As Geoff Hoon announced the repeal of the UK Armed Forces ‘gay ban’ on 13th January 2000, just a few yards down the road there were long faces in the Ministry of Defence.
The repeal of the ‘gay ban’ was a critically important win for equality group Stonewall and heralded the beginnings of Blairite social changes which have made the UK a far better place for gay men and women to be. But be in no doubt, it was not welcomed by many in the British military establishment.
My commanding officer told a packed Officers’ Mess of the policy change a day before the House of Commons announcement and we were all placed under strict embargo. My response was swift and instinctive; I stepped from my closet and claimed the ground which had been so hard fought for.
It was a matter of duty – gay or straight a concept all servicemen and women understand. The House of Commons announcement had freed me from the necessity to guard the details of my life for fear of exposure, disgrace and dismissal.
Secrecy and deceit go against the grain of the often-enduring friendships that we enjoy in the Armed Forces. My ship’s company seemed to recognise that my choice of openness set me on a difficult path and after a bewildering first week I felt their growing support.
I cannot think of a civilian life equivalent to the ‘band of brothers’ atmosphere that exists in the wardroom of a warship. And it was profoundly rewarding to see attitudes and ideas about being gay change over time.
Yet beyond the few units who won themselves an ‘out’ guy or girl, in Whitehall the MoD fumbled around and achieved little for a number of years at substantial cost to a courageous group of junior ranks who took the difficult path of being open.
At times I have defended my kind like a tiger and as I depart the service it’s timely to acknowledge that there is a group of wounded senior officers who have received acerbic letters, emails or – far worse – a visit from me over the years. The fact that I have escaped ‘jankers’ makes me think that they took my unmilitary directness with a pinch of ‘sea salt’ – a faint heart never won a fair maiden.
It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between those who have insight and those who are simply incensed; on most occasions I feel I had a little of both. Nevertheless I suspect that admirals, generals and air marshalls have traded my letters in the gentlemen’s clubs of London.
The exception was Admiral Lord West of Spithead, now minister for internal security. His unstinting early support for the gay community in the Armed Forces paved the path others would later follow when the shrapnel stopped flying. His successor Admiral Sir Jonathan Band has matched his initiative despite the occasional recalcitrance of other services.
So eight years on as the British Army joins Stonewall’s good employers scheme and gay sailors, soldiers and air folks march through London with swords drawn and shiny medals, clapped and cheered by an adoring crowd – has this social experiment worked? Gay men and women are now serving with pride and distinction alongside their heterosexual colleagues at the front line of operations worldwide.
They enjoy increasing levels of support from their command and service chiefs and the Armed Forces no longer dismiss highly trained and much needed personnel. A few months after Gulf War II, I chatted to a gay soldier about his experiences of being at the frontline and with a cheeky grin he lamented that his fellow infantrymen seemed ‘far more interested in invading Iraq than me and my sexual orientation – but who knows they might ask me to go back and redecorate!’.
It occurred to me that I was talking to the man for whom rank outsiders had fought so hard. Gay servicemen and women of my generation will always be indebted for their courage and enduring fortitude to win equality and justice for the Armed Forces of today.
This battle for equality is as much part of the history of the Armed Forces as the may others histories which adorn the walls of the Imperial War Museum (North).
The exhibition – which runs until 12 October and is free – tells the hidden history of gay men and women in the Armed Forces through the experiences of 12 serving and retired service personnel.
Lieutenant Commander Craig Jones MBE is now Head of Diversity at Barclays Wealth