Against Queer Militarism


The gay rights lobbying group, Stonewall, recently renewed its call for the Defence Minister to overturn the ban on lesbians and gay men in the armed forces. It warned that a successful appeal to the European Court of Human Rights would cost the government an estimated £32 million in legal fees and compensation payments to dismissed homosexual military personnel. “The patriotic course is for the British government to take action. This sort of money could buy a battalion or keep one of our frigates running for a year”, said Angela Mason of Stonewall.

Such a statement sums up the way the just demand for an end to homophobic discrimination by the armed forces increasingly has become an unjustifiable endorsement of militarism and war.

The experience of being marginalised by society as “abnormal” and “deviant” ought to give us queers a more critical attitude towards all social institutions, including the military. Instead of blithely assuming that everything straight is wonderful, we should have a healthy scepticism towards straight culture.

No hetero institution is more deserving of our scepticism than the armed forces. It denies democratic rights to its own members, tolerates bullying, lacks mechanisms for public scrutiny and accountability, discriminates against lesbians and gay men (and women and black people), and has been used frequently to suppress popular movements for social justice and national liberation in countries like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and Ireland.

Above all else, the military is a straight institution. It is organised and dominated by the hetero majority. Part of the function of the military is the defence of a society ruled by straights (as well as by big business). It serves straight interests and upholds the macho straight values of violence and homophobia. Everything about the military is inimical to queer freedom: hierarchy, domination, prejudice, aggression, conformity and authoritarianism.

Moreover, the military is an instrument of State power. The State is homophobic, enforcing legal discrimination against lesbian and gay people. As a part of the repressive apparatus of the State, the armed forces embody this anti-gay discrimination, banning queers from joining the military and forcing out those it discovers within its ranks. In defending the State, the military also implicitly defends the anti-queer repression of the State, including the unequal age of consent, the arrest of gay men for victimless cruising, the ban on the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, the denial of legal recognition to queer partnerships, and the lack of redress against homophobic discrimination in housing and employment.

Lesbians and gay men have a right, and even a responsibility, to refuse allegiance to a homophobic government and its homophobic military apparatus. Faced with unjust laws that discriminate against homosexuals, queers are duty-bound to deny legitimacy to the straight governing elite and to withdraw all consent and co-operation from governmental institutions such as the armed forces.

According to liberal theory, rights carry with them responsibilities. But in the absence of civil and human rights, the duty of reciprocal responsibilities ceases to exist. This means that we queers are under no obligation to join the military to protect those who refuse to protect us. Instead, there is an onus on us to withhold our loyalty from the institutions of a homophobic State, such as the armed forces, and to do everything in our power to sabotage the straight system which treats us as second class citizens. You don’t have to be a queer revolutionary to realise this, just a homo with a bit of common sense and self-respect.

The idea of queer non-compliance with homophobic institutions like the military is rooted in the civil disobedience tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They argued: unjust laws must be broken, not obeyed. When governments deny human rights, those excluded from full citizenship have a moral right to rebel against tyrannical rulers. These principles are just as relevant for lesbians and gay men today in Britain as they were in the past for the Indian independence movement and the US black civil rights struggle.

The armed forces do not respect gay civil rights. Why, then, should we enlist and serve? Is there any reason for queers to give a damn about the fate of the straight State?

We homos (and our straight allies) have no obligation to defend the fraudulent democratic system that denies us equality. On the contrary, the queer self-defence requires that we subvert and destroy the hetero institutions that hold us down.

Collusion with a homophobic State and a homophobic military is collusion with anti-gay discrimination. To do the bidding of those who victimise us betrays the cause of queer freedom. That’s why all queers everywhere have a responsibility to refuse collaboration with the oppressive military system. By so doing, we can help strike a blow for lesbian and gay emancipation, and against oppressive militarism and war.

* Peter Tatchell’s new book, “We Don’t Want To March Straight – Masculinity, Queers & The Military,” is published by Cassell, £4.99.

Expanded version published as “Gays Divide Over Army Ban”, Chartist, September / October 1997.

See also “Democratic Defence”, Gay Times, July 1995, and “We Don’t Want to March Straight”, Peace News, February 1998