Queer/gender and militarism

Presentation at the international study conference “Countering the Militarisation of Youth”, Darmstadt, Germany, 8-10 June 2012

Andreas Speck, War Resisters' International

Already yesterday, Sahar Vardi talked a little about how the military uses “equality talk” in its recruitment efforts, and today I want to delve more into the topic. But before I do so, I want to talk a little about where I'm coming from, because I do not believe in so-called objectivity, and do think that my personal position and experience is important to what I have to say.

Although I'm not really involved much in the queer movement, I'm speaking here from the position of a gay man, although I rather identify with queer concepts than with the idea of a “gay identity”. This is partly based on my own experience in the gay community, where I think the wish to be “normal” and “accepted” is widely present, and this involves embracing our militarist society as it is. As an anarchist, antimilitarist, and feminist, I often felt uncomfortable in the gay community, and this probably informs my view of the community. But at the same time, I often feel that the antimilitarist movement is not very welcoming to queer or transgender people, and even though I did not experience open homophobia, I do think there is an assumption – at least for men – to be straight1. Or our sexuality is not seen as an important aspect in our antimilitarist struggle – but I do think it is.

Militarism – Masculinity – Heteronormatism

It's pretty much stating the obvious to say that militarism and masculinity are closely linked, and not only because soldiers are predominantly men. Nevertheless, I want to highlight some points here:

  • While the military is clearly a masculinist institution, this does not mean that there is only one form of military masculinity. Any modern military will require different forms of military masculinity, which does not mean they are equally valued or form part of the public representation of the military. The dominant – or hegemonic – forms of military masculinity are probably still very close to the Rambo warrior image, most associated with ground combat troops, even though they might form a minority even within the military, but other forms of military masculinity more based on technology are playing an increasingly important role.
  • Nevertheless, in the public image all these masculinities are heterosexual. I have not studied recent recruitment adverts in the lesbian or gay media – possibly they present themselves differently there – but in the mainstream media it will be quite hard to find an advert openly presenting a gay masculinity – or a woman as a lesbian. Even a military that allows queer people to serve remains straight in its public representation.

Gender/sexuality & recruitment

When we talk about military recruitment, it is important to do so with a queer and gender perspective. This doesn't just mean an awareness of the military's efforts to recruit women, queer people, and other minorities, but it also means we need to look at how the military's recruitment efforts make use of perceptions of gender and sexuality, but also how they are the same time contribute to the social construction of gender and sexuality. Which is to say that the military doesn't just use certain images of masculinity – to attract certain kinds of men – but at the same time it shapes masculinities, and therefore contributes to the everyday re-enactment of patriarchy and heterosexism.

According to Melissa T Brown, the US military is still using masculinity in its recruitment efforts, using “several versions of masculinity, including both transformed models that are gaining dominance in the civilian sector, and traditional warrior forms that can appeal to those who are threatened by the changes and looking for a refuge2. Brown points out that especially the marines continue to rely on a traditional warrior masculinity, but that the other services still present masculine images, even when using economic benefits to attract recruits. It still remains “the kinds of jobs a man can build a world of his own on” - not a woman.

This seems to be very similar in the UK3.

While in most countries conscription was or is only for men – with the exception of Israel and Eritrea – many so-called “All-Volunteer-Forces” are also open for women. But this does not mean the military presents itself as less masculine. As Brown points out: “The end of male conscription made the connection between masculinity and soldiering less automatic, and the services could theoretically have attempted to de-gender service in recruiting materials, but instead they re-forged the link, constructing masculinity both in ways traditionally linked to warriorhood and in alternative forms.4

Women feature rarely in recruitment adverts, and usually they are pictured in different roles – with exceptions. Again Melissa T Brown: “In the recruiting ads, women have been offered some limited access to characteristics and experiences that have generally been associated with men, like testing oneself, experiencing adventure, and having a career. However, the representations, which feature women so much less frequently than men, make it clear that men are the primary audience and the desired target.5

I think the attempts by the military to reach out and recruit women and queers have mainly two reasons: recruitment shortfalls – less so now in the economic climate – and outside political pressure from the civilian society. In quite a few countries, access for women and queers had to be fought over in the courts, and only once the military had lost the legal battle, it “embraced” equal opportunities, but without a change at heart.

I have my doubts how much the military presence at gay pride events, for example, is really about recruiting, or more about other issues – militarising the queer community in the sense of creating acceptance for militarism and military solutions on the one hand, and presenting a public image of a modern and open military in a democratic country, especially as “Muslim fundamentalism” is presented as the main threat and enemy. In this sense, it forms part of the anti-Muslim propaganda, rather than being a reflection of an “open”, women and queer friendly military.

Military reality

The world as painted by recruitment adverts and military propaganda has to be contrasted with the reality of life in the military. The recruitment adverts are designed to lure people into enlisting – but we all know that advertising – and that's different for military advertising – doesn't really show the real picture.

