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RAF veteran jailed for being gay says getting his medals back isn’t enough. He wants a proper apology

Lily Wakefield February 22, 2021
military personnel LGBT pride

A general view of military personnel during Pride in London 2019 on 6 July 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images for Pride in London)

An RAF veteran has described how his career was cut short in 1993, when he became one of the last British military servicemen to be sent to prison for being gay.

Until a ban was lifted in January 2000, anyone in the military who was found to be homosexual was dishonourably discharged and could be jailed for up to six months.

Last week, it was revealed that the UK government is set to return the medals of veterans who were stripped of them for being gay or transgender, with the aim of righting “historic wrongs”.

But David Bonney, who joined the RAF when he was 17, said this is not enough and is calling for an official apology.

Bonney served as an RAF medic, and worked at an RAF hospital in Bahrain during the first Gulf War, according to PlymouthLive.

While in Bahrain, he had a “brief affair” with a Norwegian Red Cross worker, before panic set in and he broke up with him.

He said: “It was my first gay event in my life, my first gay relationship. I was 22 and it was my first relationship with a man and I panicked.

“I was sharing my room in a hotel with a sergeant and there’s this man outside my room crying and my roommate is asking, ‘What the hell was going on?’ And I’m saying, ‘I don’t know.’ And I thought to myself, ‘What do I do – I’m gay and I’m in the Armed Forces?'”

“I’d never really defined myself before that.”

Bonney said “operations” to catch gay service members in the RAF were common, and added: “The money that they spent on trying to get rid of us, spy on us, prosecute us, was ridiculous.”

While he managed to keep his brief relationship a secret, what eventually led to him being jailed was a copy of a magazine.

Bonney was working at RAF St Mawgan as a medical assistant in 1992, and was under investigation for having met up with a man for sex. But during a room search related to a separate incident, a copy of Gay Times was found.

He finally admitted that he was gay, and he was dismissed in disgrace, then jailed for six months.

“I was in my early 20s and like anyone else in their early 20s, I was entitled to a sex life, to have relationships, just like anyone else in the military or in the civilian world,” Bonney said.

“But that’s not how they saw it, because I was gay. I was fined for the financial issues, but I was jailed for six months for being gay.”

Carl Austin-Behan, another RAF veteran, has also spoken out this week about how he “lost everything” when was kicked out of the military for being gay.

Austin-Behan joined the RAF as a firefighter in 1991, but in 1997, when he was 24, he was called into a meeting with senior staff and RAF police, according to Manchester Evening News.

He said: “They sat me down and asked me if I had homosexual tendencies. I remember I just froze.

“They asked me again and I just burst into tears. I knew that in that split second my life had completely changed.”

Austin-Behan chose not to deny his sexuality, and was dismissed, stripped of his medals, and given an hour to leave the premises.

“I knew I had to start being true to myself, even if it meant losing everything,” he said.

“I had gone from a job which I was to have for 22 years to nothing within minutes. I lost my career, I was homeless, I lost my friends and I lost my pension.”

Although he was left in a “very deep depression” after he was dismissed, Austin-Behan went on to fully embrace his LGBT+ identity, earning the title of Mr Gay UK in 2001.

By 2011, he was elected the Labour councillor for Burnage and when he married his partner in 2016, he became the first openly gay Lord Mayor of Manchester. Since 2018, he has served as LGBT+ advisor to Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

Although he welcomes the opportunity to get his medals back, like Bonney he feels that there’s more to be done.

He said: “Getting the medals back is a good first step but what I really hope is that it’s the start of a whole new beginning for LGBT+ veterans.

“It’s time they feel like they are welcomed back to the Armed Forces family.”

More: military, RAF

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