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James Wharton: Soldier, leader, teacher

British best-known gay soldier, James Wharton, has become a role-model for leadership
An image of openly gay Lance Corporal James Wharton recently displayed as part of Melbourne's Midsumma Festival.

James Wharton is, without doubt, a modern gay icon - albeit a somewhat unlikely one.

An active member of the armed services (serving with the Household Cavalry), Wharton was the first openly gay person to appear on the front cover of Soldier magazine - the British Army’s official publication. Wharton and his partner Thomas were also the first gay couple to hold their civil partnership in the warrant officers’ mess of the Household Cavalry.

Wharton’s championing and advocacy of equality and diversity goes beyond his role in the military. Working with leading British lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign organisation Stonewall he has recently toured UK secondary schools as part of the Education for All campaign, and in October 2011 the Independent newspaper ranked Wharton as the UK’s 17th most influential lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person.

I spoke with Wharton while he was in Yorkshire on a training course with the Army. As he hails from the north of Wales I was expecting a strong accent but Wharton speaks crisply and with almost military precision.

For someone with such a high profile, and clearly making an impact on the diversity and equality agenda within the UK, I was surprised by how unfailingly polite Wharton appeared to be. Polite but also clearly focused, organised and with a clear view of the world.

We got stuck in to the questions.

You were 16 when you joined the army - what motivated you to join the military?

I'd been in the army cadet forces from the age of 13, so it was quite a natural progression for me. Where as a lot of my school friends were not doing much with themselves at weekends, I was away all the time playing soldiers. It was great for me, because I was mixing with like minded peers, all with the united aim of joining the army at the first available opportunity.

At the time, the armed services had only recently stopped discharging people that were discovered to be gay or lesbian, did that cross your mind at all?

If I'm honest, at the time I joined I knew I was gay but it didn't really put me off becoming a soldier. I was in that stage where I knew I was different, but wasn't sure if I'd be different for ever. My goal was to become a soldier.

It must be slightly surreal to find yourself as pretty much the Army’s poster boy for gay soldiers? Do you ever wish for the anonymity that most soldiers enjoy?

I have mixed feelings on this. Firstly, I think that if the load has fallen on my shoulders, than I ought to just get on with it. Secondly, sometimes, and usually while I'm away working with soldiers I've never met before, someone will recognise me and ask: 'Are you the gay guy off the front of Soldier magazine?' This can be quite awkward, it takes the coming out process away from me, I guess.

Thankfully there are now more openly gay men and women in the army than ever before, and some of those people are doing amazing work for the LGBT community.

Your work with Stonewall has seen you taking a very public role in talking about diversity and equality - why is it important for you to be an advocate for LGBT people?

I feel it’s important that young LGBT people have accessible role models - not just superstars that are a million miles away from their reach.

It’s brilliant that there are so many notable famous lesbian and gay role models, but I think youngsters also need to see professionals from the more 'real' world.

As a child, the only access I had to gay people was through the television, and gay people were not always portrayed in the best manner. By going into schools, I hope I've brought an honest take on a gay person’s life for teenagers to access and ask questions on.

Who are your gay heroes or role models?

My outlook on what makes a good role model or hero has changed dramatically over the past year. Since I've been going into schools, I've met some outstanding individuals who have selflessly put themselves out to see others benefit.

On one occasion last year I met a 15-year-old girl who singlehandedly campaigned to her local authority to provide an LGBT youth group for youngsters in her county. They initially refused her, citing funding and need as an excuse, but she wasn't prepared to accept that decision, so fought it and eventually won. Without her campaigning, LGBT teens in that county would not have access to vital support and networking in a safe environment. That's a hero in my eyes.

What's next for James Wharton?

Well, I have a day job, which I can’t forget. Other than that, I intend to return to schools later this year for Stonewall's Education for All campaign. It’s the thing I have most enjoyed and feared - I love seeing the change on students’ faces during the sessions.

I've also just been in Australia as a guest of the Melbourne Midsumma Festival 2012 and it looks like I will be returning next year too, so I'm obviously excited about that!

Family wise, I'm approaching my 10th year in the military, and there comes a point where you have to re-evaluate whats important. When I joined the army at 16, my outlook on life was completely different to what it is now. At some point in the not too distant future, I’m going to have to put my husband and family life first. 

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