Who's afraid of a gay soldier?

The issue of homosexuals serving in the forces tests the moral fibre of both main parties

Share
Related Topics
Sir James Spicer, the Conservative MP for Dorset West, has been recalling his war years. It would be nice, at this time of VE Day celebrations, if Sir James had been remembering camaraderie and solidarity in the trenches; but sadly, his anecdote concerns a problem he had with some of his fellow men. "There was a ring of them in another regiment during my time in service," the former major in the Parachute Regiment told a Sunday newspaper. "They became a little group who shut everyone else out. You cannot have that in a frontline force. Everybody has to pull together."

The "them" in question were homosexuals. Sir James was responding to reports that a Labour government would end the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces. Sir James is among the many in the Conservative Party and the military who are horrified at this prospect.

As we understand it from his remarks, Sir James, during the Second World War, made overtures of friendship and support to this "ring" in another regiment. But these overtures were rebuffed. The homosexuals had "shut everyone out". They were not prepared to "pull together" with the young Major Spicer. In short, homosexuals in the armed forces are a problem because they may tend to rebuff friendly approaches from other men.

Well, this is fascinating. I had always vaguely understood that the problem was perceived to be the opposite. For example, Lord Henley, the junior defence minister, says that gay soldiers "undermine discipline". Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, suggests they would "undermine morale".

These phrases are rather opaque, but you get the impression that these chaps are not primarily worried, as Sir James Spicer is, about homosexual troops becoming an impenetrable clique. Lord Henley's remarks about the risk to "discipline" - and Mr Rifkind's about the threat to "morale" - can only plausibly be interpreted in three ways.

Possibility one is that they are implying that homosexuals are, by temperament, febrile, unreliable and physically weak. It is their fear that, in some future aquatic landing, a division will refuse to go ashore because they are worried about getting their hair wet. The second explanation is that Lord Henley is concerned about the impact of what he imagines to be gay lifestyles on army community living. He is worried, perhaps, about new recruits keeping the barracks awake all night, by squeakily ironing their leather trousers and roaring out a chorus of "In The Army", their cunningly rewritten version of Village People's "In The Navy". The third interpretation is that the ministers are well aware of the violent homophobia of the average member of the British military and are frightened that homosexual soldiers, should their orientation be known, will be beaten senseless by their colleagues.

The first two of these scenarios are the product of wild prejudice. Indeed, if strength and courage are the question, you might think that to be a gay soldier requires rather more strength and courage than to be a straight soldier. You would have to really want to be a soldier, wouldn't you, to sign up despite the opposition and hostility you must know that you would face. The third projection - that Lord Henley and Mr Rifkind are concerned about attacks by vigilante heterosexuals - is rather more believable, but if that is the objection, then surely the politicians should make clear that they are worried about gay soldiers being killed by their own side rather than their alleged inability to kill the other side.

In fact, we know what the Conservative defence team is saying; what "discipline" and "morale" are code for. At the back of all this is the question of the shower room. The ministers are alarmed that army life, by its nature, provides a ready supply of male bodies, occasionally naked. They believe that homosexuals are by nature predatory, that their libido has no off-switch, although a glance across the Conservative benches at the ranks of sexually disgraced ministers might remind them of how predatory and undiscriminating heterosexual sex may also be.

In reality, human sexual drives vary hugely, whatever the end object of desire, and most people know that there is a time and place for the expression of them. Mr Rifkind has so far managed to avoid jumping on Mrs Bottomley during Prime Minister's Question Time, though he is a man and she a woman, and I dare say a gay soldier might manage to avoid chatting anyone up on the battlefield.

Heterosexuals serving in the armed forces are subject to severe restrictions on when and where they may have sex - not on duty, not with each other, not with an officer - and have regularly been dismissed for breaking those rules. All the Labour Party is proposing is that a homosexual should be able to serve subject to acceptance of the same community rules.

Education offers a good example. It is not illegal to be a gay teacher, although boards of governors sometimes behave as if it were. However, strict rules of sexual conduct apply to teachers - not with the pupils, not with each other on the premises - and these apply equally, whatever the sexual persuasion of the employee. This code of conduct may not always work - some male teachers are drawn to boys' schools for the wrong reasons, just as the few male teachers in girls' schools are not always there because they are feminists - but it offers a sensible balance between human rights and cynicism about human nature.

The issue of homosexuals in the armed forces also usefully provides a test of the moral fibre of the two main political parties. John Major has so far proved unusually liberal on this subject for a senior Conservative. He invited Sir Ian McKellen to Number 10, and approved the appointment of a new Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, despite the cleric's public admission of confusion about his own sexuality. Yet here is an opportunity for a bit of gay-bashing and Labour-bashing to please the tabloid press and encourage the disgruntled "family values" wing of the party. Let us hope that Mr Major's conscience - or, failing that, his fear of Peter Tatchell turning his attentions to the parliamentary Tory party - gets the better of him.

So, too, with Tony Blair. Here is a policy that will be unpopular in Middle England, in which there are no votes to be won and, perhaps, some to be lost. It is, however, a simple matter of civil liberties that any party with surviving liberal principles should support. Mr Blair has so far been good at doing things that are right but unpopular with his own party, but less willing to consider policies that are unpopular in the country but simply right. If Mr Blair and his advisers should retreat on this issue - muttering about easy targets for the Tories, not worth making a fuss over such a small thing, caused Clinton problems blah blah blah - then his liberal admirers, their faith already somewhat shaken by his flirtations with the right, may feel it is time to say goodbye.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape