Queer and gender critiques of military recruitment and militarisation

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Andreas Speck -

The military uses equality talk in its recruitment campaigns, which so often focus on young people. Given that far more young people encounter these recruitment campaigns than join the armed forces, the impact of this representation is broad. I write this from the perspective of a gay man, although despite not being very involved in the queer movement I identify with queer concepts rather than with a gay identity.[1] This is partly based on my own experience in the gay community, where the wish to be ‘normal’ and ‘accepted’ is common: this involves embracing our militarist society as it is. As an antimilitarist, anarchist, and feminist, I often felt uncomfortable with this. However, I often also felt 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 by men – that one is straight.[2] Sexuality is not seen as an important aspect of the antimilitarist struggle, but I do think it is.

Militarism, Masculinity, and Heteronormatism

That militarism and masculinity are closely linked is obvious, and not only because soldiers are predominantly men. Nevertheless, I want to highlight some pertinent points. Firstly, while the military is clearly a masculine institution, this does not mean that there is only one form of military masculinity. Any modern armed force will require different forms of military masculinity, although they are not necessarily equally valued, nor recognised by the public. The dominant – or hegemonic – forms of military masculinity are probably still very close to the Rambo warrior image. This is mainly associated with ground combat troops, even though they may form a minority within the military. However, other forms of military masculinity based more on technology are playing an increasingly important role. Secondly, the public image of all these masculinities is heterosexual. Even militaries that allow queer people to serve represent themselves as straight in the mainstream media.

Gender, sexuality and recruitment

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

According to the academic Melissa T Brown, the US military is still using masculinity as a focus 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 refuge’.[3] Brown points out that the marines in particular continue to rely on a traditional warrior image, but that the other services also still emphasise masculine attributes, even when using economic benefits to attract recruits: ‘the kinds of jobs a man can build a world of his own on' - not a woman. The situation in the UK appears to be similar.[4]

While in most countries conscription was or is (with the exception of Israel and Eritrea) only for men, armed forces' volunteer positions are often open to 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.[5]

Women rarely feature in recruitment adverts, and usually they are pictured in different roles: they are only ‘offered some limited access to characteristics and experiences that have generally been associated with men, like testing oneself, experiencing adventure, and having a career.’[6]

The attempts by the military to recruit women and queers are mainly due to two reasons: recruitment shortfalls - although less so in the current economic climate - and outside political pressure from civilian society. In quite a few countries, access for women and queers had to be fought for in the courts, and only when the military had lost the legal battle did it embrace equal opportunities, but without a change at heart.

I have my doubts about how much the military’s engagement with the queer community, for examples its presence at gay pride events, is really about recruiting, or whether it is more about on the one hand militarising the queer community by creating acceptance for militarism and the recourse to military solutions, and on the other presenting a public image of a modern and open military in a democratic country. The latter objective is closely linked to how ‘Muslim fundamentalism’ is framed as the main threat and enemy: it forms part of the anti-Muslim propaganda, rather than being a reflection of a genuinely open military friendly to women and queers.

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 doesn't show the full picture. There are many aspects of recruitment advertising that are far from the reality, and it is important to point out these discrepancies.

Homophobia and sexual harassment

There are reports of homophobia in the armed forces of many countries, including those that do allow gays and lesbians to join – such as the UK, Germany and Canada - where studies have been conducted. 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 orientation.[7] In the Canadian military, according to recent reports, homophobia including bullying is not unusual, but people don’t report it unless it creates a toxic environment or is a serious threat.[8] Even though coming-out does not cause legal problems in these countries, it is not encouraged in a pre-dominantly straight masculine environment. As a result, diversity is not embraced, and sexuality is seen as a ‘private matter’. There is similar anecdotal evidence from many other countries around the world, whether or not they allow lesbian or gays to serve.[9]

As the academic Victoria Basham points out with regards to the UK military, ‘Privatising sexuality reinforces the heterosexist culture that made the previous policy (banning lesbians and gays from the military) possible in the first place’.[10]

For women in the UK military, sexual harassment is widespread. A 2006 study spaning three years, conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the MoD showed that 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; 23% involved the victim suffering for more than twelve months.[11] This does not seem to have changed significantly since. A letter written on 25 October 2012 by the high ranking Major General John Lorimer to the Adjutant General Lieutenant General Gerry Berragan outlines a summary of Lorimer's views on equality and diversity (E&D) in the Army after speaking to 6,000 army personnel. Damingly, on sexual harassment, Maj Gen Lorimer states that 'every female officer or OR [other rank] that my Comd Sgt Maj has spoken to claims to have been the subject of unwanted sexual attention.'[12]

In the US military, according to official figures, 4.4% of women experienced ‘unwanted sexual contact’ – rape or sexual assault.[13] However, a 2003 study of women seeking health care through the Veteran’s Administration from the period of the Vietnam war through the first Gulf War (1990-1) found that nearly one in three women was raped while serving - almost twice the rate of rape in general civil society - and that eight in ten had been sexually harassed.[14]

These statistics do not reveal the trauma nor the long-term consequences of the survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

The Canadian academic Gary Kinsman says that 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 claims that 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: ‘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’.[15] Sexual harassment in the military serves a purpose: to show women that they don't belong in a male institution.


