A 21-year-old member of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (2RTR) has become one of the first British openly gay soldiers serving in a major conflict.

Trooper Ben Rakestrow, who yesterday completed his operational tour of service in Helmand province, Afghanistan spoke to the press about coming out to his colleagues.

“It was difficult to start with,” he said. “I didn’t know how they’d react,” he is quoted as saying.

Mr Rakestrow came out to his colleagues while on a training exercise on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. He arrived late for exercises one morning after going out to a nightclub with a friend who knew he was gay.

When Mr Rakestrow arrived, he said: “The lads all asked if we’d had any luck, then at least our late arrival would have been worth it. I just said, ‘His name was Ryan’. Some of their faces dropped, and asked if I was serious. They couldn’t believe it.”

Until 1999, it was illegal to be gay within the British armed forces. The Government was forced to change the law as a result the European Convention on Human Rights.

Last year, General Sir Richard Dannatt, then head of the British Army told an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) conference: “One of the Army’s six Core Values is ‘Respect for Others’ and it is therefore our absolute duty to treat our fellow soldiers as we would wish to be treated ourselves,” he said.

“Discrimination against those in the Army who are lesbian, gay and bisexual does not give them a chance to contribute or to play a full part in the teams that are vital for our success on operations.

“Respecting others is therefore part of the trust that has to exist between soldiers, and the nation’s values of tolerance, decency and quality must be reflected in the Army.”

Mr Rakestrow who adorns his sleeping area with pictures of Hollywood actor Zac Efronis said:”I get banter from them [fellow soldiers] all the time, but it’s good banter. They all want to know about my life, they ask a lot of questions, you can imagine. I don’t find it hard to talk about it.”

His advice to fellow gay soldiers who have yet to come out: “If you’re confident tell your mates. But the important thing is to tell them when it feels right.” But he said he’d rather not date any of his fellow soldiers: “I’ve got to work with these guys every day.”

The press have greeted Mr Rakestrow’s decision to speak openly about his sexuality with acclaim.
The Daily Mirror in a leader opinion article said: “Our brave forces in Afghanistan include soldiers who are gay and we applaud Trooper Ben Rakestrow’s honesty.
“His military comrades have no problem with the serviceman’s sexuality and nor should we.
“What counts is ability and courage, and Rakestrow has proved he has that in spades. The military is a unit that relies on everyone working together. Trooper Rakestrow is an honourable member of that team.”

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told The Times: “There are still pockets of homophobia but on the whole acceptance and support of lesbians and gays has been phenomenal and commendable. The military have gone way beyond merely lifting the ban. All three services now send large contingents to march in uniform at gay pride parades. None of the predicted dissention has occurred.”