There are many aspects of recruitment advertising that are far from reality, and I do think it is important that we are able to point out these discrepancies. However, here I'm focusing on gender, so I want to look at the military reality in relation to gender and sexuality.


Until recently, the US military operated it's infamous “Don't ask, don't tell” policy regarding queer soldiers, forcing them to stay in the closet. It is highly likely that this contributed to homophobia and harassment, and so the results of a survey – admittedly 12 years old – within the US military do not come as a surprise. According to the survey, 80% of service members questioned by the Pentagon's inspector general reported hearing antigay remarks during the last year and 33% said they heard them often or very often. And 37% said they had witnessed or experienced some form of harassment based on sexual orientation in the last year. Often the harassment involved offensive remarks or gestures, but in more than half of those cases, service members said they had witnessed or experienced that harassment in the form of graffiti, vandalism, threats, unfair discipline, discrimination in training or career opportunities or even physical assaults6.

Reports of homophobia do also exist from other Armed Forces that do allow gay and lesbian soldiers to join – such as the UK Armed Forces. However, I am not aware of any systematic survey.

In 2010, the ombudsman of the German Bundeswehr stated in his annual report that he again received complaints from soldiers who experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation7.

And Canada isn't better either. According to recent reports, homophobic bullying is not unusual, but people don’t report homophobia unless it creates a toxic environment or is a serious threat8. Even though coming-out does not cause legal problems, it is not encouraged in a pre-dominantly straight masculine environment. As a result, diversity is not being embraced, and sexuality is seen as a “private matter”.

There is anecdotal evidence from many other countries around the world, no matter whether they allow lesbian or gay soldiers to serve or not9.

As Victoria Marie Basham points out for the UK: “Privatising sexuality reinforces the heterosexist culture that made the previous policy (banning lesbians and gays from the military) possible in the first place10.

Sexual harassment

For women in the military, sexual harassment is widespread.

In 2006 a UK report spanning three years, conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission and MOD showed an alarming 99% of women in the armed forces had been exposed to sexual harassment, and 67% said it happened directly to them. 49% of reported cases lasted more than two months. Just under a quarter of all cases – 23% – involved being a victim of these circumstances for more than twelve months11.

According to official US figures from 2010, 4.4% of women experienced what was called “unwanted sexual contact” - rape, sexual assault, non-consensual sex12. However, these figures seem to be much too low. A 2003 study of women seeking health care through the VA from the period of the Vietnam war through the first Gulf War found that nearly 1 in 3 women was raped while serving - almost twice the rate of rape in US society - and that 8 in 10 women had been sexually harassed during their military service13.

These statistics do not reveal the trauma this causes, and the long-term consequences of the survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

Canadian University professor Gary Kinsman says basic military principles and structure are at the root of heterosexist attitudes. The military has historically been a male-dominated, hierarchical and “masculinist” institution, he says. One product of a masculinist attitude is the association of male sexuality with extreme hostility, especially toward those men and women who don’t fit in, including lesbians and gays, he says. “We’re actually talking about very dangerous situations for women in general, but also for anyone who’s openly identified as being queer, whether they are or not,” he says14.

It is important to note that sexual harassment in the military serves a purpose: to show women their “right” place – that they don't belong there, because the military is a male institution.


Part of the masculinist reality of the military is the hazing of new soldiers – often sexualised bullying and abuse, which forms part of the initiation, but can get much worse. While hazing is often associated with Eastern European or former Soviet militaries15, where admittedly the scale of the problem is worse, it is also prevalent in Western Armed Forces. A Norwegian study found that 22% of soldiers reported that they had been hazed, and 19% reported that they had hazed others16. I do not expect the Norwegian military to be at the top-end of the scale when it comes to hazing, but that's just a guess.

Hazing is also common in the British Army, as has been highlighted by several scandals in recent years. A 2003 survey in the British Army found that 43% of respondents found bullying to be a problem, and 5% had been victims of it17.

But hazing is not just “normal” bullying. It forms part of regimental initiation rites, or, as Hana Cervinkova put it in an article on Czech conscripts, “a rite-of-passage, which involves psychological and physical violence perpetrated by the senior on the junior conscripts18, and involves the humiliation of those to be initiated, their feminization, including sexualised violence and abuse.

Hazing goes with masculinity. As Elizabeth Allan points out: “The more boys/men are fearful of being labelled as weak—the more likely they are to participate in hazing activities that are dangerous and even life-threatening.” And: “The predominant social construction of masculinity, and homophobia, work in tandem to create a climate in which violent and demeaning hazing practices are more likely to be tolerated and even considered beneficial for young men.19

Closing remarks

Besides all the military's equality talk, and the inclusion of women and queer people in the military, the military remains essentially a masculinist institution. Far from embracing diversity, it continues to promote itself as a “man's world”, and military culture did not change much.

