army, she joined the Reserves. In 1985, they named her Nurse of the Year.

Four years later, when up for consideration for the job of Chief Nurse of the National Guard, she told the truth about her lesbianism in response to a routine security clearance check. That was the end of her military career. Twenty-eight years of patriotic loyalty and distinguished service counted for nothing. Despite proving she was the best, and otherwise conforming to every expectation the military had of her, Cammermeyer was ousted.

That’s what happens to nice assimilationist homosexuals. They still get fucked over by straight society.

Thinking straight and acting straight is not enough. The homophobes won’t get off our backs until we are straight. If we are not prepared to renounce our queerness, we have to look to effective, lasting ways to ensure our emancipation from hetero intolerance. Long ago, the Gay Liberation Front realised that tinkering with the straight system doesn’t work. It has to be fundamentally transformed: “Legal reform and education against prejudice, though possible and necessary, cannot be a permanent solution. While existing social structures remain, social prejudice and overt repression can always re-emerge…We should not confuse legal changes with real structural change. Legality can always at some point be changed to illegality” (Come Together, No. 2, December 1970).

What this means is that genuine queer liberation involves more than mere law reform and legal equality. It requires an end to heterosexual hegemony and to all erotic guilt and repression. That necessitates changes in cultural attitudes, as well as in social structures and institutions.

Paradoxically, this strategy for queer liberation leads to sexual liberation for everyone. In defending our right to be queer and fighting for queer freedom, we break down erotic barriers, which also helps free heterosexuals from the sex-negative system in which they, too, are trapped.

The assimilation of queers into the majority straight culture is not just destructive to lesbians and gay men. It is also indirectly against the interests of heterosexuals. Mere equalisation of the law invariably means equality on terms pre-defined by a puritanical, straight-dominated legislature. This perpetuates society’s present anti-sex bias, which hurts heteros as well as homos. Everyone would therefore benefit from the realisation of the more sexually enlightened culture that queer activists are striving to achieve.

The modern queer agenda is post-equality. It’s geared to a wholesale renegotiation of sexual values and laws. We want more than simply an equal age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals, and more than mere equal treatment in the way other laws, such as those against prostitution and pornography, are enforced. The whole system has to change. That demands social transformation to create a sex-affirmative society. It means, in the words of the Gay Liberation Front, moving “beyond civil libertarian goals” to achieve a “revolutionary change” that “abolishes the gender system” and creates a “new social order” which is not based on “straight male privilege”

These ideas, which reject shallow reformism, are as perceptive and relevant today as they were in the early 1970s. The linchpin of queer liberation remains the same: a thorough-going cultural revolution to break down the gender system which demands that men and women conform to rigid masculine and feminine roles. Dictating the way we are supposed to think and act, including the social expectation of heterosexuality, this system pressures men into the masculine role of domination and aggression and women into the feminine role of subordination and passivity. Queer persecution is thus substantially the result of our (praiseworthy) failure to conform to the gender roles expected of men and women. Most gay men are deemed incompletely masculinised and we fail to fulfil the male role of sexually-possessing and subordinating women. Compared to typical heterosexual women, lesbians tend to be less femininised and dependent on men, and they refuse to make themselves available for male sexual conquest and the servicing of men’s domestic needs. Queer dissent from the screwed up nature of male-dominated heterosexuality therefore is a virtue and a great personal liberation.

In contrast, the social demand for conformity to traditional male-female roles denies choice, crushes individuality, and sustains homophobia and misogyny. It is the ultimate reason for our second class status and the number one obstacle to queer emancipation.

Published as “Why We Shouldn’t March Straight“, Queer Words, Issue 3, 1997