Late in 2016, I was really honoured to have been accepted to present at the national LGBT History Month events, 2017. The only date and venue I could make during February was at the Imperial War Museum, London. So I duly applied and was accepted, to speak to the title of “The Pope is [not] Gay … or Tale of Two Queers, ’57 / ‘67”.
However, it was not to be. I was recently informed that there had been an administrative error. Only LGB&T presentations of military relevance were being showcased at the IWM on 18 Feb 2017. What a shame; but all is not lost. In January, I had an abstract accepted to submit a substantial article, for a special edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Homosexuality, later this year. So those stories may still be told – on a Pope & 2 Queers – for the archives of LGB&T+ people’s posterity: watch this space!
But they wanted memories with a military flavour? Oh yes! Let’s go there!
In the days before ‘the ban’ was lifted (12 January 2000), I was part of a team who taught on a military nurses’ course in London. ‘The ban’ referred to such times when lesbian and gay people could serve Queen and Country, even die for Queen and Country, yet not love or have sex openly and equally to their heterosexual Comrades-At-Arms. If they did love, or have sex, and this was found out by the authorities, then they faced imprisonment, Courts Martial and possibly (dishonourable) discharge from the Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
The biannual teaching event – by the Charing Cross Hospital / Riverside College ‘AIDS Education Unit’ I was working in at the time – was at the then military hospital of Queen Elizabeth (the Late Queen Mother), in Woolwich. I had a whole day with about 50 soldiers and sailors, to talk on sexuality issues and counselling, despite the difficulties encountered because of ‘the ban’.
Blimey, they were a tough group to get through to! ‘The ban’ made it difficult for them to talk or open up about such matters. The lecture hall was traditional style, an auditorium stretching upwards from the main speaker’s platform.
For those of you who have seen me teach, you know that I am not one for standing behind a podium, or using the microphone. Priestly studies on ‘homiletics and communication’ meant I was taught how to boom, and project my voice over a large congregation or audience. Anyway, trying some ice-breakers at the start of the day was proving tough. Then I mentioned, first, something about lesbian females.
“Oh, we know what they’re like!”
… I was hastily told. Inquisitively, I asked, “Oh really? So what are lesbians like?” Then came the list of stereotypical images, so beloved of the scurrilous media. “Short hair, over-weight, smartly ironed uniforms, ‘butch’, senior officers … they all wear flat shoes!” If I had had a large mirror with me, it would have been tempting to hold it up to face them all! It seemed like the descriptors used were a projection of so many of the women in the room, but with no insight or, alternatively, complete psychological transference onto others.
Then I mentioned something about gay males. By this time, most of the male soldiers and sailors had their arms folded across their chests, frowns enough to cause wrinkles, and eyes firmly fixated on their shoe laces. When I asked what they knew about gay males, the grunts for answers came back as “not in our regiment, Mate!” “We see some in clinic, but I don’t really know any myself.”
Phew! This is tough going. Somehow, I thought, I’ve got to crack the ice once and for all. So I thought “a therapeutic use of self” is called for. No I didn’t! I hadn’t come across or made up that term back then. In a split second, I thought to myself … “I need to take a personal risk , just to get through to them”. And so I did.
“Well it sounds like you know what lesbians are like, and it sounds like you know what gay men are like … so what about bisexuals?”
At this point, it felt like the room was cringing and that many of them would prefer the ground to open up and swallow them – or me!
Like Edmund Hall reminds us, in that poignant book of his, on Armed Forces personnel before ‘the ban’ was lifted. It must have been so difficult for them to talk openly on matters such as these, knowing that any personal self-revelation might be held against them. I appreciated that and realised I had to tread carefully.
So when they implied they didn’t ‘know’ anything about bisexuals, that’s when I thought that, educationally, a personal risk was called for. I started making my way over to the podium and the microphone – maybe I was subconsciously aiming for protection, to hide behind the trappings of (lecturer) power, should it all go wrong. Then I repeated my question: “You know what lesbians and gay men are ‘like’, but you’re not too sure of bisexuals? Right?”
Action: Move closer to microphone …
Me: “So I’ll let you in to a little secret …”
Action: Move even closer to microphone … almost eat it!
Me: “… I’m bisexual!”
Audience: Looks of total amazement as someone “coming out”.
“Yes” I exclaimed: “I’m bisexual: I like soldiers and sailors” … to which the whole room burst out laughing, and the ice totally melted.
We had a great day, after that initial frostiness, and about 18 months later I had a phone call out of the blue. A voice said “You won’t remember me, but I was on that course at Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital. I’m now a Deputy Matron at a military hospital: would you come and do the same training for my staff?” When I agreed, Matron said I’d need to get myself to Stansted. I thought she meant her hospital was near there. “Oh no”, she explained; so I ended up flying out to RAF Wegberg in Germany, being chauffer driven to the air base, and staying in the Officers’ Mess, from where I taught for a few days.
One morning at breakfast, in the Officers’ Mess, there was a laugh I shall always remember … but that’s a military story for another time!
Thanks for reading this; feel free to leave your stories and comments below. So glad to say that Her Majesty’s Armed Forces are now totally different places for people of all SOGI (sexual orientations & gender identities). It’s been a long time in the coming!