‘After considering the matter for centuries, the ancients concluded that one of the lovers of Venus is Mars. And Eros, some held, is their offspring. Since antiquity everyone who has experienced both war and love has known that there is a curious intercourse between them.’In September 1999, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that investigations by military authorities into a service person's sexuality breached their right to privacy (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights). In light of the ruling (which as an ECHR ruling applies to the militaries of all member states of the EU and of the Council of Europe), the MOD subsequently lifted the ban, and began allowing gay people into the services from 2000 onwards. (1)
Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975
‘Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound
or outward circumference of Energy.
Energy is Eternal Delight.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790
For LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) military personnel this marks a landmark in a back-story of repression, humiliation and dismissal reaching back to the first decades of the twentieth-century and beyond. Sexual desire, especially same-sex desire, whether acted upon or not, have always and will always exist in the military environment. The MOD now at least acknowledges that same-sex attractions exist, and somewhat reluctantly, and not without opposition, has been compelled by the European court to recognize that those who experience them, should be allowed a place in the armed services. Whilst it will never be easy for LGBT service personnel, it is vitally important that all service personnel are encouraged to acknowledge the full spectrum of desire, and everyone’s basic right to their own.
As Paul Fussell reminds us above, warfare and sexuality are intertwined. Further as he revealed in his book The Great War and Modern Memory:
‘No one turning from the poetry of the Second War back to that of the First can fail to notice there the unique physical tenderness, the readiness to admire openly the bodily beauty of young men, the unapologetic recognition that men may be in love with each other.’ (2)
Same-sex attraction was experienced by the Great War poets: Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), J.R.Ackerley (1896-1967) and Robert Graves (1895-1985). (3) Sassoon, a popular Lieutenant known for his daring as ‘Mad Jack’, was awarded the Military Cross in May 1916 for his bravery in bringing in his wounded Corporal under intense fire. His extraordinary bravery was driven by intense feeling for his fellow soldiers. Appalled by their suffering, he later risked court martial by publicly voicing anger against the perpetuation of the war, for which (considered shell-shocked) he was whisked away to a military hospital (Craiglockhart in Scotland) where he and Owen became friends (a sub-text in Pat Barker’s 1992 novel Regeneration and its 1997 film adaption). At Craiglockhart Sassoon was encouraged in his belief that sacrificial love between comrades was a positive outcome of war, and he eventually returned to the front where he was almost immediately wounded; shot in the head by friendly fire. Owen and Sassoon symbolize the sacrifice and heroism of young homosexual soldiers longing for emotional fulfillment. (4)
Because of social attitudes towards homosexuality Sassoon, who unlike Owen, survived the war, like others of his generation, suffered unnecessary guilt, and after a number of same-sex love affairs with unsuitable partners, eventually became an unhappily married Roman Catholic convert, who because of the legislation outlawing homosexuality during his lifetime, was never able to write the frank volume of autobiography which in his 1921 diary he envisaged as:
‘one of the stepping-stones across the raging (or lethargic) river of intolerance which divides creatures of my temperament from a free and unsecretive existence among their fellow men.’ (5)
All this is background to a project in which the ‘queer’ artist Kraig Wilson and the MOD have collaborated: a project whose sociopolitical and aesthetic outcome is utopian: the elimination of the fear of homosexuality. The majority of service personnel will remain heterosexual, though in a predominantly same-sex environment there will always be the possibility for the homosocial to become homosexual: paranoid fear of this is the cause of homophobia; only acceptance and understanding can eliminate this. By participating in this project these LGBT military personnel come out fearlessly in the war against homophobia. It is not easy being sexually at odds with a compulsorily heteronormative society. There is nothing spectacular, sensational or idealized, nothing in these images of LGBT soldiers that signifies anything ‘queer’; yet they invite serious reflection on what is it might be like to be such a soldier? Each of these photographs conceals a story; they depict (extra)ordinary soldiers from all ranks who trusted the lens of this young photographer to present them as they are in all their ‘queer’ singular plural (extra)ordinariness in the open light of day.
Whilst there is no risk to life or limb in being an artist, the professions of artists and army personnel have much in common: both are hazardous and demand discipline and detachment. A certain kind of gallantry plays a role in their respective trajectories: both serve the community and wager their livelihood in a desire to defend their beliefs; both need to stay alert and keep their wits about them as they are involved in acts of judgment, whose outcomes cannot be predicted. Pride and courage are necessary for both. Artists and army personnel 'join up’ for a variety of reasons, a prime one being the desire to lead 'frontline' lives: willfully placing themselves, in their differing ways, in the ‘firing line’. In a poem in which he draws parallels between the kinds of wars each wage the poet Wallace Stevens wrote:
‘. . . Monsieur and comrade,
The soldier is poor without the poet’s lines,
His petty syllabi, the sounds that stick,
Inevitably modulating, in the blood.
And war for war, each has its gallant kind.
