James Wharton has made a name for himself in recent years by being a gay soldier in the British army and by having Prince Harry as a friend, an LGBT-affirming ally, and a defender in trying times. Now, James is a vocal advocate for the LGBT community who is passionately committed to an array of issues that people face, and has captured his experiences in the memoir, “Out in the Army: my Life as a Gay Soldier,” which was recently released to US readers.
GLAAD was given an exclusive interview with James on his life, work, and vision for the future. Here’s what he had to say:
Why did you decide to write about your experiences as a gay soldier?
I had been interested in LGBT equality for some years before deciding to leave the army, and the more I became involved, whether it be by campaigning against homophobia in schools or rallying over gay marriage at Parliament, I felt part of this great movement on gay equality. I genuinely noticed the progress a decade of campaigning had achieved and felt the same was true within the army. When I did decide to leave the army, I knew the 10 year experience I’d had as an out gay man was pretty unique and I desperately wanted to capture that for future reference in some way or another; writing a book was the obvious choice and I was lucky to be able to do so.
What made Prince Harry a great LGBT ally while the two of you were in the army together?
I think the whole world agrees he’s a pretty cool guy and when I found myself serving with him I was really impressed by the way in which he almost stripped himself of his Royal title. When he put on the army uniform, I think he put his family background away. I found him a well-grounded, down-to-earth individual and a great leader of men. He knew I was gay and often asked about past lovers or my intentions for the future. He told me he had lots of gay friends. The day I needed him to help me because I was heading for some trouble with some other soldiers, he took on board and fully understood the situation surrounding my problem. Nothing fazed him when the welfare of the men under his command was in jeopardy.
What do you think are some of the biggest struggles for soldiers who are LGBT?
Geography is a real issue, which thankfully is being addressed thanks to social media and the wide availability of instant access to the internet. When I came out at the age of 18, I was based in London where there are a lot of gay people and I knew I could access people like me quite easily. If things didn’t go well in the barracks, I could just hop on a tube and meet other LGBT people in a gay bar in Soho; I think if I’d have been based in the countryside, or on a ship in the middle of the ocean, I’d feel a lot more isolated and alone. I was lucky because I was based in central London on ceremonial duties with the Royal family, things are not always that fortunate for soldiers when they come out. Today, there are fantastic networks for LGBT people in the British military online which provide support, pen pal and networking opportunities for LGBT men and women wherever they are based. Thanks to the internet, soldiers don’t have to feel alone anymore.
Your advocacy to end the bullying of LGBT youth has earned you high distinctions, like the Freedom of the City of London award. Why is this issue in particular important to you? What can be done to end anti-LGBT bullying?
Stonewall, the LGB rights organisation in the UK asked me to become a role model some years ago which sent me into schools in my army uniform to talk about being an out gay man in the military. I still do it today, although without the uniform (I’m not a soldier anymore), and what strikes me every time is this awareness that there’s always one of two people in the room listening to me and you can just see it in their eyes that I’m making their lives better. I also have the chance to meet young people who are driving real change with regard to LGBT equality in their own schools and communities which fills me with admiration. I wish I had access to the LGBT community in some way when I was a teenager because I felt very alone… although this is still the case for many young LGBT people today, I’m really encouraged by the action a lot of people are taking to reduce this. The It Gets Better campaign for me was a watershed moment globally where everyone, Presidents and Prime Ministers included, realised that enough was enough- that too many young people were committing suicide because they were being bullied for being different and that something had to be done. It Gets Better saved a lot of lives. So I guess the answer to the question is that anti-LGBT bullying can be stopped for good, but it takes the actions of us all to ensure this. We mustn’t also restrict this equality to our own western countries because there’s a hell of a lot of gay kids in Russia who are crying out for our help; I’m always keen to tell young people this, too.