I was gay in the British Army when it was illegal. It drove me to drink and an attempt on my own life
January 12 marks 20 years since the UK’s ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the British Army and the UK’s armed forces was lifted.
The lifting of the ban on LGB soldiers, which followed a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, was a landmark moment for the armed forces – ushering in an era of commitment to equality and inclusion.
However, the progress was decades too late for Trevor Skingle, who joined the Army in 1974, aged 17.
‘I couldn’t tell anyone about it.’
He explained to PinkNews: “I decided to go into the military as a young soldier. I did basic training, and then I got posted to Germany.
“Things got a bit bad with my situation because, underlying everything, I was completely aware that I was gay.”
Trevor added: “I couldn’t come out, couldn’t tell anyone about it, couldn’t have a relationship with anybody. I felt a bit hemmed in. I turned to alcohol.
“In those days, it was the macho thing to do – and the more you could drink, the more macho you seemed. It got worse and worse and worse.
“It really set off a mental health situation, particularly around my sexuality and I ended up making a suicide attempt.”
Thankfully, Trevor survived, and was offered counselling – but the ban left him too afraid of repercussions to even tell the Army psychiatrist about his sexuality, let alone discuss his personal fears.
He added: “It was absolutely and totally banned. If they found out about me, I would’ve been put on an aircraft to London and turfed out. Discharged with a bad record.”
Trevor, who went on to serve as a physical therapist, eventually opted to leave the Army for civilian life and the chance to live openly as himself.
He said: “It was the main reason why I left… I really felt it was time for me to leave so I could find a partner. Once I’d left the military, I came out as a ‘civvy’ and never really looked back.”
Helping to fight for change.
After leaving the armed forces in 1979, Trevor went on to join a group called Rank Outsiders, comprised of armed forces personnel who fought for the ban to be lifted.
He said: “The surprising thing was the range of people involved in the Rank Outsiders group.
“There were quite a few Guards Officers, there were people from the RAF and from the Navy and obviously people from the British Army.
“I got involved with doing a national broadcast on Channel Four’s Comment about lesbian and gay rights in the armed services and why the ban should be lifted.”
It was a long campaign for justice for the group, which later became the Armed Forces Lesbian and Gay Association.
Trevor recalled: “I had a little strapline that I used to use: ‘I and others like me are oppressed by the very society that expects us to lay down our lives in its defence, but which supports the view that homosexuality is illegal in the armed forces.
“‘This discrimination does not take into account that the freedom to live and speak out in a democratic society was won, amongst others, by gay men and lesbian women who bravely fought in the first and second world wars.
“‘Those of us who were and are serving would, given the freedom to express ourselves without the fear of reprisals or oppression, continue to serve our country with loyalty, dignity and pride.’
“I still think some of it is still relevant today.”
The group’s work with Stonewall co-founder Michael Cashman, now Lord Cashman, led to the lifting of some restrictions in 1994 – while the European court ruling in 2000 saw the ban struck down entirely.
‘A sense of relief.’
Trevor has since joined the Royal British Legion’s LGBTQ+ and Allies branch, which was set up in January 2019 to provide a valuable space for LGBT+ servicepeople to connect, free from homophobia which still sometimes pervades in veterans’ spaces.
He said: “I just felt such a sense of relief that there was a group out there that was supporting people with a sexual identity or gender identity issues who are serving or have served.
“The first thing I got involved in was marching at Pride in London last year and… it really chokes me up.
“For the first time in my life, I was able to march at Pride openly under the banner of the military, as as a veteran and a member of the RBL’s LGBT+ branch.
“I can’t tell you what it meant to me.”
The military in 2020, including the British Army, is unrecognisable for gay people from 1974.
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Trevor said: “[If I were 17 today] I think it would be a lot different… I think once I’d settled down in a working unit, I would be able to look for a partner. It would’ve made so much difference. Now I understand that same-sex couples are living in, what we call, the pad quarters [for married couples on bases].
“It’s all becoming everyone under the same banner without any discrimination and that makes a lot of difference.
“It’s not the fact that somebody is gay, lesbian or somebody is transgender or bisexual or queer or questioning – it’s whether they can do the job or not. And the people that I’ve met who are still serving, they can do the job.”
While the military now welcomes everyone, it took decades of hard work from activists to get there – and many more people like Trevor have struggled under the strain.
The RBL says that mental health issues may be more prevalent amongst LGBT+ people who have served, owing to the stress of not being able to come out openly before the ban was lifted, and ongoing real or perceived stigma.
Peter Southgate, vice chair of the RBL’s LGBT+ branch, said the group’s existence has helped reach servicepeople and veterans who “have historically been marginalised within the armed forces community, and often haven’t come forward to get the help they are entitled to”.
He added: “Since we founded the branch last year, we have signed up more than 100 new members and are building a real sense of community.”