James Wharton: Out In The Army
James Wharton, 27, joined the British army in 2003. After serving for two years in the Household Cavalry regiment, he came out as gay. At the time, the army was still homophobic, but as the years have went by, it’s become ‘considerably more gay friendly’. It’s a journey he documents in his book Out In The Army, which has made him Britain’s most well known gay soldier. Even though James came out at 18, he always knew he was gay from a young age.
“I realised I was gay around the age of 12,” James explains. “It was around that time of life where people start to fancy boys or girls. I kept it to myself completely because I grew up in North Wales and there weren’t any gay role models around me. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. I felt alone and that it wasn’t the right thing being gay. I kept it to myself and hoped that I wasn’t gay, but when I joined the army at 16 I began to become aware of how diverse the world actually is, unlike the little Welsh town that I grew up in.
“By the time I was 18, I was sent to London with the army and when I arrived I was a bit overwhelmed by how many gay people there were. I seen men holding hands and kissing, so suddenly I realised it was actually ok to be gay. That’s when I started thinking about coming out, and not long after I did.
“Literally from the moment I said I was gay to my friends I just felt a million times better. I was able to start doing things that I wanted to do. If I wanted to go to a gay bar, I didn’t feel like I was doing it secretly and I didn’t feel ashamed. I just immediately found that I had this incredible freedom to do what I wanted to do because I wasn’t hiding who I was anymore.
“My friends were supportive and so were soldiers of my own generation, which I didn’t expect. I thought it would be really bad, but I was completely wrong. The majority of people were absolutely fine and my friends told me they kind of knew anyway. But there were some people in the army that weren’t overly impressed. There were still some people that didn’t see being gay as a very ok thing.”
Up until 2000, gay men and women were not allowed to serve in the Armed Forces, and even though the ban was lifted, homophobia was still rife in the UK. According to a national opinion poll published a week before the ban was lifted, 68 per cent of Britons were against lifting the ban. Letting gays in to the Armed Forces was seen as bad for morale, and it was thought it would leave gay people vulnerable to blackmail from foreign intelligence agencies.
“Over the last ten years the army has changed incredibly. If someone came out as gay today in the army it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, whereas when I came out I don’t feel like that was quite the case. There are lots of gay people in the army. I think it’s just because as more people from my generation join the army, that generation are very forward thinking and liberal. It just became more accepted and more acceptable that people were different and came from different backgrounds.
“If a soldier is thinking about coming out today, I would say talk to your close friends in confidence if you can do that. If they want to reach out to people and talk to them in a safe way before coming out, they can join the army LGBT forum on Facebook, and they can message other members of that group and just explain that they are a soldier and thinking of coming out. What they might find is that they start to make friends who are also in the army and are gay, which will undoubtedly be of use when you do come out because you might want to fall back on some friend. Then I’d say go for it, because the moment I told people I was gay I immediately felt more effective as a soldier. People could finally know who I really was. I would say reach out to friends, search the army LGBT group on Facebook and start to make friends who are gay and in the army and then go for it once you feel you’re in the right place.”
Even though the army is much more gay friendly today, on a training exercise in Canada in 2008, James was confronted by six soldiers from a rival regiment who threatened to ‘batter’ him. Prince Harry was his commander at the time, and saved him by stopping the soldiers from ‘doing something they might have regretted’.
“When soldiers are away, you do have an opportunity to have a bit of down time and go out to bars and things like that. On this particular occasion, me and the other soldiers had been in the bar. There was another soldier from another part of the army who it seemed was chatting me up, and one thing led to another and I ended up spending the evening with this soldier. The next day there were loads of rumours going around about what happened, and the soldier became quite overwhelmed. He wasn’t out and because of that he decided to deny that anything happened. The fall out of that was that people were accusing me of making up rumours, and some soldiers got quite upset and started having a go at me about it. It just so happened my boss was Prince Harry, and he was able to step in and sort everything out.”
This wasn’t James’s only encounter with Royalty. He played a part in the Queen’s birthday parade, and most notably in 2011, James found himself escorting the Queen to William and Kate’s wedding.
“For me, it was the highlight of my career. It was such a big occasion. It was one of those bizarre moments I guess people will always think about and talk about and to have a front seat at that event was really incredible. My parents loved it.”
After almost ten years of service, James decided it was time to leave the army, and wrote a book about his experiences of being an openly gay soldier.
“At the end of my decade in the army, I realised it was considerably more gay friendly at the end of my journey than it was at the beginning when I turned up as a young 16-year-old. And that massive change was something I wanted to try and put down on paper by writing Out In The Army. It was really bad and really homophobic, but as my time in the army went on it started to get more gay friendly and therefore more friendly of people’s differences across the board, to the point where I leave at the age of 26 and it’s completely different.
“But if you think about it society has changed in the same way. In 2003 civil partnerships hadn’t even come in yet. Gay adoption had only just been made legal and now here we are with the first gay weddings. It’s an incredible change in society and the army has been through the same kind of movement.”
One of the reasons James chose to leave the army was because he wanted to focus on his relationship with boyfriend Thom.
“Thom and I had been together for quite some time and unfortunately he’s always had to come second to the army. There was this moment where I was thinking about where I’d be in the next five or ten years, and when I thought about that I didn’t see the army as being a part of that.
“It was time to put Thom first. He’s my best friend. I don’t really have a best friend other than Thom. I have lots of mates but Thom and I sit in every night watching TV and have a glass of wine. That’s perfect for us. That’s what we want. We have a dog and we go on holiday. Yes he’s my husband and we do all that sort of stuff but more than anything he’s my best friend and we share our lives together. I’m pretty certain we’ll be together in 50 years time.”
James and Thom got a civil partnership in 2010, and they don’t have any plans to convert that to a marriage.
“I don’t think we’ll go out of our way to do it. When we had our civil partnership in 2010, we had a wonderful occasion that we’ll never forget and we’re not going to be able to recreate those same circumstances. I got married in my uniform but I don’t have a uniform now that I’ve left the army. We had the reception to the wedding in the Barracks, which was amazing. We can’t do that anymore because I’m not in the army. So all these wonderful memories and nice pictures we have from our civil partnership, we’re not going to be able to outdo them. And if you’re upgrading your relationship from a civil partnership to a marriage it’s supposed to be bigger and better.
“At the moment we’re just going to carry on together in our relationship. Thom works for Virgin Atlantic so he’s in the air quite often. He’s always travelling around the world and he loves his job. He has no intentions of stopping that. I don’t really know what I do. I just have this bizarre life where I write and stuff. We’re not quite ready for children yet because we still like to go out to opening nights and book launches and gallery launches, and as soon as you have kids you have to put children first and stop doing things like that. So that is going to come at one point but I think it might be ten years away from now. And then who knows? We’re just happy in our little world that we live in.”