20 years after ending its LGBT+ ban, the MoD must address lasting impact of discrimination

Posted by Emma Norton on 10 January 2020

This weekend is the 20th anniversary of the lifting of the ban on LGBT+ people serving in the UK’s Armed Forces.

Like the rest of society, our Armed Forces have come a very long way in the last two decades. Today, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the forces themselves can be proud of how far they have come, winning an award for 'Most Improved Employer' in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index and consistently recognised by Stonewall as top employers for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff. This week, the MoD has arranged for a number of celebrations to be held to mark the occasion and in many ways they are well deserved.

But it is also true to say that the Armed Forces, the MoD and their champions in Parliament back in the day were prone to some of the nastiest, laziest and most harmful kinds of homophobia. This had devastating effects. They were also very slow to address this discrimination and had to be dragged, kicking and screaming through the courts, before they would lift the ban.

A quick read through the Hansard debates for the day the announcement was made (including from some still-very-influential politicians) reveals just how toxic these views were. And they had real consequences. People were hounded out because they feared their sexuality would be revealed. Or they were thrown out for consensual sexual activity, ‘service offences’ or offences that are no longer crimes today. Their lives were changed or destroyed by their private lives being revealed to their colleagues, friends and families. Anecdotally, we have received many accounts from former service people who describe knowing of colleagues or friends that actually took their own lives rather than face the humiliation being heaped upon them.

And, until very recently, the MoD never properly said sorry. When the ban was lifted, the Minister at the time was asked to apologise and did not. Some time later, a spokesperson added, ‘Of course we're sorry for anyone who's suffered personal trauma. We can't change the past and what's happened has happened’. It was only upon being asked, by Joe Ousalice, for a formal, public apology, that the Secretary of State finally said, ‘We accept our policy in respect of serving homosexuals in the military was wrong, discriminatory and unjust to the individuals involved.’ It took 20 years and an ill elderly veteran to take the MoD to court before this apology was given.

Joe Ousalice took the MoD to court because when the Royal Navy threw him out, in 1993, they stripped him of his Long Service and Good Conduct medal. He had served all over the world including in two major conflicts. That mattered nothing to the Captain that dealt with him at the time, who told Joe that there was no place in the Royal Navy for disgusting people like him. Joe lost everything that day and he had to take the MoD to court to get his medal back.

Thankfully, someone saw sense and they eventually settled – and the MoD is in the process of setting up a new policy whereby other affected people can apply to have their medals restored. But there is a whole generation of LGBT+ veterans who were affected by this horrible policy and continue to be affected by it. Thrown out with much smaller pensions than they would have accrued, or reduced in rank before they were thrown out and thereby suffering the financial penalties, they continue to be affected today by that discrimination.

The MoD made great fanfare recently by pledging to make the Human Rights Act inapplicable to crimes committed before 1998, promising to “protect” veterans even though they need human rights laws as much as anyone. The fact is that the litigants that got the ban lifted in the first place – and Joe Ousalice – could not have achieved any of their legal successes without the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.

If the MoD is serious about supporting its veterans, setting up a scheme whereby affected LGBT+ veterans can get financial compensation, as well as recognising the true value of the Human Rights Act, would be a better and more honest way to go about it.

Emma Norton

Emma Norton

Liberty
Head of Legal Casework