Another 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 militaries, where admittedly the scale of the problem is worse[16], it is also prevalent in Western armed forces. A Norwegian study found that 22% of soldiers reported having been hazed, and 19% that they had hazed others.[17] Hazing is also common in the British Army, as has been highlighted by several scandals in recent years. A 2003 survey found that 43% of respondents found bullying to be a problem, and 5% had been victims of it.[18]

However, hazing is not ordinary bullying. It forms part of regimental initiation rites, or, as the academic 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 conscripts’, and the humiliation of those to be initiated - their feminisation, including through sexualised violence and abuse.[19]

Hazing goes with masculinity. As the academic 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... 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.[20]


Despite all the military's equality talk, and its inclusion of women and queer people, it remains essentially a masculine institution. Far from embracing diversity, it continues to promote itself as a man's world.

However, militarised masculinities, and the military’s exploitation of equality talk in order to reach out to women and other sexual minorities, can be countered. The challenge is to 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 rather than its elimination.

It is important to go back to the roots of queer liberation, which wasn't about equality within a patriarchal and militarist system, but a radical and fundamental change of our societies. Something got lost with the mainstreaming of gender and queer, and with equality talk; we need to reclaim that something. Our queer struggle is a struggle against all forms of power structures that press us into norms and binaries, of which the military is a major offender.


[1] This article uses the term 'queer' because it is broader than lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual/transgender (lgbt). Queer has been reappropriated (or reclaimed) from its derogatory meaning by lgbt activists since the early 1990s and includes all those whose sexual orientation, activity, or gender representation places them outside the heterosexual mainstream with its gender and sexual binarisms.

[2] 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).

[3] Melissa T Brown, 'Enlisting Masculinity: The Construction of Gender in US Military Recruiting Advertising and the Recruitment of the All-Volunteer Force' (Academic dissertation, 2007).

[4] Melissa T Brown, ‘“Be the best”: Military Recruiting and the Cultural Construction of Soldiering in Great Britain’, GSC Quarterly, 5 (2002).

[5] Brown, 'Enlisting Masculinity'.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stern.de, ‘Jahresbericht zur Bundeswehr: Mangel und Missstand an allen Fronten’, 16 March 2010. http://www.stern.de/politik/deutschland/jahresbericht-zur-bundeswehr-mangel-und-missstand-an-allen-fronten-1551308.html (accessed 5 June 2012).

[8] Andi Schwartz: 'Gay in the army. Despite years of inclusion, Canadian military still not a friendly space for gays and lesbians', 23 February 2012. http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/Gay_in_the_army-11576.aspx (accessed 5 June 2012).

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

[10] Victoria Basham, ‘Harnessing Social Diversity in the British Armed Forces: The Limitations of ‘Management’ Approaches’, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 47:4 (2009), pp. 411-429.

[11] The Female Frontline, ‘Sexual Harassment in the British Forces’, 15 March 2012. http://thefemalefrontline.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/199/ (accessed 5 June 2012).

[12] Channel 4 News, 'Sexual harassment and bullying rife in the army', 28 November 2012. http://www.channel4.com/news/sexual-harassment-and-bullying-rife-in-the-army (accessed 14 May 2013).

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

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

[15] Cited in Schwartz, ‘Gay in the army’.

[16] See, for example: Olga Miryasova, ‘Abuse in the Military – Gender Aspects’, August 2007. http://www.wri-irg.org/node/6523 (accessed 5 June 2012).

[17] Kristina Østvik & Floyd Rudmin, ‘Bullying and Hazing Among Norwegian Army Soldiers: Two Studies of Prevalence, Context, and Cognition’, Military Psychology, 13:1, (2001), pp. 17–39. http://humiliationstudies.org/documents/RudminOstvikBullyingNorwegianArmy.pdf (accessed 5 June 2012).

[18] James K. Wither, ‘Battling Bullying in the British Army’, in Françoise Daucé and Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski (eds), Dedovschina in the Post-Soviet Military, (Stuttgart, 2006).

[19] Hana Cervinkova, ‘Time to Waste. Notes on the Culture of the Enlisted in the Professionalizing Czech Military’, in Daucé and Sieca-Kozlowski, Dedovschina, pp. 205 – 220.

[20] Elizabeth J. Allan, ‘Hazing and the Making of Men', 2003. http://www.stophazing.org/makingofmen.htm (accessed 5 June 2012).

\Source: http://www.wri-irg.org

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