Culture: Books

Interview: James Wharton

James Wharton

James Wharton’s memoir ‘Out In The Army – My Life as a Gay Soldier’ was published this week. The account of Wharton’s experiences as an openly gay solider in the British army has already made headlines across the world with the revelation that Prince Harry saved Wharton from a gay hate attack. It is now being serialised in The Daily Mail. Beige caught up with the former Lance Corporal to find out more about his unique journey.

What can people expect from your book?

It’s a chronological walk through and talk through of my 10 years in the military. During this time I witnessed some incredible changes in terms of diversity, gay inclusion and general acceptance. The book begins at a point where I think the army isn’t very great in how it treats gay people and it gets to a stage where I am leaving, and my attitudes may have changed. I’ve said things in the book that are potentially sensitive, but I think it’s important that the experiences are told.

Where did the idea for the book come from? Were you approached to write it?

I innocently put it out on Twitter that I was intending to leave the army and give my year’s notice. Within a week someone had mentioned the word ‘book’ online – ‘when can we expect the book?’ I went away and thought about it and spoke to a number of friends who have written books. They all pointed me to finding an agent and discussing it further with relevant people. I then met Iain Dale, who owns the publishing film  BitebackPub and its sister company The Robson Press. He looked at the book pitch, we talked about it at length and eventually a deal emerged and from there onwards it was a steady progression.

Did the prospect of writing a book daunt you? Had you written before?

I think I’ve always had aspirations to write. I’m friends with my English teacher on Facebook and I sometimes write Huffington Post blogs. Whenever I do these my English teacher, Margaret, is the first person to read them and send me feedback. At school I wanted to write in the future, but the army came into my life and took over.

What was your approach to writing?

I pulled some of the disciplines of the army into my work. I tried to do three or four days writing a week and would get up early, go for a run, have a shower, make some coffee and then sit down and write. I set myself targets  and generally knew within 10 minutes of sitting down whether the words would come. Working at a laptop has been enjoyable, as opposed to running up a hill in the rain.

How did you get involved in the army?

I didn’t really enjoy school on the whole. My family came from Liverpool and lived in north Wales, so my accent stuck out and I was slightly ridiculed. When I was 13 the army cadet force opened a youth club in my village and my friend Amy and I went to have a look. We immediately joined. I loved it – there was discipline, everyone had a uniform and a responsibility. That greatly appealed to me. It was like a miniature army. I joined the real army when I was 16  – as soon as I could. As a 16 year old I was earning almost £1000 a month for doing what I’d been doing for the last three years for free. At that age I honestly thought that I’d be in the army forever.

You left the army in April. What made you decide to leave?

One of the big things was that the army always has to come first and my partner, Thomas, was coming second. A lot of army marriages break up and I was conscious of this. There was a moment, last December, when I was running up a hill, in shorts, in the snow and something clicked in my head telling me that I just didn’t want to do this any more. It snowballed from there.

You’ve worked extensively with young people by giving talks in schools, in partnership with Stonewall. How did you get into this?

I was asked to get involved in 2010. It wasn’t long after my civil partnership, which was quite heavily covered in the press. I’d had a pre-exisitng relationship with Stonewall and had always been quite interested in work place equality in the army. But after my civil partnership Stonewall talked to me about the wonderful scheme they had which sent role models into schools to talk about their experiences. I was pretty open minded about it and went along to the first school, an academy in Wiltshire. I was very nervous, but the kids were captivated and we had a brilliant Q and A session. It was amazing to have a room full of 100 fifteen year olds, from different backgrounds, who were talking very openly about sexuality, diversity, inclusion and related issues of bullying and harassment.

I believe you took over from Sir Ian McKellen on the Stonewall program…

Sir Ian was the forebear and he was excellent. I’ve been lucky to meet him and we’ve both discussed how we’ve found our visits. I got involved after him – he was definitely the first. Stepping into his shoes was a big thing for me, but there are quite a few other people doing it now too.

What sort of feedback did you get from the pupils you spoke to? Was any of it negative?

I think I had this protection because I was in an army uniform and talking about protecting the Queen and the royal wedding, so I won them over with my story, which is really interesting for youngsters – some of whom are looking to join the army. Sometimes I came across some homophobic language, such as the all too common use of the word ‘gay’, but I was fortunate never to encounter any confrontation or aggression. I always came away thinking we had all achieved something very positive.

How did you deal with pupils using the word ‘gay’ in a pejorative way?

Interestingly, the greatest resistance I had to tackling the use of the word was from teachers, who I guess were trying to protect their pupils. Some said they couldn’t see anything wrong with using the word in that way. I always say that homophobic language, whether it’s intended to be homophobic or not, is still homophobic language. You might not be homophobic yourself, but by using the words ‘gay’, ‘queer’ or ‘faggot’ in that way you’re letting off the sounds of people who most certainly are homophobic. I explained to teachers that they would not accept the casual use of racial language and it should be no different with homophobic langauge. They began to see my point.

Do you think your work with school children and Stonewall helped you reach the decision to move on and leave the army?

Back in 2008, when the amazing opportunity to be this poster boy for equality landed in my lap, I started to become very interested in gay rights, equal marriage and gay adoption. I couldn’t believe that we, as a community, can be looked down upon to such an extent. I think if the army hadn’t given me this platform then I wouldn’t have been able to make the points I’ve made. I’ve always got on naturally well with youngsters, so doing the work in schools through Stonewall reignited the flame I had for helping kids….so, maybe I should just thank Stonewall for all of this.

What are your next plans career wise?

RIght now I have a book tour coming up. There’s a wonderful scheme in the army for service leaders called Troops For Teaching. It’s a government scheme that gets soldiers leaving the army into teaching. They fund a teacher training degree and try and find you a job in a school. I don’t want to commit now and say I want to be a teacher – that’s quite a bold thing to do and it’s easy to change your mind – but I’m definitely going to take advantage of the free education with an eye to working with youngsters in someway.

James Wharton’s book ‘Out In The Army – My Life as a Gay Soldier’ is published by Biteback Publishing

Words: Alex Hopkins

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