How simply the fictive hero becomes the real;
How gladly with proper words the solider dies,
If he must, or lives on the bread of faithful speech.’ (6)
The ‘bread of faithful speech’ in these photographs is the willingness to come out, to take a stand before the camera and inhabit the art historical genre of realism whose aim is to give a truthful, objective and impartial view of the ‘real’. However, the confusion bedeviling Realism is its ambiguous relationship to the highly problematic concept of ‘reality’. (7) One person’s concept of reality can be another person’s romantic fantasy. One of the problematic fantasies called up by the military is that of Masculinity. In reality, there is no such singular thing, though there are qualities such as––courage, fortitude, strength, energy and will––which gender dimorphic essentialism renders ‘masculine’ but which in truth cannot be so assigned. Gender is a performative social construct that is problematic for us all; that which disturbs the status quo threatens the established social order.8 Love and sexual desire are non-rational drives; life cannot go on without them; to stem their flow it to court disaster as psychoanalysis, and eventually the UK State (1967), the UK military (2003), the US military (2011) and finally religion belatedly struggle to recognize. (9) The most important thing is how these desires are dealt with when no longer regarded as sinful, pathological or criminal. There is need for an ethics of desire, especially for those who have been long stigmatized. Such an ethics would seek understanding of the necessity of disciplined negotiation between restraint and release; something that would seem to have been accepted in ancient Greece, and in particular circumstances integrated into the ethics of the warrior class, as with lovers like the Theban Band who, legend has it, stood side by side on the battlefield. (10) There is need for a chivalric code of desire; then, the courage, fortitude, strength, energy and will of coming out as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transsexual in the military will bring to fruition the utopia of the “free and unsecretive existence” that Siegfried Sassoon longed for. (11)
I conclude with Sassoon’s poem ‘Parted’, written after the war had ended. Let this poem stand alongside Kraig Wilson’s photographs, as epigraph for all LGBT military everywhere:
‘SLEEPLESS I listen to the surge and drone
And drifting roar of the town’s undertone;
Till through quiet falling rain I hear the bells
Tolling and chiming their brief tune that tells
Day’s midnight end. And from the day that’s over
No flashes of delight I can recover;
But only dreary winter streets, and faces
Of people moving in loud clanging places:
And I in my loneliness, longing for you...
For all I did to-day, and all I’ll do
To-morrow, in this city of intense
Arteried activities that throb and strive,
Is but a beating down of that suspense
Which holds me from your arms.
I am alive
Only that I may find you at the end
Of these slow-striking hours I toil to spend,
Putting each one behind me, knowing but this —
That all my days are turning toward your kiss;
That all expectancy awaits the deep
Consoling passion of your eyes, that keep
Their radiance for my coming, and their peace
For when I find in you my love’s release.’
(2) Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, New York and London, 1975/2013, Oxford University Press, p.303.
(3) A fine introduction to this poetry can be found in Martin Taylor, Lads: love poetry of the trenches, London, 1989.
(4) Max Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon: a biography, London 2005; Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: Soldier, Poet, Lover, Friend, New York 2013; Pat Barker, Regeneration Trilogy, London, 1991/1993/1995, ebook 2013. See also a podcast of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Siegfried Sassoon discussed by these authors at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007mvl9
(5) He continues:
‘imagine another Madame Bovary dealing with sexual inversion, a book that the world must recognise and understand. O, that unwritten book! Its difficulties are overwhelming. It must be written by a man free from social limitations; someone who has known joy and sorrow and bitterness, but has won his way into serenity and detachment; not mere intellectual detachment, but an imaginative and creative condition which can control, and yet feel, the tragedy which he is creating, that others may be wiser. And it must be absolutely free from any propagandist feeling. It must be as natural as life itself.’
Siegfried Sassoon Diaries 1920-1922, London, 1981, p.53. Ironically, whilst no Madame Bovary, between 1913 and 1914 E.M. Forster had attempted such a novel in Maurice, only published in 1971 after Forster’s death.
(6) Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems, New York, 1954, p.407.
(7) Linda Nochlin, Realism, Harmondsworth, 1971.
(8) Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London and New York, 1990.
John J. Carey, The Christian Argument for Gays and Lesbians in the Military: Essays by Mainline Church Leaders, Mellen University Press, 1993. A collection of six essays, written by respected Protestant theologians of the mainline churches, who offer theological arguments in defense of human rights for gays and lesbians, including their right to serve in the military.
(10) James Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love, New York, 2007, pp. 432-39.
(11) “While psychic discipline defines what the Victorians term manliness, if such discipline becomes too rigorous the extreme constraint of male desire will distort the male psyche and deform the very energy that powers and empowers men. Setting the intensity of discipline, then, becomes the crucial issue within the practice of the self.”
Julia F. Savage, Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charlottesville and London, 2000, p.19 f., quoting Herbert Sussman, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art, Cambridge, 1995, p.3.