In a rather welcome break from the Brexit hysteria and the latest shock from the Trump administration; the great poppy debate of 2019 has begun. Unfortunately, there seems to be a regular outcry over the poppy each year, and as with many of the best moral panics of recent years, the basis is often myth or massively overhyped. Wait another month and anger over the need to ostensively ban any mention of the word Christmas will take hold on social media. This year I promise not to wade in with somewhat perhaps cynical comments about consumerism over equality driving this process so not to dissuade shoppers and maintain sales figures through the enticement of a diverse market 365 days a year. That, however, is another argument for another time, and as someone who is always in favour of equity and equality; I am not going to enter a horse in this race.
Returning to the rainbow poppy. I would like to start with a small excerpt from my upcoming book War Bodies on the history of homosexuality in the First World War.
Between 1914 and 1922, 22 British officers and 270 rankers were court-martialled for homosexuality. Many men including the famous writers Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon kept their sexuality a secret for the duration of the war. Homosexuality was a crime that could strip instantly away the uniformity and inclusion that the khaki and military insignia maintained. For many of the men who fought in the First World War, it was not only their individuality, their agency, and their civilian identity that was left behind; but a central part of their selves that could isolate them instantly from friend and foe.
Homosexuality in the First World War is an incredibly under-documented topic. I have been working on an article on this for several years, but the lack of evidence makes the focus difficult to tease out. Unlike many topics, the absence of information is not particularly useful, however, as is noted in my book, this does not mean that homosexuality was not present during the Great War. One of the only works to gain some traction on this issue is Weeks and Porters Between the Acts. This is a phenomenal book and if you are interested at all in the history of homosexuality within society buy it and read it right now. Weeks and Porter note the account of two men who give very different accounts of homosexuality in the army at the beginning of the 20th century. The first is ‘Gerald’ who recalled in an oral history that he only ever met ‘one other homosexual in the army’, a man who he briefly had a relationship within until his promotion ended it. Gerald soon faced an impossible choice, as he was forced to report another man for homosexual behaviour to protect himself. Gerard explained:
‘there was nothing I could do, I couldn’t protect him. I had to look after number one. See, I couldn’t let the world know that I was homosexual, not in the army! Otherwise what was going to happen?’ (Weeks and Porter, p.6).
‘Fred’ paints a very different story as he recalls that his reputation as a homosexual man was a poorly kept secret. In his testimony, Fred explains how he protected himself through humour and wit, a tool he used when in Cardiff barracks midway through the war a drunk soldier demanded that Fred pleasure his revealed erection. Caught in a tableau of potential public humiliation, Fred turned the table by demanding that man allow him to ‘shag’ him first. The promise of anal intercourse withered the drunken suitor’s erection much to the amusement of the onlookers. Fred remembered:
‘… his old boy went down just like that. And they all burst out laughing now, making him look like a fool.’ (Weeks and Porter, p.16).
As shocking as these two accounts are, they link with one important element. Homosexuality could be hidden or a joke, but it was not to be celebrated.
Jumping forward a century, arguments are surfacing about the LGBTQ community attempting to muscle in where they are not wanted or needed. A petition started in Canada three days ago vehemently espouses this argument.
The LGBT community are now making rainbow poppy’s to not only disrespect the men and women that sacrificed their lives for our freedom in this beautiful country we live in, but are also making Remembrance Day about them and claiming that they are just as important as these soldiers. They have a whole month and these fallen soldiers only get a minute… Please sign and support this petition in hope to rid the LGBT community of Remembrance Day.
The anti-LGBTQ sentiment is hardly subtle within the wording, and the petition only has just over 500 signatures, however, the ‘….claiming that they are just as important as these soldiers’ immediately stands out as derogatory and inflammatory.
The poppy as a symbol developed after the First World War thanks to the famous poem written in 1915 ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. The poem, written in grief for the death of his friend, promoted the imagery of the poppy and soon after the war, the poppy became the symbol of remembrance. The word remembrance originates from 11th century French and includes such meanings as: “consideration, reflection; present consciousness of a past event; a store of personal experiences available to recollection, capacity to recall the past.” The goal of the poppy is to encourage and enable the wearer to reflect on the tragedies of the past to prevent them from occurring again. ‘Lest we forget’, as Kipling wrote in 1897. Therefore, are different colours of poppies required, if the point is to remember all equally for their sacrifice?
However, inclusivity can also be exclusive. Gerald and Fred would perhaps have much to say about inclusivity, as would perhaps the 270 men who were court-martialled for their sexuality during the war. It could be argued that these men were heroes of another kind; undertaking their duty while living under the fear of discovery and exclusion from the men around them. Are we not entitled to remember these men as well? The use of a rainbow poppy should not usurp a red poppy, there should be no hierarchy to remembrance. However, to argue that one should cover all open up arguments of losing individuality and uniqueness which has been frequently been overturn in arguments about the preclusion of gender, sexuality, race, culture, and religion.
As always there is the flipside to this. Again in Canada (its all go across the pond is it not?) tempers are flying over the exclusion of two students who refused to wear the rainbow poppy. In defence of their actions, one of the students posted the below poster around the school.
The student was angry for being denied to wear the red and black poppy they had chosen and claimed that they found the rainbow poppy offensive to veterans. Something their veteran grandfather confirmed. Morally, this presents a quandary as no one should be forced to display a symbol that they choose not too. Yet, the vehement rejection of the LGBTQ poppy, and the response that followed, bears an indication of anti-LGBTQ sentiment.
Ultimately, we each have the agency to decide how to interpret the use of the rainbow poppy. As a military historian and an equal rights campaigner, I argue that any opportunity to look deeper into the experiences of those who are typically underrepresented in history is one to be cherished. I state this with the caveat that one should not preclude the other. However, as inclusion remains at the top of the current British Army wish list an opportunity to remind future members that they are welcome to join regardless of sexuality, gender, creed, religion or race, is surely a good one.
I have a poppy tattooed on my arm. It is the design of this website and it is washed out deliberately to mark the need to remember not just the official figures of the dead, but those who died off the books, those that disappeared or were misrecorded; those who took their own lives and essentially erased themselves from the world and history in a single act. Why is my poppy, the symbol of my work, and my respect any different?