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British Ambassador opens up about being forced to hide his sexuality

Nick Duffy July 11, 2017

A British Ambassador has opened up about living in fear of persecution, living at the time that the gay people were forced to hide in the closet.

Until 1991 gay men and lesbians were officially barred from working for the British Diplomatic Service, and many went to great lengths to conceal their sexuality.

Sir Stephen Wall, a diplomat who served as Britain’s ambassador to Portugal and Permanent Representative to the European Union, opened up about his experiences as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office launched a booklet on the historical injustices faced by gay people in the service.

In a clip released by the Foreign Office, the diplomat explains: “I spent about half my career working inside the building, knowing that I was a gay man, knowing that it was a sackable offence if it was discovered that I was gay.

“It wasn’t a matter of if you were actually caught in the act, it was a matter of admitting or not that you had homosexual tendencies, and that was the world I lived in, and like all of my contemporaries the world that that I dealt with.”

He added: “I buried myself in work… I was married, I had a family, I had a son, and for quite a few years this was something I didn’t even admit to myself. After I had admitted it to myself I thought, this is a secret I have to take to the grave.

“It wasn’t really until I stopped doing those busy jobs that I realised I couldn’t go on concealing who I am.”

Sir Stephen also penned a foreword to the FCO’s booklet.

He wrote: “I spent my career, firstly denying my sexuality to myself and, once I had admitted it to myself, regarding it as something to be suppressed: a secret to be taken to the grave for the sake of my family, my faith and my career.

“Even as late as 1991, when John Major lifted the ban on gay men and lesbians working in the Diplomatic Service and appointed me as the UK Ambassador to the EU in Brussels, I do not believe he would have felt able to make that appointment if I had then been openly gay.

“I look back now, rather as we look back at child labour or the denial of equal rights to women, and ask myself how the FCO could have been so hidebound and why I was not braver. But it never occurred to me to challenge the orthodoxy.

“At one moment in my career, in Paris in the early 1970s when the attractions of my own sex pressed on me insistently, I considered leaving the Service. I ruled it out. I was a practising Catholic. I dreaded coming out to my parents.

“The legal tolerance of sexual relations between consenting adults in private merely underlined that homosexuality was seen as abnormal and perverse. Few walks of life accepted homosexuality as a normal difference.

“One of my university friends concealed his sexuality throughout his successful career in the knowledge that his survival as a head teacher depended on it. Even in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher could introduce Clause 28 because it chimed with public opinion.

“Read the British tabloid newspapers at the height of the AIDS crisis and you will find the cruellest characterisation of its victims as disgusting perverts. Michael Cashman’s first ever gay kiss on British television laid him open to abuse in The Sun and in public.”

Sir Stephen added: “In its social attitudes, today’s Foreign Office is in step with majority public opinion in Britain.

“Yesterday’s Foreign Office too was in step with majority opinion. Then, we lived in a homophobic country. Now, by and large, we do not.”

More: ambassador, British, foreign and commonwealth office, foreign office, Gay, LGBT, Sir Stephen Wall

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