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Editorial: Corporal Dougie Hughes' legacy?

Posted in: Living Well, Features
By Jay Bennie - 11th March 2013

douglas_hughes_5_1.jpg
Corporal Dougie Hughes
No one just commits suicide out of the blue. It may seem so to outsiders, even to close friends, but it doesn't happen that way.

Many factors and influences must fall into place which together build into a situation from which the person can see no other escape, no other possible solution. Try to imagine the uniquely dark and dismal space you yourself would have to be in if the only solution was to kill yourself.

Corporal Dougie (that's the contraction of 'Douglas' he preferred to go by) Hughes, as we now know, despite the best efforts of a homophobic coroner and the increasingly dodgy looking Defence Force, went into that bleak, black, inescapable space.

From the age of eighteen Hughes was an excellent soldier who was serving his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when all his fears and insecurities were callously exposed. Those personal issues, familiar territory to any glbti person who has struggled with coming out, even initially just to themselves, can pressure-cook in any environment. The military is a close-knit, tightly structured and high-expectation environment. It is a given that a young man struggling with the consequences of his sexuality, possibly without input or guidance from others, in all probability isolated from his glbti peers, trying to deal with the powerful forces of love, lust, self-image, family and workplace expectations, would be a powder-keg waiting to explode.

Let's get a few things straight. Coming to terms with sexuality and everything that springs from it is something all young people go through. When society and their immediate environment are in harmony with the way they feel and perceive themselves they are supported and encouraged. Nearly everything they see and experience reinforces the legitimacy of their feelings and the way their actions are judged. But if it's all out of synch things can go badly wrong, for straight and gay folk alike. Feelings and needs, ignored or repressed, can fester and swell out of all proportion, leading to unfortunate behaviors and decisions. Everything gets distorted.

Usually there is a way out. The time-honoured Kiwi method of getting some semblance of clarity in our lives is the big OE. We head off and stretch our wings. We experiment and make mistakes, generally growing stronger well away from parental or peer oversight. We take risks and learn much more of our own personality and abilities than we ever would in the less challenging environment of home and hometown life.

For glbti people there is a deeper need to be satisfied in our sometimes years-long OEs - and for some crossing Cook Strait or even the Rakaia River is sufficiently 'overseas' - which almost always take in a significant gay centre whether it be Auckland, Sydney, San Francisco, Manchester or Amsterdam. If the pressure builds too high, if mistakes are being made, we can fairly easily hit the reset button and re-start our lives, in one of these bigger, gayer, centres. Gore kids flee the taunts by moving to Christchurch, Christchurch folk gravitate to Wellington or Auckland... it's been going on for generations. But, from the limited accounts we have access to, these options weren't so available to Dougie Hughes. His commitment to the military, to his fellow-soldiers and perhaps to his own sense of self-worth meant that he plowed on without being able to change course.

So, when he was forced to expose his innermost and deeply gnawing self-doubts, and his possibly overly-passionate feelings for another male soldier, to the target of those feelings, someone he had been in close professional contact with for some time and who harshly and openly rejected him, all means of escape from his deepest and most corrosive personal dilemma must have felt cut off.

Coming out, more or less under orders, to his superior officer and to the object of his passion wasn't a statement of confidence and strength, of pride, for Dougie Hughes. It was his moment of supreme anguish which opened his life, his dreams, his future, his self-worth to ridicule and destruction.

He was forced by his superior officer to lay bare the most difficult and feared part of his being and was rejected in a manner that was bound to become common knowledge amongst everyone he worked with, socialised with and relied on for everything in his day to day life. Amongst everyone he respected and wanted - needed - to be respected by.

And what if word got back from Afghanistan to New Zealand? For Dougie Hughes the sun dimmed, the walls closed in, his dreams and aspirations were snuffed out. Life itself became unbearable. There was no escape.

Gay men have always been excellent front-line soldiers, just as women, lesbians included, have proven to be. But a straight woman who is conflicted about herself can always identify other women from whom help and reassurance might be forthcoming. That's not so easy for a gay man or woman surrounded by sometimes homophobic straights and a few mostly deeply closeted gays. In our supposedly more accommodating, more diverse, military there is still a deep-seated macho ethic which does not embrace those who are different, regardless of their sex or sexuality.

Dougie Hughes' experience is exactly a case in point. The Prime Minister says the army has processes and policies in place, but were they followed? Are they appropriate, understood or sufficient?

The coroner, a devout Mormon elder who has made public representations seeking to deny equality and dignity to gay people, thinks he knows enough about being gay to dismiss Hughes' death as unworthy of full and frank investigation. Frankly we don't trust the creep an inch in this matter.

The military itself is cowardly and probably self-serving in hiding behind the skirts of what it says are family members whose sensibilities must be protected... when no such purse-lipped family appear to actually exist. For heaven's sake, Hughes' own mother is leading the charge for opening up the circumstances of Dougie's death to public - and family - scrutiny!

And if our Defence Force thinks that the subsequent formation of the OverWatch glbti military group excuses it from self-examination then that is both callow and callous.

Something went horrendously wrong in Dougie Hughes' life and workplace. Even if some of his actions were not ideal, glbti people around the country will surely empathise with one of our own who died vainly trying to make sense of himself and his life under intense pressures.

Too many glbti people in this country take their own lives. Vastly more contemplate suicide. The Solicitor-General, on whose desk this situation has now landed, must order an official inquiry so that the bullshit and willful ignorance are swept aside and some glimmer of good can emerge from Dougie Hughes' tragic and avoidable death.

If the solicitor General does the right thing Dougie Hughes' legacy could be a better life in times to come for anyone, gay or otherwise, who is similarly conflicted and constrained and whose reserves of stamina and self-confidence are running on empty.


- Jay Bennie

Jay Bennie - 11th March 2013

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