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Why do some LGBT rights groups regard arms dealers as allies?

Equal rights groups should not be seduced by the forces of capitalism and imperialism, writes SYMON HILL

“TO be inclusive is the right thing to do,” declared arms dealer Roger Carr at an LGBT event earlier this year. 

As chairman of BAE Systems, he said: “I’ve always stood up for what I believe in.”

It’s not difficult to find out what BAE believes in. It is one of the biggest suppliers of weapons to Saudi Arabia. In 2014, the year when Carr became chairman, the Saudi regime sentenced a 24-year-old man to 450 lashes for “promoting the vice and practice of homosexuality.” 

The lashes were administered in 30 sessions, each involving 15 lashes. They don’t administer them all in one go in case it kills the prisoner. This is what passes for humane treatment in the eyes of Carr’s customers.

Between 2011 and 2012, Saudi authorities arrested 260 people for “crimes,” including same-sex relations and wearing clothes associated with a different gender. 

Weapons sold to this vile regime are used to kill thousands of civilians in Yemen. The Britain’s Royal Air Force is there, training its Saudi colleagues in bombing skills. Every arms sale to the Saudi government adds to the regime’s claims to international legitimacy. 

It’s alarming that several LGBT rights groups have allowed themselves to be so co-opted by capitalism and imperialism that they view BAE and the RAF as allies. Stonewall lists BAE as a “diversity champion.” Armed forces march in uniformed blocks at London LGBT Pride. 

No-one objects to soldiers joining the parade as individuals. The problem is the uniforms, militarism and misuse of a human rights march to pinkwash the armed forces’ image. 

Things have got worse over the last year, with the armed forces making a concerted approach to appeal to LGBT people. 

In January, the army launched a recruitment advert, asking: “Can I be gay in the army?” 

Their answer was yes — a statement that ex-soldiers who experienced homophobic bullying were quick to dispute. When Donald Trump declared that trans people should not be allowed in the US military, British military leaders rushed on to Twitter to say that trans people in the UK are welcome to join the armed forces.

As Lenny Grey, a trans member of the Peace Pledge Union, responded: “The armed forces are promoting war, not trans equality. They’re happy to have whoever they can to aid them in causing unnecessary suffering and death.”

The military are now regularly turning up at LGBT events. Only days before York LGBT Pride in June, organisers announced that armed forces would march in uniform. 

The short notice may have been intended to deter protests. If so, it was unsuccessful. When army recruiters set up a recruitment stall at the Pride Festival following the parade, they were outnumbered by non-violent protesters. 

Local queer activist and Peace Pledge Union member Rachel Melly said she was “shocked that my local Pride event has been turned into a military PR opportunity” rather than a celebration of liberation. 

In the wake of widespread public opposition to wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the Establishment has whipped up support for the armed forces, creating an atmosphere in which anything other than uncritical praise for the forces is shouted down. 

Armed forces are by their nature brutal, coercive institutions. Their members are required to obey orders, even orders to kill, without reference to their conscience. 

The armed forces leadership claim that they simply follow the decisions of elected governments. The evidence does not back this up. 

The Chilcot Report found that British generals lobbied Tony Blair to commit a higher number of troops to the invasion of Iraq than he was originally minded to do. 

When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, an anonymous general effectively threatened to mount a coup if Corbyn became prime minister. The armed forces are a threat to democracy.

In any country, armed forces serve the interests of the ruling class. The working class provides the cannon fodder. A leaked MoD document last year made explicit what we already knew — the army targets the poorest people for recruitment. 

Furthermore, Britain is the only country in Europe to recruit people as young as 16 into the army. As Child Soldiers International puts it, “Adolescent boys with few economic and social opportunities are seen as easy recruits by the MoD.” 

Militarism and poverty follow each other around. Armies recruit the poorest people. They brutalise them through vicious training programmes so they will do appalling things to their fellow human beings. Wars further exacerbate poverty in the areas where they take place, contributing to conflict over resources and sowing the seeds of more war. Meanwhile, soldiers recruited from poverty are frequently dumped back into poverty. There are over 7,000 homeless veterans in the UK. 

It seems that “support our boys” really means “support our generals and arms dealers.” 

It is vital that LGBT groups do not allow themselves to be co-opted by institutions that are fundamentally at odds with principles of equality and human liberation. The military pinkwashing drive must be resisted. 

This weekend I’m at BiCon, the annual UK bisexual gathering, which I attend every year. I’m proposing a motion that will ban arms companies and armed forces from having stands at BiCon.

If the motion is passed, BiCon will become the first national organisation within the LGBT movement to send a clear message that it will not be used to promote militarism and military recruitment. I hope it will be the first of many. 

Symon Hill is a bisexual activist and co-ordinator of the Peace Pledge Union. 

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