The armed forces is an oppressive institution. That is why the campaign against military homophobia must include a commitment to democratic reform.
Ending the exclusion of lesbians and gay men from the military is important for the whole homosexual community. The ban symbolises our second class status in law. Its repeal would signal the new government’s commitment to equal treatment for gay people, and set a precedent for overturning other aspects of homophobic discrimination.
There is, however, a catch. The enlistment of gays in the forces is a morally complex issue, given the undemocratic nature of the military and its frequent involvement in human rights abuses.
The army is notorious for racial victimisation and sexual harassment. Do we really want to join a military system that abuses its black and women members? Since 1945, British forces have been involved in the bloody suppression of popular movements for social justice in countries such as Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and Ireland. How can gay people, who know the pain of persecution, participate in a war-fighting institution that has inflicted so much suffering on other downtrodden peoples?
The homophobia of the armed forces is, without question, indefensible and should be opposed. There can be no justification for excluding people from any job, including the military, because of their sexual orientation.
However, the current campaign seems to go much further than merely opposing discrimination. Proactively demanding “the right” of gays to join the military implies that “serving one’s country” is a noble aspiration for homosexuals, thereby giving legitimacy to the armed forces and all they represent.
This begs two questions. Why should we help defend a society which denies queers equality? Do we want lesbians and gay men to be a part of an army which has been condemned by international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, for using “torture” in the north of Ireland?
Many homosexual service personnel undoubtedly enjoy military life. But just because they like being in uniform doesn’t make it right. Although it’s their life and they are entitled make their own choices, the rest of the gay community should not feel obliged to endorse their chosen profession.
As a reaction to the way straight society has moralised against us, many gay people have embraced a free-for-all, anything-goes attitude. There is a reluctance to talk about ethical rights and wrongs, especially if it involves criticising the behaviour of other lesbians and gay men. Yet having the ability to be self-critical is surely a sign of a mature, intelligent gay community. We don’t always have to agree with each other. Debate and dissent is healthy.
Let’s not be afraid of questioning taken for granted assumptions. Instead of glibly and unthinkingly demanding “equality”, always and everywhere, we should reflect on the implication of this demand.
Underlying the campaign for homosexuals to serve in the military is the assumption that all the rights straights have are desirable and that queers should have them too, including the right to wage war on other human beings.
War is, of course, sometimes necessary and unavoidable; especially when nations are threatened by greater evils such as Nazism. But even a just war of self-defence is bloody and barbaric – and therefore should always be a matter of last resort.
Although the simplistic equality agenda that gays want parity with straights in all circumstances is attractive in principle, it leads inevitably to us abandoning any critical assessment of the institutions of heterosexual society. We end up with a wholly uncritical attitude towards everything straight. For queers to copy-cat one of the worst aspects of hetero culture – macho militarism – is the ultimate in self-disrespect.
The flawed morality of the’us too’ argument is obvious. If the demand that’queers want what straights have got’ is taken to its logical conclusion, we would end up campaigning for’the right’ of lesbians and gay men to join the British National Party.
The absurdity and offensiveness of such a demand shows that our claim for equal rights can never be an unquestioning one.
It should always be discerning, based on a recognition that not every aspect of straight culture is worthy of queer emulation.
No social institution merits our scepticism more than the military. Service personnel are denied basic democratic rights. They are banned from participation in political parties, pressure groups, demonstrations and (in most cases) even public meetings. There is no independent complaints procedure for the redress of grievances. Soldiers facing disciplinary charges are up against a system where the military is police, prosecutor, judge, jury and jailer. This recently led the European Court of Human Rights to condemn the British court-martial system as a violation of civil rights.
The armed forces also have a long history of civil repression, playing a major role in breaking the strikes by fire-fighters and municipal employees during 1977-78. Dozens of people have been killed, and hundreds maimed, as a result of the army’s’shoot-to-kill’ policy in northern Ireland, including 14 peaceful protesters shot dead (some gunned in the back) in Derry in 1972.
There is nothing worthy about lesbians and gay men serving in an institution which has been involved in these acts of brutality. Indeed, it is quite perverse. Our participation in an oppressive military system helps deny to others the liberation we demand for ourselves.
The homophobia of the armed forces is symptomatic of their widespread violation of human rights. The whole military system needs reforming. The gay community should be supporting changes to make the forces democratic in every respect.
Most of our European NATO allies now extend civil, political and legal rights to service personnel (including lesbian and gay soldiers), without any adverse effect on their fighting efficiency. Critics argue that their model of egalitarianism is appropriate for them because they have conscript armies but not for Britain, where our armed forces are all professionals. Yet the all-professional Australian and New Zealand’s armies have found no problem in extending greater rights to their servicemen and women. It makes sense. After all, those who have human rights themselves are more likely to defend the human rights of others (the defence of our democratic freedoms is surely the main reason why we have armed forces?).
My conclusion is that gay campaign groups should add their support to the broader movement for reform of the armed forces. Only when the military is genuinely democratic (and defensive rather than oppressive) will lesbians and gay men be able to enlist with true pride.
* Peter Tatchell is the author of Democratic Defence (GMP, 1985, £3.95), and We Don’t Want To March Straight – Masculinity, Queers & The Military(Cassell, 1995, £4.99).
Published as “Equality at any price?” Thud, 9 May 1997