Catterick Garrison Goes Gay

10.18.2009

By Mark Simpson

There isn't at first glance much that appears terribly gay about Catterick Garrison.

Home to the largest UK Army base in the world, with c. 15,000 men and women based here, Catterick Garrison as the name suggests, owes its existence entirely to the British Army. Located off the A1 just before Scotch Corner in the far north of North Yorkshire, 'Camp' as Catterick Garrison is known locally -- usually without irony -- is mostly a utilitarian collection of barracks blocks, Nissan huts, barbed wire fences, and MoD [Ministry of Defense] housing, with a dilapidated main parade boasting a Spar [grocery store], a couple of laundromats and several carry outs. A Tesco Superstore did arrive here a few years ago, but they don't carry much in the way of their Finest range. Imagine Middlesbrough (about a 50 minute drive away), take away the culture, add lots of bracing fresh air and combat trousers and you've got Catterick Garrison. Little wonder it was the setting for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer's unrelentingly bleak (and not very funny) 2004 sit-com Catterick.

But tonight at Louis, a no-frills nightclub nestling amongst the lines of neatly parked khaki green Army trucks, Catterick Garrison is also the setting for the first regular, and probably first ever, gay night on a British Army garrison: 'It's Catterick GAYrison!!!' announces the poster on the wall of the place where local single and not-so-single ladies usually go to meet drunken squaddies ("It's a parachute club," one soldier told me, "'coz you're guaranteed a jump!"). But tonight a different kind of meat market is promised: "Uniform Optional!" saucily declares the rubric on the poster, next to a sketch of a muscular young squaddie dancing and grinning with his top off. Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts who first suggested the location for Catterick Camp because of its tranquillity and distance from urban enervations must be spinning in his orderly grave.

"I didn't like it at Camp at all when I first moved here a couple of years ago," says Lisa, 32, a sunny-natured out lesbian lass from Blackburn serving in the Army as a medic, drinking Strongbow at the bar. "The countryside's nice, but Camp itself is a bit isolated. And the nearest gay pub is a long, long drive away." She loves the idea of a gay night in Catterick. "It's just what we need. Plus this place is just around the corner from me and I can stagger home! Until this came along there was nothing in the way of socialising for lesbian and gay service personnel here."

When Lisa joined up twelve years ago homosexuals, male and female, were still banned: "they still asked if you'd had any same-sex experiences and I had to lie." The ban was formally lifted in 2000 after four former service personnel, drummed out for being gay, won their case against the MoD for discrimination in the European Court of Human Rights ten years ago.

In the Nineties the idea of a gay night on a UK garrison would have been unthinkable -- instead military investigators were known to hang around civilian gay pubs in places like Aldershot and Portsmouth taking photos of those coming in and out. But that was then. Last year the Army joined Stonewall's Diversity Champions Campaign, and this Summer Soldier magazine featured an out gay male squaddie on the cover for the first time. Interviewed inside, Trooper James Wharton, 22, of the Royal Household Cavalry claimed that he had had little or no trouble with his sexuality from other soldiers: "I came out to the Army before I told my parents, so that say a lot for the Armed Forces."

Lisa is grateful for the 21st Century equal opps approach of the Army: she lives in married quarters with her civilian girlfriend whom she civilly-partnered last year -- with a Guard of Honour: "6 out of the 8 were gay." Attitudes didn't change overnight, however. "In 2004 I was posted to Germany and when they found out I was a lesbian they moved me away from the other nurses and onto my own corridor. I put my foot down and they finally moved me back, but they didn't like it. It's this thing of, 'she'll be looking at me in the showers!'"

Lisa thinks this kind of anxiety is the still a problem for many gay and bi males in the Army. "I know quite a few gay squaddies, and most of them aren't out because they're worried about being bullied and also the backs-against-the-wall-lads! mentality. It's definitely different for gay men in the Army, especially in front-line units like the ones based in Catterick. The macho thing kicks in."

Perhaps that's why I haven't been able to find any out gay male squaddies here tonight. Instead about thirty local gays and lesbians and their straight friends, and two charmingly tipsy young off-duty (they've left their wigs at home) drag queens from Darlington, Lucy-Licious and Gina Tonic: "We came to pull a squaddie," says Lucy, aka Josh, "everyone loves a soldier don't they, dear? But when," he asks, looking around, "are they turning up?" Well, quite.

At pub-chucking out time mine and the drag queens' prayers are answered. Sort of. A large party of drunken squaddies turn up. But they're all straight -- officially, at least. Scots Guardsmen celebrating their return from exercise in Canada and determined to continue their evening at the only nightclub in town. They're not put off by Louis being "gay" tonight. Steve, 32, and married with two kids, has served 12 years and welcomes a gay night in Catterick. "It's about time, if you ask me. Catterick really needs this. It had to happen. This is the modern world, isn't it? I mean, my wife was living with a woman for four years before she married me."

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