The military’s rainbow revolution – from dishonourable discharge to model employer

LGBT Rights


UK armed forces banned gay personnel from serving until a European court of human rights ruling in 2000. Now they are recognised as among the best places to work for LGBT staff

Clare Langham-Phillips is 47, and a chief technician in the RAF. She joined up when she was 19 and has served on the frontline in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Afghanistan. “It’s all I ever wanted to do, but I think I also used the RAF to hide from my sexuality,” she says. “I had stronger feelings for women than men but instead of facing that, I focused on my job – and because being gay wasn’t allowed, it was easy to block it out.”

If Langham-Phillips had come out before 2000 she would have been made to leave her job for being a lesbian. It was only then that the armed forces, following a ruling by the European court of human rights (ECHR), scrapped the ban on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people serving in the military – a decision that she says transformed her life.

Just before the ban was outlawed she had been posted to the Falklands. “There are penguins and not much else: you have time to do a lot of soul-searching, and I was sharing a room with a woman whose sister is gay. She spoke about her with such love, I thought, maybe it would be OK. Then, when I got home, the ban was lifted. The fact that I couldn’t be dishonourably discharged was a huge relief.”

Fifteen years on, navy, RAF and army personnel will be marching together – in uniform – in London’s Pride parade later this month. And this year, all three armed forces made it into Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers list for the first time. Ruth Hunt, chief executive of Stonewall thinks it is incredible to see all three on the list, which is seen as the definitive guide to the best places to work for LGBT staff. “The armed forces are now embedding change at every level, whether in equality and diversity training, policy wording, community engagement or support from senior leaders. It’s a fantastic example of a group accepting mistakes that were made and taking impressive and active steps in improving what they do,” she says.

The transformation in attitude is striking. Before the ban was lifted, being gay was considered to be “incompatible” with military life “because of the close physical conditions in which personnel often have to live and work”, and also because homosexual behaviour can “cause offence, polarise relationships, induce ill-discipline and damage morale and unit effectiveness” according to the 1994 armed forces’ policy and guidelines on homosexuality . But in September 1999, the ECHR ruled that discharging LGBT servicemen and women because of their sexuality was a breach of their human rights. The ban was lifted on 12 January 2000.

Warrant officer Karen Styles is chair of the army LGBT forum. Now 41, she has been in the army for 20 years and was on the frontline in Northern Ireland and in the back office during the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. She was married twice and didn’t come out at work until after the lifting of the ban. “The change in rules was so sudden – one day you could be arrested, the next day, you were OK,” she says.

“When I did [come out], my boss said, ‘whatever’. That was a good reaction. It’s not always the younger recruits who are open-minded. It can actually be the older ones who are willing to sit down and talk about it and say ‘OK, I get it now’,” says Styles.

Chris Wood, 39, is a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy, who served in Afghanistan. He joined in 2001. “I think I would have been apprehensive about joining up any earlier,” he says. “I’ve talked to people who served before 2000, and it really struck me how different things are now. I’ve heard of women who were suspected of being lesbians being locked up in their blocks and ridiculed openly before being discharged.”

It is thought that dozens of servicemen and women used to be discharged because of their sexuality each year, but the actual numbers are hard to come by. The Royal Navy used to categorise them as “medical” discharges.

Until last year, the Ministry of Defence did not collect figures for the number of LGBT servicemen and women. But since November, all service personnel are asked to disclose their sexuality on a monitoring form. “The irony is that up to 2000, we were trying to find out who was gay so they could be dishonourably discharged,” says Wood, who is also a diversity and inclusion policy officer. “Now, we want to find out so that we can make the organisation work better for everyone, whatever their sexuality.”

Given the forces’ reputation for bullying and a macho culture it is not surprising that some are still reticent to speak out about their sexuality. They may have to weigh up the fact that for many years they have been dishonest with their friends and colleagues. “In the first year, I limited who I told,” says Langham-Phillips. “And everyone was walking on eggshells; nobody knew what it was OK to say. It’s different now, a whole new generation has come in and they’ve helped to change attitudes.”