Some questions, which might be important to discuss in more detail, might be:

  • What masculinities are especially militarised, and what does that mean for working against certain forms of masculinities – also as part of anti-patriarchal work – not just as part of our work against military recruitment?
  • We already touched on the issue, but I think we need to discuss more in depth in what way the military is exploiting “equality talk” in order to reach out to women or sexual and other minorities, and how we can counter that. I think it is important to be more clear about what the military's objective is when it reaches out to different minorities, and it might not always be recruitment. The challenge here is to one the one hand acknowledge and condemn the discrimination of women, queer people and other minorities in the reality of the military, without falling into the trap of advocating a reform of the military.
  • What does a queer perspective have to offer when we discuss militarism, militarisation, and recruitment?

For me it is important to go back to the roots of queer liberation, which wasn't about equality within a patriarchal and militarist system – about being part of and getting access to all the same shit – but it was about a radical and fundamental change of our societies. Something got lost with the mainstreaming of gender and queer, and equality talk, and that's what we need to reclaim. Our queer struggle is a struggle against all forms of power structures, pressing us into norms and binaries, and this also applies to militarism.



1See – in German: Andreas Speck: Zwischen allen Stühlen? Schwul in der gewaltfreien Bewegung - gewaltfrei in der Schwulenbewegung, October 2000, http://andreasspeck.info/de/node/26, accessed 5 June 2012

2Melissa T Brown: Enlisting Masculinity: Gender and the Recruitment of the All-Volunteer Force, dissertation, New Jersey, 2007

3Melissa T Brown: Be the best: “Military Recruiting and the Cultural Construction of Soldiering in Great Britain”, GSC Quarterly No 5, summer 2002

4Melissa T Brown: Enlisting Masculinity: Gender and the Recruitment of the All-Volunteer Force, dissertation, New Jersey, 2007

5Melissa T Brown: Enlisting Masculinity: Gender and the Recruitment of the All-Volunteer Force, dissertation, New Jersey, 2007

6Steven Lee Myers: Survey of troops finds antigay bias common in service, The New York Times, 25 March 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/25/us/survey-of-troops-finds-antigay-bias-common-in-service.html?src=pm, accessed 5 June 2012

7Stern.de: Jahresbericht zur Bundeswehr: Mangel und Missstand an allen Fronten, 16 March 2010, https://www.stern.de/politik/deutschland/jahresbericht-zur-bundeswehr-mangel-und-missstand-an-allen-fronten-3569506.html, accessed 5 June 2012

8Andi Schwartz: Gay in the army. Despite years of inclusion, Canadian military still not a friendly space for gays and lesbians, 23 February 2012, https://xtramagazine.com/gay-in-the-army-4706, accessed 5 June 2012

9See, for example, from South Korea: Gay man‘s objection to service sheds light on sexual abuse in military, The Korea Herald, 16 December 2011, http://www.koreaherald.com/kh/view.php?ud=20111216000668&cpv=0, accessed 5 June 2012

10Victoria Marie Basham: Harnessing Social Diversity in the British Armed Forces: The Limitations of ‘Management’ Approaches, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 47:4, 411-429

11The Female Frontline: Sexual Harassment in the British Forces, 15 March 2012, https://thefemalefrontline.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/199/, accessed 5 June 2012

12Defense Manpower Data Center: Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA 2010), http://www.sapr.mil/media/pdf/research/DMDC_2010_WGRA_Overview_Report_of_Sexual_Assault.pdf, accessed 5 June 2012

13H Patricia Hynes: Military Sexual Abuse: A Greater Menace Than Combat, Truthout.org, 26 January 2012, http://www.truth-out.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6299:military-sexual-abuse-a-greater-menace-than-combat, accessed 5 June 2012

14Andi Schwartz: Gay in the army. Despite years of inclusion, Canadian military still not a friendly space for gays and lesbians, 23 February 2012, https://xtramagazine.com/gay-in-the-army-4706, accessed 5 June 2012

15See, for example: Olga Miryasova: Abuse in the Military – Gender Aspects, August 2007, https://wri-irg.org/en/story/2007/abuse-military-gender-aspects, accessed 5 June 2012

16Kristina Østvik & Floyd Rudmin: Bullying and Hazing Among Norwegian Army Soldiers: Two Studies of Prevalence, Context, and Cognition, MILITARY PSYCHOLOGY, 2001, 13(1), 17–39, https://humiliationstudies.org/documents/RudminOstvikBullyingNorwegianArmy.pdf, accessed 5 June 2012

17James K. Wither: Battling Bullying in the British Army. In: Françoise Daucé and Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski: Dedovschina in the Post-Soviet Military. Stuttgart 2006

18Hana Cervinkova: Time to Waste. Notes on the Culture of the Enlisted in the Professionalizing Czech Military. In: Françoise Daucé and Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski: Dedovschina in the Post-Soviet Military. Stuttgart 2006

19Elizabeth J. Allan: Hazing and the Making of Men, https://stophazing.org/makingofmen.htm, accessed 5 June 2012