The Government has announced it will return medals to lesbian, gay and bi military veterans who were dismissed from service because of their sexuality.
Veterans minister Johnny Mercer announced the decision as part of LGBT History Month to rectify the damage caused to those who were jailed, lost their job, their pension rights and were publicly shamed because of a UK ban prohibiting gay people from serving in the Armed Forces.
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The Centre for Military Justice, a charity which helps veterans with legal advice, had threatened to sue the MoD if it did not live up to promises to update the policy so that anyone who lost their medals for being gay could easily apply for justice.
As the landmark action comes into effect, here’s a recap of what faced LGBT military veterans until 2000.
The homosexuality ban
We know that gay, lesbian and bi people have served in the armed forces throughout time – the World War One soldiers and renowned poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spring to mind – but they were forced to hide their sexuality because it was illegal to be gay.
Private “homosexual acts” between consenting adults aged 21 and over were partially decriminalised in the UK in 1967, but this didn’t extend beyond civilian life.
Under rules introduced through the 1955 Army and Air Force Acts and the 1957 Naval Discipline Act, people could be dismissed from serving the army, the navy and the RAF on the basis of their sexuality until 2000.
If people were found or reported to be lesbian, gay or bisexual, their employer would carry out an investigation.
Once the armed forces sourced its evidence, they would pursue a “guilty” verdict through court martial. If found guilty, gay men and lesbian women would not only lose their job, they would lose their pension benefits, and face imprisonment – with the conviction resulting in a criminal record.
David Bonney, the last serviceman sent to prison for homosexuality in 1993, was subject to a two-year investigation after a copy of Gay Times had been found in his room.
Mr Bonney, who served in the first Gulf War, told the Guardian his room was bugged and his friends were interrogated at local police stations “to create fear among my friends and associates.” He served four months in prison, and one of those was in solitary confinement.
How many recruits were affected?
About 200 to 250 people were estimated to be thrown out of the armed forces at the height of the Act each year.
Figures vary on how many people were discharged, but the numbers are believed to be in their thousands.
These charges were often masked, with no standardised form of record-keeping of the dismissals. The Royal Navy used to categorise dismissals of LGBTQ staff as “medical” discharges. Homosexuality was classed as a mental health disorder until the World Health Organisation repealed the definition in 1990.
When did the ban end?
As late as 1999, homosexuality was defined as “incompatible with military service” in official literature. However in 1999, Hannah Graf became the first transgender officer to transition and serve openly in the military.
In that same year, a group of fired gay, bi and lesbian officers decided it was time for change. Duncan Lustig-Prean, a supply officer on HMS Newcastle, Jeanette Smith, an RAF nurse, John Beckett, a weapons engineer mechanic and Graeme Grady of the RAF, who had been posted to Washington DC, brought their case to the European Court of Human Rights, with the assistance of LGBT+ charity Stonewall.
The charity had made several attempts to lift the ban with the help of wronged veterans, but this time, it was successful.
In 2000, a ruling European court of human rights (ECHR), scrapped the ban on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people serving in the military.
Some senior staff left over the repeal of the ban, with General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley calling the decision “abhorrent.” The former NATO Commander-in-Chief wrote in an article for BBC News that queer personnel undermined comradeship.
“Two surveys have disclosed that the overwhelming majority of those in military service today find homosexuality abhorrent,” he wrote for the broadcaster’s website.
“They resent the rejection of their opinion as valueless and question how far this form of change will lead. Are transsexuals and transvestites to be admitted?”
What happened after the ban?
Like most civil rights wins, it took time for LGBT personnel to feel like they could openly share their sexuality with colleagues and higher ranking officers.
James Wharton joined the army at the age of 16 in 2003, shortly after the ban was lifted. For the first two years of his service, he “lived a double life”, and he came out to his colleagues in 2005.
“The hangover from the ban was still quite pronounced,” he told i in 2020. “It was okay to say you were gay on paper, but I felt like it wasn’t all okay in practice. That’s because there was a lot of obvious homophobia, with homophobic words still very much a common language.
He was hospitalised after he was attacked by another gay soldier during his service. “That person was court martialled, and I got a little bit of compensation, but the hierarchy wanted me to be ‘100 per cent’ sure I wanted to press charges,” he said. “But the army journey goes on. It changed so much that by the time I left at 26, I didn’t even recognise the army,” he added.
Mr Bonney was incriminated for owning a copy of Gay Times, but now the publication is one of the outlets used by the armed forces to actively recruit LGBTQ service people.
In 2020, the Army ranked 82nd and the RAF ranked 90th in Stonewall’s top 100 LGBT employers for work over the past year to help achieve acceptance without exception for all LGBT people.
As of 2014, UK military same-sex couples can get married and they are entitled to the same housing rights and benefits as heterosexual couples.
In 2020, twenty years after the ban was lifted, Johnny Mercer became first Government minister to officially apologise to LGBT veterans affected.
The future is brighter for LGBT personnel, but there are still some historic wrongs to be righted. Veterans may be able to get their medals back, but they still hold criminal records, lost pension rights and blemished service records. Naval veteran Joe Ousalice said he was left penniless after he was ousted, and stole from farmers’ fields to survive.
Personnel will be able to apply to have their case reviewed by the defence council and successful applicants will be able to get a new medal. Citizens were encouraged to apply to the Ministry of Justice under a similar scheme to expunge historic same-sex convictions from their records under the “Turing Law.”
Delays and low success rates mean just 189 people were pardoned out of 50,000 LGBTQ people who applied, according to figures collated by BBC News in 2019.
For some late veterans, it will be up to family members to pursue their case with the Government. Like so many others, they will never be able to experience the relief of clearing their name.
i has contacted the MoJ and MoD for comment.
— to inews.co.uk