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Monday 10 April 2017

ANZAC Day feature: Gay and in the Army, pt1 - Basic Training

Posted in: True Stories
By Jay Bennie - 25th April 2013

Earlier this year it was revealed that Corporal Dougie Hughes took his own life last year while serving with the NZ Army in Afghanistan. He had been feeling passionately drawn to at least one other male soldier and when things came to a head his superior officer required him to express his feelings in front of a young soldier he had become fixated on. Hours later Dougie Hughes was dead.

Rudy Paul, in 2013
An internal Army investigation into the circumstances of his death has been sealed and, despite calls from Hughes' own family, a coroner with a history of campaigning against equality for gays refuses to look further into the matter.

To try to understand this tragedy we can't actually walk in Dougie Hughes shoes, or march in his boots. But Rudy Paul, who like Hughes, was a young Maori teenager who joined the army not yet knowing that he was gay, has agreed to take us into his own experience of military life. In some ways his experience was different - he joined up two decades earlier - but in many ways the parallels are illuminating.

A young Rudy Paul went into the military in 1981 "because where we come from we'd either become unemployed or I'd have a family and kids by now and it's not where I wanted to go."

Where he came from was "a little village near Rotorua." Asked if it was a conservative or liberating environment he laughs: "Is there one inbetween?"

"Even though I loved home the Army was a way to get me out, to get me away," he says. "I needed to get out and my parents wanted me to go too. That was main reason to join up... to get away, to get a job. And it was one of the best things I have ever done."

Aged just over sixteen Paul was a "quiet, very quiet" kid, naive and with "no expectations whatsoever... I was really nervous because the furthest I had ever been was the borders of Rotorua... I had never actually been out of Rotorua at all in sixteen and a half years, so it was really nerve-wracking."

Looking back on his early teen years he had an idea he was different from his mates. "I knew there was something happening sexually. Even at that stage I was just looking at guys instead of girls. I don't know if mum saw that and wanted me to man up and pointed me towards the Army, I don't know. I haven't asked her about that. And I'm the eldest boy too... I assume they had a lot of expectations for me, though they haven't actually told me that."

Had he come out to anybody before joining the army, expressed his feelings to anybody? Made a move in any way? "No. Oh... " He pauses in thought then smiles. "I did! But I didn't know how to describe... I didn't know what I was doing. It was like: 'This is what boys do.' It wasn't because I'm gay or because I'm straight, It's just what boys do. They play around with each other... that was it. Then later on when you reflect back on it you realise: 'Oh shit, the feelings that you had may just be different than whoever you were doing it with.' I thought we felt the same, but obviously not. I think they were all straight, I think I was the only one..."

Were there any role models, anyone he could look to who was gay? "None."

Even in the media, such as gay people or characters on TV? "No, because where we were from we didn't have much TV at all... we were outdoors people, spending the majority of our life outdoors."


With his clothes and belongings in two paper bags Paul boarded a bus in Rotorua. "We were all sent to Waiouru and spent our Basic there. I joined Regular Force Cadets, that's why I could join at sixteen and a half instead of the normal age. We spent a year doing Regular Force Cadets training then we graduated into Regular Force as a 'real man', a 'real soldier,' instead of as a student.

It was a hard and demanding regime. "During the basic period of thirteen weeks you get probably two, maybe three, hours sleep a night through all that time. That's just how it was... everyone did it."

For non-military types 'basic training' conjures up images of square-bashing and shouting sergeant majors. "We were lucky. The class before us, that was when a lot of that was still happening, 'bastardisation' as it was called... where you were stood in rubbish bins and called out: 'I'm a wanker! I'm a wanker!' and you were washed down in showers with scrubbing brushes and stuff like that. But in 1981 big changes happened. We still got a little bit, but not as bad as the year before and previous years."

His new home away from home was an Army barracks, "in a ten-man room." Along with those other nine young men Paul was part of a platoon. "A room is part of a 'section,' which is part of a 'platoon,' then a 'company.'"

For ten young guys thrown together it's a pressure-cooker experience. "The first thing is to learn to live with each other and understand each other. And then just be comrades I suppose. There's the old cliche, 'comrades in arms, and it's true. You know each others' weaknesses because you live with each other... the only thing you don't live in with each other is your beds.

"Throughout your whole training, because you are so busy and so tired and so young and just going through or coming out the other side of puberty... to find your cock or anything, you just don't have time"


Is part of that basic training process getting to know each other as people? Paul's answer is immediate and emphatic. "No."

"You as a person and you as a soldier are two different people. You talk shop as a soldier. As a soldier all you speak about is work, work, work, work. I mean, you might compare your school results but you kind of leave your families to the side because you're focusing on the army family. You've left your real family behind, you focus on this. You build your new family and after a while, when you go on leave, you can take your mates back."

With no turning back a young Rudy Paul is now living with nine other young guys day and night, 24hrs a day, for thirteen weeks. And he is starting to realise he's a little different from the rest... or most of them.

"The old gaydar, which I didn't actually realise about then, it was twanging!" he laughs. "It was going off! And there were some that you knew and they knew but you didn't have the words to express yourself. And to be honest, to be gay in the army then you still had the stereotype of someone who's effeminate and wears dresses."

What was the language like? What about 'faggot' and 'poofter'? "Oh definitely: 'Get up you fucking faggot!' Everyone did it."

But despite, or perhaps because of, the stereotypes, the machismo and the homophobic terms of abuse "I had no idea what being gay actually is. In my mind a gay was a person who dresses up and is really effeminate and behaves like a girl. That's what it was to me. So I didn't relate to that. So it was: 'I'm not gay because that's not me!'"

The Army was not a place to indulge in education and self-reflection on one's sexuality while on or even off base. "In that environment you don't read about it, you don't pick up literature that's got gay stuff in it unless you're on leave and away from everyone... because it's as if someone's watching you... you've still got to go back and what if all of a sudden something accidentally comes out, a word you found in a gay book comes out, to show that 'I've been looking somewhere else.'"

The increasingly ingrained sense of comradeship is strong, on and off base. "A lot of that period I was with the guys from our section, our platoon. And when you go on leave, when you go out, you speak a different language... as soldiers you talk a totally different language to civilians. If you as a civilian and I were speaking like this you wouldn't understand what I was talking about. The only other people who understand are other armed services."

Despite all but leaving their private lives at the barracks gate, the young cadets did come to know just a little about each other. "Back when we left Rotorua everyone got on the one bus and you don't know anyone and it's not until you go through all your experiences on basic and you talk and: 'Oh, they're from Rotorua,' and you make friends. And when you get back to home town you bump into each other and then you're talking again and you're swearing... to be honest we didn't know that we were even swearing until our parents told us!"

Whatever feelings were emerging, Paul kept them hidden, as a person and as a soldier, on base and on leave.

It would be ten years before Rudy Paul would come out, and even then on a very constricted basis. Coincidentally, it would be ten years from joining up when Dougie Hughes came out, or was forced out, and took his own life.

In part two of this series, on Saturday, Rudy Paul will take us beyond Basic, deeper into the day to day macho culture of the army he loved... and through his years of fear of exposure as one of those 'fucking faggots.'

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Jay Bennie - 25th April 2013