Nonetheless, Wood points out there is still more to be done. “I was at a security checkpoint with my husband, who’s also called Chris, who was my fiancé at the time,” he recalls. “The officer looked at our paperwork, saw fiancé and started laughing. ‘He is my fiancé,’ I said, stony-faced. I’ve never seen a barrier go up so quickly in my life.”

The MoD acknowledges that it is at the start rather than the end of a journey. Writing last month on the eve of the Republic of Ireland voting to legalise same-sex marriage, Commander Land Forces Lt Gen James Everard, said “We are safely at the beginning of the age of inclusiveness, but the challenge is not time-limited.We must continue to show progress. We need to think differently if we are to succeed, remembering that people perform better when they can be themselves.”

For all those sacked for being gay prior to 2000, the progress comes too late. Mandy McBain served for 25 years in the Royal Navy. “I was questioned just a few months before the ban was lifted, and if I’d answered truthfully, it would have been the end of my career,” she recalls. But McBain, now a client account manager at Stonewall, thinks all employers could learn lessons from the armed forces.

“If the military can make this type of progress from a standing start, any organisation can,” she says. “The services operate in a unique and often challenging working environment where people can be together 24/7. They can’t leave, go home and simply shut the front door – acceptance is essential. And the great thing is when done correctly, it works.”

From ‘abhorrence’ to acceptance of gay marriage

The European court of human rights’ decision in September 1999 was far from universally welcomed. One opponent, the late Gen Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, writing on the BBC website, repeated that gay people could undermine comradeship and added that two surveys had shown the overwhelming majority of those in military service found homosexuality “abhorrent”. Another opponent, a brigadier, resigned in protest at the lifting of the ban.

But such objections proved to be minimal and just over a decade later gay rights had been embraced by the military to the extent that a gay man serving in the household cavalry, lance-corporal James Wharton, was able to host his wedding reception at the regimental barracks.

One of Wharton’s commanding officers, captain Michael Fry, in contrast to Farrar-Hockley’s direct warnings about the impact on morale, was quoted in the Independent: “Colour, creed, age and who you sleep with all become irrelevant when you’re both being shot at.”

The court challenge that ended the ban was backed by LGBT rights group Stonewall after an approach by Robert Ely, a warrant officer in the parachute regiment who was dismissed after 17 years’ service.

The case was brought on behalf of four other former members of the armed forces who had been dismissed: Duncan Lustig-Prean, a supply officer on HMS Newcastle; Jeanette Smith, an RAF nurse; John Beckett, a weapons engineer mechanic; and Graeme Grady, of the RAF, who had been posted to Washington DC.

They challenged the Ministry of Defence policy that anyone who is gay could not serve and there was a duty on serving members to inform on anyone known to be gay, leading to their dismissal.

At the European court hearing in Strasbourg, judges ruled in favour of the four ex-service members and Stonewall that the ban contravened the European convention on human rights.

The MoD capitulated and the ban was lifted. Young was offered his post back.

British LGBT staff have since served openly. It took the US more than a decade to follow suit. President Bill Clinton opted for a messy compromise in 1994 under which gays and lesbians could serve but not openly: they did not volunteer their sexual orientation and officers were told not to inquire, a formula that became known as “don’t ask, don’t tell”. It was finally repealed in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

Cases still emerge of bullying or abuse of LGBT people in the British military. Wharton, in his 2013 book Out in the Army: My Life as a Gay Soldier, told of how he was tormented during exercises in Canada by soldiers from another regiment and that Prince Harry had come to his assistance. Yet prejudice is no longer institutionalised. The MoD now advertises for recruits in gay media outlets.

In 2007, it issued a formal apology for its hounding of gays and lesbians.

Source: The Guardian



Share this story

There are 0 comments

Leave a comment

Want to express your opinion?
Leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.