Interview: The vibrant support network for LGB soldiers

Tony Grew April 7, 2008
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The issue of gay people serving in the Armed Forces still divides politicians in the US.

For the rest of the countries in the NATO alliance, the claims and counter-claims about unit cohesion and the “influence” of gays on fighting men seem like echoes from another time.

The Dutch lifted their ban on gays in 1974, Australia followed in 1992 and Canada soon after.

In 2008, most of the member nations of NATO have removed their bans.

The United States though continues to operate under the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” law, a messy compromise reached in 1994.

As politicians and generals argue about the fairness or the sense of a policy that has been responsible for the discharge of more than 10,000 personnel and has cost US taxpayers more than $363 million (£182.6m), here in the UK the Armed Forces are proud of their LGB colleagues.

The British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force lifted their ban in 2000.

Since then many personnel have come out, with relatively little fanfare or problems.

In fact, Proud To Serve, the support network for lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women in the services, is one of the biggest in the country.

The British experience has helped change hearts and minds in the US.

“The UK is by far and away the most respected military in the world when it comes to the mindset of the Pentagon,” explains Professor Aaron Belkin, an academic who is an expert on DADT.

“I know in personal conversations with very respected military leaders that they see British experiences as precedent setting and that the incredible progress over here, has already changed a lot of their minds.

“So once that moment arrives the British experiences will need to be studied in greater depth, to get a road map.”

So what was the British experience? spoke to Lt Commander Craig Jones MBE RN.

The head of the LGBT community in the Armed Forces, he joined up in 1989 and has been involved with Proud to Serve since its inception. How many people have you got in the support network now?

The support network has just over 800, I think it is the largest online, employment-based community in the UK.

All three services?

All three services, and its growing by the rate of about 300 a year so that makes it a very significant network.

Are there still people coming out in the Armed Forces?

Absolutely. I think everyday. And of course we’re a young organisation, the average age on a war ship is about 22 or 23.

So we’ve got people joining all the time.

For me as an old-timer its absolutely terrific for me to see people coming through the door who a) don’t actually know that there was a gay ban in the first place and b) who feel confident and comfortable enough about the environment which we have created to be able to say ‘I’m gay’ from the outset. It’s important to people that they are able to be themselves.

I hadn’t thought of that – there must be people joining up who were only nine when all of this was in contention.

And that’s really fascinating and heartening.

It must be a very useful support network as well because obviously within any workforce and within any working area you’re going to still find prejudice.

I think people are still challenged in any working environment in how to find their place and how to join and be part of a team.

The one thing that Proud to Serve has delivered is an opportunity for people to exchange ideas about how to be part of the team and how to behave and how to find their place.

[b] That exchange of ideas, is that all based on the internet, do you guys meet?[/b]

It’s internet-based but the website is divided down into parts of the world.

So people who are in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands, Germany, Cyprus, all those folks who can be quite isolated have an opportunity to see who else is about in their part of the world.

There is a support network that meets in the Falkland Islands, 9,000 miles south of here, and you know, people go down there for a six month job and come back, but somehow that little network of its probably six guys and girls in a pub, is still keeping going.

And that’s really important, because we do expect a great deal of our people, we send them away from their families and their home life to remote parts of the world for long periods of time and we put them under a great deal of stress and strain.

I think having an opportunity to mix with people who understand each other is very valuable.

What were the main objections to having openly gay and lesbian people serving in the UK Armed Forces?

It is quite difficult to remember now but the one thing I do remember was the business case for not repealing our rules was very difficult to understand and made little sense.

And the only sticking point that was managed was that in some way the community of the Armed Forces would have a detrimental impact from having gay people around.

But there was never a clear way that you could articulate that, because the reality is that it doesn’t make sense. And I think it was just that it wasn’t the crocodile nearest to the boat, that it was a status quo that could be maintained and not something that maybe the folks at high levels in the military wished to address.

And maybe a bit of small ‘c’ conservatism, and that’s kind of reflected in the change.

I remember Vice-Admiral James Burn saying in 2002 that the integration of gay men and women at sea had been fantastically less complex than integrating women at sea. And it’s quite true, it was a complete non-event.

Well principally because they were already there.

Absolutely that. And also genuinely, what different does it make? We’ve got people who are quite mature in their jobs who’ve come out and who are already well-respected members in military society. So it’s worthwhile.

Is Proud to Serve supported by the top brass?

Absolutely. It’s about to form as a charity, and we’ll have a board of trustees who will be a mix of serving officers and junior and senior ranks.

And it’s essentially a networking and befriending organisation.

But it’s also an organisation which will be able to keep the service personnel directorate (heads of personnel in the services) aware of what matters to gay people and how we can make sure that we’re creating an environment which is genuinely inclusive, so that in this really competitive environment we are recruiting and retaining the best people.

Because we have gaps in the services, we are not fully manned in either the Royal Airforce, the Army or the Royal Navy so it’s important that we don’t alienate high quality people.

Do you also think that recruiting specifically in the gay press or going to gay Pride parades is something that can help with that process?

Absolutely. We would wish to access advertising mediums to recruit people, whichever mediums are well-read, we have placed advertisements with a wide variety of gay media, we’ve attended Pride with recruiting stands. And I’m quite sure that will happen again because its a good place for us to advertise.

One £500 recruiting advert with one of the ‘pink papers’ brought 24 recruits through the door. That’s a great success. And there are demographic reasons why gay folks might enjoy a very good career with us.

You served on warships?

Absolutely yep. In fact at the time we lifted the ban I was the head of operations in our flagship amphibious assault ship.

There must have been at that time lots of people who were tacitly out, who were aware of their sexuality and it wasn’t that much of any issue in terms of operations…

When I came out of the closet people looked genuinely shocked and I don’t think they were just being nice.

I don’t think there was a high level of awareness that I was gay. You would hear the odd rumour but the whole subject of gays in the military was a massive taboo before 2000.

It was a subject which created a great deal of heat and not a great deal of light and was hugely divisive, so by 1999 we had talked about it so much that people didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

It was actually fantastic for boardrooms and officers messes and gentlemen’s clubs in London that we changed the rules, which allowed us to talk about something other than gays in the military.

So a little bit of political will is needed with this sort of stuff.

It’s no secret of the fact that the rules were changed by a European Court of Human Rights ruling. And I think it’s fair to say that had that ruling not come through, looking at the way the UK has developed in the beginning part of this 21st century, then the rules would have changed. The writing was on the wall.

And were there mass rebellions from senior offices as reported in The Telegraph?

No, that is a spurious report, there may have been one or two before the lifting of the ban who may have banged their fist on the table.

So obviously there was an attempt to try and paint it as if it was a traumatic event for the services whereas in fact it wasn’t?

It was a total non-event. Quite remarkable. And now our focus is on how we can draw together our gay community and make the services a good place for gay men and women to serve.

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