I knew I was gay when I walked through the gates of the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, but like so many young men my age, I saw nothing but the exciting career ahead of me.
In the 1980s there were no gay role models and no life I could imagine as a gay man.
It took five years for a moment that would change the course of my life. I was serving in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and boarded a fishing vessel off Bangor that seemed unusually calm.
I went downstairs and discovered two young men, not dissimilar to me, in each other’s arms. They quickly distanced themselves and as was routine I questioned them and left. Back on board in my cabin, I realized that while I carried a pistol, armor, and a Kevlar helmet, they, not me, had the guts.
A few weeks later, at the end of my tour of Northern Ireland, I walked into my first gay bar and sat on a stool next to a man who has been my partner for 27 years. I consider this moment military efficiency in dating.
That day my life changed from monochrome to technicolor, but it also put me at risk of being arrested, imprisoned and fired simply for being who I am.
Many would be shocked to know that as recently as 1994, members of our armed forces were being imprisoned and stripped of their medals for homosexuality.
In 1992, Royal Navy veteran Ed Hall founded the Armed Forces Legal Challenge Group, a legal campaign to have the ban lifted, later supported by Rank Outsiders and Stonewall.
In September 1999, the European Court of Human Rights declared the ban a violation of the right to privacy, and the ban was finally lifted in January 2000.
More than 20 years later, I am proud to say that last year 22 LGBT+ veterans from the armed forces charity Fighting With Pride gathered on Remembrance Day at Horse Guards Parade and marched past the Cenotaph for the first time.
This was a solemn moment of remembrance and a moment in which the Armed Forces family felt complete.
Tens of thousands of LGBT+ members of our armed forces lost their lives in combat, so I was pleased to see them remembered and recognized as honorable people of which we are proud at the National Cenotaph.
I also remembered those who supported us.
I thought of Captain Stuart Rule of the Royal Marines, a tower of a man who stood by my side when I came out on the day the ban was lifted and who tragically died during a training incident in 2001.
On the eve of January 12, 2000, hours after the ban was lifted, he joined me in the wardroom bar of HMS Fearless and told tales of nights spent with his wife in the Manchester gay village.
In an Army that had fought to comply with Prohibition and was ill-prepared to accept, Stu instinctively supported me, and I was immensely proud to serve with him. He led the way amid fellow officers confused by the changes. Despite the leap of faith I took that day, I never felt alone for a moment.
I also remembered Captain Professor Sir Michael Howard OM CH CBE MC, Regius Professor of History at Oxford. I had the privilege of meeting Michael while editing the anthology Fighting With Pride. Michael was awarded the Military Cross at Montecassino in 1943 for bravery in battle.
He lived with his male partner for over 60 years. In 1995 he wrote to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Defence, saying that the values of the “ban” were not those which the UK had fought several wars to defend.
Generations of LGBT+ veterans will thank him for a moment in which he reminded the government of the Armed Forces Covenant, the nation’s pledge to those who have served that their service will be remembered in their hour of need.
Those who, like me, have been able to serve openly will be forever grateful and will find much overdue recognition for the courageous men and women of the Armed Forces Legal Challenge Group who fought in the 1990’s to ensure our armed forces reflected our nation’s values.
I joined the Royal Navy in 1989 and have had a busy career. In the difficult years leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I worked as an armed helicopter boarding specialist, served in the Gulf and led border patrols in Northern Ireland.
But I could never tell colleagues where I was going or who I was with. Letters from my partner to the ship had to be carefully sanitized and pseudonyms used.
When I came out as gay in 2000 after the LGBT+ ban on military service was lifted, I was able to serve in the Navy for eight more years.
But I came into an army that was ill-prepared for acceptance. Service chiefs had fought hard to uphold the ban, and the handful of us who emerged did so in a toxic environment.
It would be many years before working conditions for LGBT+ staff improved. I have often led a solitary campaign for change as a lone voice, and on many occasions have defied the Queen’s regulations to advocate for change.
On last year’s Remembrance Day – as we stepped onto Whitehall amid a sea of shiny medals and bull shoes – our small group represented the lost legion of LGBT+ veterans who were forcibly removed from the armed forces during the “gay ban” years.
Some of those who lost careers, homes, pensions and families crossed the Rubicon on a difficult journey back to the armed forces family from which they were removed.
Today, our armed forces are “world class” in their support of LGBT+ personnel, who are welcome at all levels of leadership. They serve on the front lines of their ships, squadrons, and regiments, and the duty chiefs take as much pride in their service as anyone else.
It’s difficult to imagine a time when this wasn’t the case, but sadly it wasn’t that long ago. Well into the 1990s, gay veterans were in military prisons just for being who they are.
The end of the “gay ban” heralded changes in the UK that included the removal of Section 28 (which banned the “promotion” of LGBT+ lifestyles), the introduction of the Equal Treatment for Goods and Services Directive (which stopped organizations from refusing goods and services for LGBT+ people) and the Civil Partnership Act, which was intended to pave the way for same-sex marriage.
I am very proud to be a part of this moment of inclusion for our LGBT+ veterans, and honored to stand shoulder to shoulder with a group of remarkable people who should never feel alone for a moment again.
Like last year, I will raise a toast together with officers on duty from our armed forces and to “absent friends”.
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https://metro.co.uk/2022/11/13/this-remembrance-sunday-i-will-also-be-thinking-of-lgbt-veterans-2-17742395/ This Remembrance Sunday, I will also remember LGBT veterans