Leo Kristoffersson chats to soldier and gay equality champion, James Wharton
James Wharton, a serving soldier and LGBT rights activist, was named the 17th most influential gay person in Britain on the Independent on Sunday‘s Pink List in 2010. In between escorting the Queen to the Royal Wedding and serving in Iraq, James has been busying himself with breaking new ground by becoming the first openly gay serviceman to feature on the front page of Soldier, the British Army’s official magazine. He also formed his civil partnership with partner Thomas at the home of the Household Cavalry. We caught up with James for a chat about all this and his work in schools.
So So Gay: So, what made you want to join the army?
James Wharton: It was just a natural progression. I had been in the army cadets from the age of 12; that’s where I made most of my friends and where I spent my spare time. At 16, all my mates were joining up so it seemed natural to me to do the same.
Were you out right from the start?
No I wasn’t. I spent the first twelve months learning to be a soldier. I’m not saying I forgot I was gay; there just wasn’t an opportunity to come out. I was literally too busy becoming a soldier. It wasn’t as tough for me at the start as it was for some of the others as I’d been in the cadets. I didn’t find the training too difficult but it was quite intense.
What’s been the most extreme homophobic reaction you’ve experienced?[pullquote_left]I’ve always felt very protected by the army. They’ve never tolerated any homophobia [/pullquote_left]I’ve had one or two negative experiences over almost ten years in the army. There have been a few teething problems on the way, but I’ve always felt very protected by the army. They’ve never tolerated any homophobia so I’ve always felt very reassured in that environment. The army has a reputation as a masculine, straight environment. That’s not true – the army employs women and there are more gay people in the army than there’s ever been. Some of them are doing amazing things. There’s an LGBT forum in the army – an officer has really stuck his neck out doing it. There are people getting on with LGBT work quietly but making huge progress for others over the last decade, especially over the last 2-3 years. The army is a such a big organisation to change but the differences are being made. You’ve only been allowed to serve and be openly gay for twelve years but the progress made has been immense since then.
You had your civil partnership in the barracks. What was that like?
Great. The reception was held at Hyde Park Barracks. We were fully supported by the barracks, my regiment and the army as a whole. There were lots of people from my regiment there. It was a happy day – like any other wedding. It’s actually our second wedding anniversary this week!
What was your time in Iraq like?
I was there in 2007. It was a really interesting time; it really changed me as a human being. It made me more of an adult. I’d describe it as the final nail in the coffin of my youth!
Do you feel like you have a responsibility to be an advocate for LGBT rights?
Since I’ve been going into schools, I’ve definitely felt more obliged to do more active work. Young people need more accessible role models, not just TV stars, pop stars and footballers. They need to meet people they can realistically aspire to be like.
What has the response from young people in schools been like?
It’s always been extremely positive. I very quickly became aware of the pack mentality. There is often a ‘cool kid’ who needs to break down his barriers and ask a question before everyone else follows suit. I definitely want to carry on going into schools. It needs to be challenged, right there on the battle field, so to speak.
What do you think the biggest challenges facing young LGBT people are today?[pullquote_right]I’ve heard some amazing stories of people doing great things in the places you least expect[/pullquote_right]I think a great challenge is the everyday use of homophobic language in schools. It needs to be challenged more. I’ve had my eyes opened as to how many teachers let it go unchallenged – I find that annoying. People picking on others because they’re gay or they think they are gay obviously concerns me. That’s not helped by church leaders being openly negative about marriage equality – the words ‘grotesque’ and ‘vile’ being used to describe gay marriage. On a positive note, I’ve heard some amazing stories of people doing great things in the places you least expect. There are teachers and school kids doing amazing things for gay rights in places like rural Wales and Scotland, for example.
So, what does the future hold for you?
The army is my day job for the foreseeable future. In terms of other projects, I still want to go into schools when time allows. I’m still working on the idea of other high profile gay people discussing their coming out stories in schools. Other than that and a few other little projects going on, it’s all about family life with Thomas.
You can find out more about James Wharton on his official website and follow him on Twitter @jameswharton