Casting a Critical Queer Eye over the Military
Instead of enthusiastically embracing oppressive straight institutions like the military, gay people should adopt a more sceptical, discerning attitude.
"Homosexuals should not fight in a war propagated by a society that fucks us over in all its institutions. We will not fight in an army that discriminates against us".
These words, written in the San Francisco Free Press in the shadow of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, called on lesbians and gay men to refuse military service in the defence of straight society. They were echoed by the emergent lesbian and gay liberation movement which urged total rejection of the "insane war in Vietnam" and an end to "complicity in the war". "We oppose any attempts by the movement to obtain security clearances for homosexuals since they contribute to the war machine", declared the Youth Committee of the North American Conference of Homophile Organisations in August 1969.
In November that year, the massive Moratorium Against The War march in San Francisco was joined by thousands of lesbians and gay men chanting "One-two-three-four, we don't want your macho war" and carrying placards reading "Suck cock to beat the draft".
A quarter of a century later, attitudes towards the armed forces are very different. The US lesbian and gay movement now has its own patriotic, flag-waving organisation, the Campaign For Military Service. As its name suggests, this organisation has an agenda which goes beyond mere opposition to homophobia in the armed forces. It is for service in the military, and positively endorses that institution's values and objectives. To the theme tune of God Bless America, the Campaign For Military Service demands for homosexuals the'right to serve' in the same US army that in 1965 invaded the Dominican Republic to sustain a right-wing dictatorship, massacred the villagers of My Lai in Vietnam in 1968, and has since overthrown the governments of Grenada and Panama and helped prop up unsavoury regimes in E1 Salvador and Kuwait.
Even the mainstream US lesbian and gay rights groups have enthusiastically embraced the'right to serve' agenda, emphasising the star-spangled loyalty of homosexuals to'the American way'. Indeed, homosexual soldiers and war veterans, many of them uniformed and wearing campaign ribbons, were the centrepiece of the l993 March On Washington For Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Rights.
This shift to an implicitly pro-military stance is not confined to the US. In Britain, at the behest of the lesbian and gay lobbying organisation, Stonewall, the 1993 Lesbian & Gay Pride Parade in London featured uniformed and bemedalled military veterans, including Americans who had served in the US army during the Vietnam era and English who had waged war in Ireland.
In contrast, twenty years earlier, the London Gay Liberation Front joined the mass protests in support of the Irish Republican struggle in support of the Irish Republican struggle. Calling for British withdrawal from the six counties, GLF demanded: "Police out of gay bars! Troops out of Ireland!"
Nowadays, in their new-found enthusiasm to defend the right of queers to bear arms, none of the major lesbian and gay rights groups (apart from OutRage!) question whether or not the military is a worthy and honourable institution, and whether or not queers should want to be part of a homophobic organisation which has frequently been involved in gross violations of human rights. Even the modest aim of reforming the military, to make it democratic and to prevent its use as an instrument of oppression, does not figure on the agenda of most lesbian and gay organisations.
What a turn-around! A movement which began in 1969 with the aim of changing society now seeks conformity with the straight status quo. Instead of social transformation, it aspires to assimilation. The narrow and limited goal of equal rights, and the realpolitik of law reform, have replaced the idealism of gay liberation. Devoid of vision, much of the modern gay rights agenda is about queers adapting to hetero society. Any dissent from the ethics of straight institutions, like the military, is deferred for the sake of short-term political expediency.
It's true, of course, that the homophobia of the armed forces is indefensible and should be opposed. There can be no justification for arbitrarily excluding people from any job, including the military, because of their sexual orientation. However, much of the lesbian and gay rights movement now goes much further than merely opposing discrimination. In defending'the right' to military service, it suggests that'serving one's country' is a worthwhile aspiration for queers, thereby giving legitimacy to the armed forces and all they stand for.
Implicit in the campaign for the right of lesbians and gays 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. It abandons any critical assessment of the institutions of heterosexual society in favour of a wholly uncritical, even slavish, worshipping of everything straight. This copy-cat mentality, in which queers mimic the worst aspects of hetero culture, 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 against the exclusion of lesbians and gay men from the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups like the British National Party. We would start demanding the right of homosexuals to join the Mafia, Christian fundamentalist sects, and El Salvadorean death squads. The implication is clear: the gay claim for equal rights and treatment 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.
* Peter Tatchell's new book, We Don't Want To March Straight - Masculinity, Queers & The Military, is published by Cassel at £4.99.
Published as "Dying to be equal", Red Pepper, March 1996
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