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Up until the year 2000, if you served in the Armed Forces, it was illegal to be gay. 

You could sacrifice everything for your country. But under criminal law, you weren’t allowed to love who you wanted to. Doing so, meant you could even be sent to jail. 

So unsurprisingly, the relationship between the UK military establishment and the LGBT+ community has been rather fraught over the years, to say the least.  

Thanks to the incredible bravery of some outspoken individuals, who were prepared to put their heads above the parapet at the risk of great personal cost, there have been some hard-fought victories.  

We look back at this ban. Where it came from, why was it in place for so long, and who was involved in overturning it?

Red arrows flying over Nelson;'s column and LGBT+ flag
The Red Arrows fly over Trafalgar Square London during London Pride 2019 - Cpl Adam Fletcher

A ‘conduct of a cruel, indecent and unnatural kind’

When the ban on LGBT+ people serving in the Armed Forces was put into law, it was still a criminal offence in the UK to engage in any male homosexual act; a law which had been in place since 1885. In the 1950s, laws were passed criminalising homosexuality specifically within all three services. These were the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955, and the Naval Discipline Act 1957. Homosexuality was defined under these laws as ‘conduct of a cruel, indecent or unnatural kind’ and could be punished with up to two years in prison. Unlike the civilian equivalents, these laws also applied to homosexual women.  

The timing of these military laws was odd as they went against the general trend of social and political thought at the time. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s pressure was increasing on the Government to repeal restrictions upon homosexuality rather than increase them. In 1954, it had set up the Wolfenden Committee to consider decriminalisation. And in 1967 same-sex acts between men over the age of 21 in private were decriminalised. Most people are aware that this was only a partial victory for LGBT+ rights. But this is most starkly the case for LGBT+ servicepeople as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 specifically exempted the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts from decriminalisation. For those serving our country, being LGBT+ was just as much of a crime as it had ever been.  

A lot of gay and lesbian soldiers who were in the Army before the ban was lifted, reported that a percentage of their efforts was spent looking over their shoulder... [they] can now be devoted to work and their home life, so actually they are more effective.’

Colonel Mark Abrahams

People Management Magazine

And this remained the case for a very long time. Whilst LGBT+ rights progressed across the country, LGBT+ servicepeople faced being thrown out of the Armed Forces, prosecution, removal of medals, and loss of pension entitlements. And this was the case up until 2000.  

In 1994, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act meant that being homosexual within the Armed Forces was no longer a crime, but it was still termed an offence, for which you could still be thrown out of the military. 

Ministry of Defence lit up in rainbow colours at night
Ministry of Defence Main Building HQ in London, illuminated with rainbow colours to mark 20 years since lifting of LGB military ban. - Sgt Peter Devine

Taking the fight further 

The campaign to repeal the ban then accelerated. Stonewall joined forces with Rank Outsiders, a support group for LGBT+ servicepeople, to take the case against the ban to the highest court in Europe.  

Rank Outsiders was founded by Robert Ely and Elaine Chambers. Robert was a former warrant officer in the Parachute Regiment who was discharged after 17 years of service following his sexuality being disclosed in a personal letter. In 1999, the legal challenge was heard before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in the name of Jeannette Smith, Graham Grady, Duncan Lustig-Prean, and John Beckett, all dismissed from the Armed Forces solely on the grounds of their sexuality. 

In court, the UK Government argued that the ban was necessary as ‘the presence of open or suspected homosexuals in the Armed Forces would have a substantial and negative effect on morale and, consequently, on the fighting power and operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces’ and that justified the violation of LGBT+ service people’s right to a private life.  

The judges gave short shrift to this argument pointing out that there was a ‘lack of concrete evidence to substantiate the alleged damage to morale and fighting power that any change in the policy would entail’.  

They went further, calling the ban out for exactly what it was. The judges concluded that there was no justification for the ban, and that it was based on a ‘predisposed bias on the part of a heterosexual majority against a homosexual minority’.  

As a result of this case, in 2000 the Ministry of Defence changed its policy to allow LBGT+ people to serve openly. This was 33 years after it was first decriminalised for civilians.  

So, in the 23 years since this case where has LGBT+ rights in the Armed Forces got to? In many ways there has been great progress. Since 2008 all three services have had representatives at Pride marches and same-sex couples are given the same accommodation and benefits entitlements within the Armed Forces as their heterosexual counterparts. In fact, in 2010 Colonel Mark Abrahams, the then head of human resources for the British Army said that lifting the ban increased productivity

What is there still to do?  

Work still needs to be done to understand, acknowledge and, where appropriate, address the harm the ban had on LGBT+ veterans. It is a crucial time in this campaign as Lord Etherton has just concluded the evidence gathering stage of an independent review examining the experience of these veterans and is expected to publish the report in June 2023.  

We are working with Fighting With Pride to ensure that this review brings justice for those veterans who have suffered harm to their emotions, finances, or health, as a result of the ban. We recently met with Crispin Blunt MP, himself a veteran who identifies as gay, who agreed to advocate for LGBT+ veterans in Parliament.  

It now feels like we're marching in the right direction. And we are of course proud to be in step with Fighting With Pride, but we must never be complacent, and work still remains. 

Do you support LGBT+ rights? Then why not support our campaign for justice by donating today.

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