Comment: Growing up gay on a British Army base felt like being a gay teen in Russia
Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, Josie Recknagel-Fessey reflects on growing up gay on a British military base, the challenges of such a life, and what can possibly be done to improve conditions for gay people living on a base.
As Justin Allen pointed out in his piece, Growing up gay in rural Britain, the gay scene is incredibly urban-centred, and often children who grow up in rural areas can be left feeling isolated. However, I would say that this isolation from metropolitan gay life is even more exaggerated when you are the child of one of the thousands of forces personnel living abroad on a British military base.
The army itself has come on in leaps and bounds with its acceptance of LGBT soldiers since military service was opened up to them back in 2000, but whilst gay people may be accepted on the front line, for gay children on the bases it is an entirely different story.
The forces community is constantly evolving as children get moved on from base to base, so although there are usually a few hundred in the school at any one time, they are never the same ones. Yet despite the constant change in students, I only ever remember there being one out gay pupil, and one openly gay teacher who was often the subject of ridicule throughout the school.
These attitudes are also echoed off the bases in the republic of Cyprus, where their acceptance of gay rights lags far behind that of the UK, and in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus where homosexuality is illegal, and punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
Before I hit puberty, my experiences of bullying at the school were largely benign, and the worst thing that I was teased for was my German surname during a lesson on World War II. But once I hit my GCSE years, I began to notice the homophobia around me, as well as my own same-sex attractions.
Though for the most part I enjoyed the time that I spent there, occasionally I would catch myself staring at the barbed wire fence that separated the base from the rest of the world. I knew that in the UK, thousands of miles away, on the other side of that barbed wire fence, gay was at least on the way to being okay, and people would accept me. On the inside, however, was an entirely different matter.
I believe that there are two main reason for homophobia being allowed to exist in these environments. The first is this cult of hypermasculinity that exists in macho spaces such as the military. I’m not at all saying that all military personnel and dependants are overly tough and uncaring, but these attitudes seem to dominate the forces environment. Fortunately, my parents work in civilian occupations in the education and health services so I didn’t face these attitudes at home. At school however, they were present every day. Boys around me bullied me enough as it was thinking I was straight, acting in a way that anywhere else would constitute sexual harassment. If they knew I was gay, how much worse would it be?
The second reason was a lack of willingness on behalf of the school and people in the wider community to rock the boat or do anything innovative for fear that it would reflect badly on the community as a whole. Throughout the entire time that I spent there, the only discussion of homosexuality from a teacher was a 30 minute talk on coming out in Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE).
PSHE was given an hour a week for 4 years and the concept of homosexuality was only mentioned once, for half an hour. No sex education for gay teens, at a time when HIV transmission rates are at their highest among gay and bisexual men in recent years. No discussion of civil partnerships, or same sex marriage, or gay parenting, or gay love. Instead, a half hour lesson on what is often the most traumatic time in a gay person’s life. Any positive attributes of a gay living, such as the community that I have now found and the history and culture of that community were simply swept under the rug. I felt that harboured a feeling that it was better to pity gay people than to “promote homosexuality”.
Unfortunately, in my experience, the only way that gay pupils living with the forces can truly be themselves and be accepted at that age is if they move back to the UK. Even though I was lucky in that my family and close friends would accept me, I knew I wouldn’t have been safe if everyone else knew. Now I am back in the UK, I can truly be myself. But here’s a crazy idea- why does it have to “get better”? Why can’t it just be good now, wherever you are in British territory? Though I applaud the efforts that UK LGBT activists have made to combat the situation in Russia, I think it’s time that we look at how hopeless life can feel for gay kids in our own backyard before we point the finger at other countries.
Whether they live in rural areas, in faith communities, in one of the schools still found to using section 28 style laws or on a military base like me, we can’t forget that not all gay British kids grow up in a place where they are accepted, and we have a duty to support young gay people who are far away from urban gay life. They are the most vulnerable, and they are the ones we should be fighting for.