Comment: The army needs to gain trust from its gay soldiers

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Gay former soldier James Wharton writes for PinkNews after is was revealed that the number of gay soldiers joining the army is too insignificant to count.

The knee jerk reaction as to why it appears no recruit has felt able to come out to the army since the organisation started asking the question about sexuality last October might be to throw an accusation at the military or to suggest they are doing something wrong in its efforts to make the organisation as diverse as possible; but from my ten years experience in the British Army, I know there are a few other reasons to consider here, too…

Something the army has never been very good at is disseminating information to its people effectively. It is very good at making sure soldiers can achieve a minimum number of press ups or run a certain distance in an allotted time, but some of the more clerical matters soldiers might need to grasp are slightly less important, I believe.

An example of this would be the lack of effort the army puts in to ensuring soldiers are registered to vote, or at least know exactly how to do so. Throughout the entire decade I served, only once did I see a poster or a notice telling me and my mates how to register to vote in either our home constituency or the area in which we were based. As a result, every election 1000s of soldiers don’t vote, and part of me feels the army is somewhat content with this.

Last October, when the decision was made to ask new soldiers to reveal their sexuality on their signup paperwork there was a fair bit of fuss in the media – indeed the Mail on Sunday ran a large editorial on the matter – but within the organisation there was barely an eyebrow raised. Soldiers got up the next day and went about their business, new recruits continued to sign up, the entire thing was a bit of a non-event within the ranks.

Since then, we now know 10,590 new recruits have signed up and interestingly only 60 people – for certain – answered the question: How do you define your sexuality? It appears that all 60 of those who felt able to answer ticked the box that they were heterosexual.

The MoD’s official response is that there are too few numbers to count, and therefore the answer is actually ‘less than five’; but knowing the organisation as I do, it is my opinion that the actual answer is zero, it being more convenient, perhaps more palatable, for the ministry to respond the way they have.

The majority of those 10,590 new recruits will be between the ages of 16-22; myself, I joined at the age of 16 and if I’m completely honest, if I were asked by my new employer on my first or second day in the job my sexuality, I would probably have said ‘heterosexual’. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I was happy to label myself ‘gay’. This has to be part of the picture we are looking at here – some of the younger soldiers might not yet be ready to define themselves as anything.

There is also a question of trust. How confidential is this information? Where are the records held? I will be fair to the army, they are pretty tip-top where information handling is concerned, but I know that with the benefit of hindsight and experience; would I know that on my first day in the organisation? Of course not, and again, this might stop me from wanting to answer the question altogether.

I think some thought should be given to the way the question is asked. A pollster will tell you you can get any answer you want from somebody if you word the question appropriately; maybe the Ministry of Defence should spend some time looking at this?

I also think – and this will be unpopular – but in all other areas of military life soldiers are ordered to do things, and if they don’t they are in serious trouble. You cannot refuse a lawful order in the army. I think some thought could be placed on making the question compulsory. You can still offer the answer ‘prefer not to say’, or ‘other’, but at least you would have statistics that actually stand up; right now the MoD has an embarrassing situation that only 0.6% of new recruits bothered to answer the question. It’s a bit of a waste of resources presently.

But I wouldn’t let the army off scot free. It needs to answer the question, if only to itself, why the figures are so low. Homosexuality aside, why out of the ten and half thousand new recruits have only 60 wanted to answer the question, period? Why do only 60 people feel able to trust the army with this information? A final factor for sure in this situation is that simply the army is not coming across to its new talent that it is a grown up organisation that will value the individual uniqueness of every single person it employs regardless of sexuality.

It would have been nice to have a few more figures to play with on this matter; but the facts are the facts, less than five people out of ten thousand, although I stand by my belief that the actual figure is zero, have felt able to tell the army they are gay in the last ten months. That’s pretty rubbish on the behalf of the army and it should spend some time now considering just why it’s people would rather keep their sexuality private.

James Wharton is the best selling author of Out in the Army: my life as a gay soldier and served ten years in then Household Cavalry from 2003-2013.

As with all comment, this does not necessarily reflect the views of PinkNews.