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"We owe them that much"

Wed 20 Mar 2013 In: Health and HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

Auckland counsellor and therapist Paul Letham believes there should be an inquest into the death of Corporal Douglas Hughes in Afghanistan. He shares his thoughts on how tough it may have been for the soldier to deal with his sexuality, and rejection, in such a ‘macho’ environment, and so far from home. Corporal Douglas "Dougie" Hughes took his own life in Afghanistan. His family wants an inquest. It was with sadness that I read recently of the death by suicide of Corporal Douglas Hughes, a young soldier in the New Zealand Defence Force stationed in Afghanistan. Reportedly being bullied for his sexuality, he took his own life after being rejected by a soldier he had developed feelings for. His mother has written to the Solicitor-General requesting an inquest into his death, but this has been declined. The findings of an earlier military Court of Inquiry into the matter have been suppressed, so we may never know the full story. What must it have been like for Corporal Hughes to be a gay soldier in the army, expressing affection for another soldier in a traditionally “macho” environment, such a long way from home? When we consider how difficult it can be in everyday civilian settings, we can only imagine what he may have been going through. Many things can happen when we start to question our sexuality. It may begin with a thought as innocuous as “am I really straight?” We may deny our feelings, or respond with some shock. An internal back-and-forth dialogue may ensue inside our head. Over time, we may slowly come to accept our burgeoning LGBT identity, or we may attempt to block it out, effectively leaving it unexamined. It’s worth noting that even today, in our supposed 21st century “enlightened” times, some people still foreclose on these explorations and never venture past this point. Our environment and our culture play huge roles here, often dictating our actions. We may feel confused, the non-heterosexual images we see on TV for instance may not fit our growing self-image (I grew up with the mincing antics of Mr Humphries on “Are You Being Served?” which never rang true for me - is it any wonder we can get stuck?). Homophobic schoolyard conversations or workplace chatter may prevent us from disclosing our feelings to others. We may even be led to wonder “am I really gay?” In a world that almost demands that you conform to stereotypical behaviours, exploring your sexuality, let alone expressing it can seem a daunting task. If we assume that Corporal Hughes was largely closeted while serving in the Defence Force, then we can appreciate how delicate the situation may have been. The environmental dynamics around him at the time of his death are subject only to conjecture at this stage, but if we imagine his potential loneliness, in a country many miles away, employed by an organisation that is still ostensibly coming to terms with its LGBT members, then the risks attached to his coming out to a fellow soldier could be seen as greater than simply being told “I’m not interested” by some guy at a bar. The level of support we receive from our friends and family usually affects the method of our coming out. If support is not present, or is deficient, it’s not uncommon for impulsive behaviours to emerge, rapidly propelling you out of the closet. The feelings may seem overwhelming. Perhaps this applied in Corporal Hughes’ case, perhaps not: we can only guess at this stage. So, what of Hughes’ disclosure of feelings for his fellow soldier? When we tell someone how we feel about them, we’re automatically making ourselves vulnerable. After all, obviously, the other person may not feel the same way. What if we’re rejected outright? Their reaction to our disclosure will often contribute directly to our self-image, and subsequently to our self-esteem. Rejection from someone we have feelings for, coming at a time when we’re still discovering our sexual identity, can be doubly hard to deal with. Again, we can only surmise at what happened in Afghanistan, but for the situation to end in suicide, it cannot have been considered a trivial matter by either party. Policies protecting LGBT people have been in place in our military for some years now, but the cultural barriers remain. Studies undertaken in the United States after the infamous “don’t ask don’t tell” policy was removed have indicated that the large percentage of gay service people still elect to remain in the closet. Bullying, both in its overt and insidious forms still prevails, leading to low morale, isolation, loneliness and depression. One soldier even went so far as to describe the environment as “worse than being shot at”. How anxious must Corporal Hughes have felt then after attempting to experience a loving relationship in this sort of environment? So what can you do if you’re struggling with your sexuality, or you know someone who is? An obvious starting point is to talk to someone about it. OUTLine operates a service where you can express your feelings confidentially. There are support agencies such as Rainbow Youth. And there are counsellors such as myself. It can take courage to bare one’s feelings, and you may feel as if you’re the only person who’s ever felt this way, but the load is usually lightened once you start talking to someone who’s ready to listen. Perhaps Corporal Hughes reached out for help from his commanding officer, perhaps not. As with most stories, there will be far more to the situation than first meets the eye, but that doesn’t dampen the tragedy. I for one support the call for an inquest into Corporal Hughes’ death: it could serve as a “test case” of sorts for our military, both in encouraging on-going transparency, and in highlighting the dangers that still exist for those LGBT individuals who choose to serve their country. We owe them that much, don’t you think? Paul Letham is a counsellor and therapist at Auckland’s Mind Your Head Counselling. He specialises in depression, anxiety, identity issues, sex/sexuality, relationship problems, GLBT issues, self-esteem, and existential concerns. You can find him on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Paul Letham - 20th March 2013    

Credit: Paul Letham

First published: Wednesday, 20th March 2013 - 9:31am

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