Sexuality and HM Forces Recruitment
Sexuality should Play No Part in Recruitment
I recently read two articles that impressed me on just how far the UK military has come since I served in HM Royal Navy, though the second also raises some concern for reasons I’ll explain.
The first was that the army now has its first, and I emphasise first because it opens the door to other individuals who find themselves in the same position, transgender serving person. The second is that the UK armed forces are now going to ask recruits, during the recruitment process, if they are gay.
The reason given for this, according to an MOD spokesperson, is that “it is a move designed to improve diversity in the military” which would make sense if they were going to introduce a positive discrimination quota system. If they aren’t how will it improve diversity? Armed Services applicants will have the option to ” prefer not to say” and apparently given the opportunity to talk about how open they can be about their sexuality.
It is now fifteen years since the Labour Government, supported by MPs from across the whole of the political spectrum, changed the law which previously made it illegal for gay men to serve in the military. What was strange was that it only applied to servicemen and not service women, in itself discriminatory but also evidence of the contradictions of inequality. An illustration of the absolute paranoia of the military before this time, was an incident that happened to me on my first day in the Royal Navy. Looking back on it now, it almost seems funny but at the time was deadly serious for so many reasons.
I joined the Royal Navy, aged 20, on the 3rd November 1969 travelling by train from Rotherham to HMS Raleigh in deepest Devon, having previously worked as a coal face electrician at Silverwood Colliery for five years. Arrival at the gates of your first Naval establishment, met by serious faced training staff and a whole bunch of equally nervous new boys is, to say the least, daunting.
The incident I refer to happened in the showers, the source of so many terribly unfunny jokes about LGBT people. What readers should understand is that the Royal Navy have, or at least had, a high standard of personal cleanliness insisting that at the end of the working day everyone showers before changing into ‘night clothing’. That doesn’t mean pyjamas. On day one we were told the secret to personal cleanliness and I remember the quote from our Class Instructor to this day, “If hair grows on it or out of it. Wash it”
The showers in Raleigh, at that time, were those that many will recognise from their school days with a line of shower heads along one side and a wall separating the shower area from the changing area and you all trooped through hoping to get in before the hot water ran out. The incident came about because, when having a shower, I turned to the lad next to me and holding out a bar of soap said innocently, “Do us a favour, give my back a scrub”.
The look on the faces of the others, including guys who had been in the Navy for some time can only be described as a cross between horror and incredulity The stick I got was immediate, the sort of discriminatory language that so many people still endure for their gender and sexuality, and the warning to everyone else “not to drop the soap” when I was around.
I, of course, couldn’t for the life of me understand what the problem was, though I admit to being hugely embarrassed by the accusation at the time. Again, looking back, I realise there was nothing to be embarrassed about, Worse was to come when the following morning I was asked by a Petty Officer who had been told of the incident,
For the uninformed Petty Officer Stokers are not renowned for their subtlety when asking a question: “Are you a queer, Palethorpe?”
Now if you worked down the pit, as many young men of my generation did, the one thing you could guarantee is that at the end of the shift you would be absolutely covered, head to toe, with coal dust. Not just covered in it, but ingrained into your skin by the sweat of working underground. The photos you see of miners doesn’t quite capture the sticky, sweaty layer of additional coalskin a shift down the mine would leave you with. The other certainty was that once in the pit head baths the most effective way to get the areas of your body you can’t reach clean, is to get a mate to do it for you. It was therefore normal to ask the, usually fairly hefty, bloke in the cubicle next to you to wash the coal dust from your back.
When I explained this it was accepted as a suitably masculine reason for my transgression of ludicrous discrimination, but it certainly made me immediately aware of the military paranoia and, sadly, throughout my 23 years of service I came across a number of gay men who were unceremoniously discharged, and in some cases even served time for the absolute non-crime of being gay.
On reflection, I am fortunate enough to be able to laugh it off as an example of a world that now seems hopelessly out of touch with ours. Many others, including some of my shipmates, had to bear the strain of denying who they were in the service of their country. And I am thoroughly glad the legislation was changed, although saddened that it came too late for some.
Which brings me back to my concern about the issue of asking recruits if they are gay. The data, we are told, will not be made visible on individual personal records or to the chain of command or managers and that individuals personal diversity information will be protected. The problem is how an earth will it foster greater tolerance in the armed forces if no-one knows about it? Why ask? My concern about this is also that they only asking full-time recruits, no-one seems bothered about the fantastic part-time Territorials who have served on the front line in the most dangerous and arduous of situations in recent times.
Surely a recruit’s sexuality and gender shouldn’t matter?
Based on 23 years in the Royal Navy, the only thing that mattered to me was can you do your job and would you stand alongside your mates when the going got rough and the pressure was on. The sexuality of a recruit should have nothing to do with the recruitment process and will, in my view, do nothing to aid inclusion which is why I think everyone who is asked should respond by telling them to mind their own business.
Genuine inclusion is achieved by selecting and promoting people on merit and their ability to perform the duties required of them in the post, inclusion is also promoted by making sure that those who practice any form of discrimination are dealt with by having robust processes in place. The armed forces has come a long way since the legislation changed in 2000.
Those who volunteer to serve the UK in the armed services are special and remarkable people who simply should be recognised and recruited on that and no other basis.