Hidden lives, proud service: gays in the military

Tony Grew June 25, 2008
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As part of their Military Pride exhibition, the Imperial War Museum North asked gay servicemen and women to come forward with their experiences in the military.

Here are four of their testimonies.

For more information on the exhibition click here.

Keith, (main picture) born in Blackburn in 1950, joined up at 17 and served in the Royal Navy between 1967 and 1982. Keith attained the rank of Petty Officer.

“I was in the ship’s boiler room – it’s the most frightening thing. The steam is 950 – so a jet of it coming out of a leaking pipe would cut your head off straight away, you wouldn’t know it had happened.

And you’ve got these young lads who were only 17 who were doing this, so they’ve got to have some respect in you for what you’re doing.

And I think they did have respect in me.

You still felt like people were looking at you as if you were different, there was something strange about you.

But there wasn’t. I was doing the same work as what they were doing, and you know, it was hard work. And I was rewarded for it because I was made a Petty Officer on that ship.

To me it was so terrible, that you are a homosexual and homosexuality is not allowed in the Armed Services. It makes you a second class citizen because of what you are.

It’s trying to hide everything that there is about your sexuality because you know that one slip up and that could be the end of it.”

Paul was born in 1962 and raised in Lincolnshire. He served in the Royal Military police between 1980 and 1990. Paul reached the rank of Sergeant and received the General Service Medal Northern Ireland.

Hidden lives, proud service: gays in the military

“There were accusations, people pointing the finger, accusations of being gay which you had to argue and fight against. You couldn’t say ‘Yes I am, what are you going to do about it?’

Because you knew damn well what they were going to do about it. It led to a bit of antagonism and a few scraps here and there.

Fortunately because I was able to handle myself – there’s not many people made those accusations.

They don’t expect you to be able to fight if you’re a poof. I don’t regret the time I served; I just wish that things would have been different.

Although it’s now legal, it doesn’t mean to say that everybody is accepting or understanding because there’s still prejudices and suchlike and a lot of it’s borne out of ignorance.

I’m not jealous of the people now and the freedom they’ve got, I think it’s a well won freedom because a lot of people have worked hard to get that, and I think a lot of people should be very grateful for it, because it wasn’t always so easy.”

Patrick, born in 1955 in Yorkshire, enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 17. His period of service, between 1972 and 1992, saw Patrick reach the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Hidden lives, proud service: gays in the military
“My first ship, HMS Cutlass, was a fast patrol boat. A great job for a young Midshipman. I joined the Navy for an adventure and a career, with the awareness that one couldn’t be gay and in the Navy.

I was 17 and it wasn’t exactly a priority for me. But I suppose as I became older, it was often a lonely existence. I’d have loved to have met someone and settled down.

I had access to top secret material. I knew about the deployment of the national deterrent. One of the ironies with being gay was that you could be blackmailed.

Of course, if you were allowed to be gay then you wouldn’t be blackmailed in the first place. I did lie when being vetted.

I did not lie willingly, but in full consideration of one question. ‘Was I blackmailable?’ And I was 100% sure that there was nothing which could make me be a traitor to my country and my fellow men and women.

I was resolute in that, I could not be blackmailed. And if they could not get their bloody policy right, then I’d tell the lie until they did.

I was very proud to have been a member of the Armed Forces, just as many other people who’ve served their country are proud.

In the 1990s I joined Rank Outsiders, We launched a campaign, with the assistance of Stonewall, to have the ban lifted. Four exservice people pursued the legal case through Judicial Review, then onto the Court of Appeal. We bypassed the House of Lords to take it directly to the European Court of Human Rights.

It was there, in 1999, that we won. I’m proud of being one of many people who helped get the ban lifted in this country.

It was not my destiny to be, you know, an Admiral of the Queen’s Navy. But where I’ve ended up is good enough.”

Gavin was born in 1978 in Newark, Nottinghamshire. He served with the Household Cavalry between 1999 and 2006. Gavin was open about his sexuality for the last 3 years of his service and left as a Lance Corporal.

Hidden lives, proud service: gays in the military

“The Household Cavalry was completely unique, in that you could get up for a early morning rehearsal at 2.30am then spend the day cleaning and preparing for the next day’s rehearsal, not finishing till 1am the following morning.

There was always a lot of innuendo and banter suggesting I may be gay, I hadn’t come out at that stage but I would defuse the situation by suggesting one of their group was gay. It didn’t bother me anyway.

It was mentioned, the fact that you could now be gay in the Army. I don’t think anyone really cared.

It was a good environment to be in everyone looked out for one another I don’t think I would be the person I am today if I hadn’t joined the Army I was a bit of a tearaway, very undisciplined as a child. I left with a very good opinion of the Army.”

Military Pride will culminate in a temporary display and series of events at Imperial War Museum North from July 12 until October this year, timed to coincide with the Manchester Pride Festival.

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