How do soldiers deal with gay comrades? In some cases, it appears they get laid.
Anne Irwin is a professor of anthropology and a defence expert at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. As part of her fieldwork, she spent time in Afghanistan with the First Battalion of The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
“There’s a difference between the rules and how those are interpreted and played out on the ground,” she says. “My sense of it is that, although the rules are full equality, fraternisation of any sort is not permitted.”
She says that there’s “quite a variety of attitudes towards gays and lesbians” in the military and that more research needs to be done to see how they’re incorporated into army life.
Her time with the infantry has given Irwin insight not only into the way that queer soldiers are becoming more accepted, but also women in the infantry, as Canada is one of the few countries that allow women to serve in front-line positions. In fact, she travelled with the only woman in the company — and she was an out lesbian who was “completely accepted.”
“The infantry is still probably the most macho of all the trades,” she says. “I wouldn’t call it homophobia. I wouldn’t go that far. Certainly people have absorbed or followed the rules and know that they’re not allowed to make openly harassing comments, but there’s also a lot of joking that, if you didn’t understand the context, may come across as homophobic joking. But I don’t think it is.”
Irwin sees the kind of teasing and joking that happens in the military as part of managing the “homo-erotica” of such a charged environment, where tensions around sexuality and the forced intimacy of each other’s company takes a toll.
“Here’s an example of the joking,” Irwin says. “One of the guys asked ‘Do I have sweaty ass?’ because you’re drenched in sweat — it’s sixty degrees Celsius. And one of the guys says ‘No, you’re okay Master Corporal.’ ‘Oh, what are you looking at my ass for?’ That kind of joking.”
The largely all-male environment, mixed with the risk of death and the highly eroticised environment helps to account for the sexual joking, but it also leads to other coping mechanisms among the troops.
“They have a notion called ‘field gay,'” Irwin says. “The guys used to say how when you’ve been in the field for long enough, that some guys go ‘field gay,’ meaning that they’ve been away from women long enough, the guy next to you starts looking pretty good.”
“I think that’s fascinating that they have a label for it, calling it ‘field gay,'” says Irwin. “To me, this just shows what social scientists have said about how malleable sexuality is, and how it’s situational, but they kind of have a handle on that.
“The bottom line for them is if you do your job, you’re accepted. What they care about is whether someone going to stand behind me, is someone going to do his share of the work?”
Probably the biggest factor in the acceptance of queer soldiers has been the age of the troops themselves.
“These are people who are in their early twenties, that whole generation is quite different from the generals who are making the rules,” Irwin says. “I think there is quite a different attitude toward sexuality and sexual orientation among that generation, and I think that’s part of the change that people forget — that there are generation gaps in the military, too.”