On Feb 25th I was invited to a truly enlightening Schools Out UK/Imperial War Museum (North) LGBT History Month event in Manchester titled 'Historicising LGBTQ Lives in the British Armed Forces and Merchant Navy', where academics from both sides of the Atlantic revealed how difficult it was to research LGBTQ History in the British military and shared their top tips on how to do so.
Despite the destruction of detailed records during WW2 preserved court registers of 'crimes' and punishment still provide evidence of 19th Century justice enacted on LGB personnel. Military courts handed out punishments of flogging, fines, jail, dismissal without honour and pay, and occasionally the death penalty, yet conference academics revealed another side to the story, period articles, letters and accounts showed that in some places and parts of society same-sex interactions were more acceptable, sometimes even encouraged. Prof Charles Upchurch explained his research confirmed that
'...when sex between men occurred within the context of the military hierarchy it was ruthlessly policed and suppressed, but it has also found that when those sexual acts did not impinge on military disciple or the chain of command they faced less draconian sanctions.'
Some peers and commanders were known to turn a blind eye as long as a person was discrete, or for reasons of morale! One opinion recorded
'Sex with a man was safer than with a pox-ridden whore.'
Punishment was more often driven by institutional demand rather than individual, based on a fear of 'inappropriate behaviour that would affect the morale of a fighting force', but would it, did it? History proves otherwise.
Revealing more recent military LGBT history isn't easy due to right to access restrictions and a lack of oral testament, often due to witnesses desiring privacy, not wanting to recall hurtful memories, or because of an unwavering loyalty to the units in which they served, regardless of how they were treated. In WW1 and WW2 gay men were just as quick as any man to answer the call to fight for freedom and justice, many making vital contributions to winning or ending the horror that was unfolding, or paying the ultimate sacrifice. How many took their secret to the grave? Every able man was needed and questions weren't asked, but it remained illegal to be gay.
In the years following WW2 questions were asked, as the hard fought peace turned to a different kind of war, The Cold War. Fear and distrust argued weaknesses were means of blackmail for espionage, compelling commanders, military police and specialist investigators to track down and expose vulnerable targets. Ironically LGBT servicemen and women were only vulnerable because they knew the consequences of exposure. Someone who is forced to hide their true selves for fear of humiliation and punishment has vulnerability forced upon them. Open service would have been the obvious fix but military morals and values are reflections of those held by the society it lives to protect, and that society wasn't ready to accept difference, it was learning, realising, changing, but it still had a way to go. In the military of the 1980's and 1990's LGBT personnel were still jailed, still fined, outed when they didn't want to be or weren't prepared and often dismissed with humiliation. By now these were solely military laws. Society had moved on yet the military was still protected from selective civil liberty laws. A crime may not have been punishable in a civil court but the military had its own to use.
This was the military I joined in 1980, when asked if I was gay I answered honestly, 'No!', but I knew I was trans (today's terminology). The military, like the society it mirrored, held the belief that a man showing feminine traits or 'yearnings to be female' must be gay, so records of transgender behaviour are difficult to extract from the overall 'crime' of being or assumed to be gay, of 'inappropriate behaviour' or 'conduct unbecoming an officer'. Only recently has Transgender become recognised as difference of gender identity rather than sexual attraction so it wasn't until the 1990's that military history recorded LGBT rather than LGB history.
As part of the conference, myself and two other veterans were invited to tell our own experiences. Elaine, an Army nursing officer who happened to be a lesbian was exposed, investigated and forced to resign her Commission, all hopes of her career in caring for others ended; Ed, whose career as a Royal Navy officer came to an equally abrupt end for being a gay man, and myself a trans woman, though my story had a more positive ending. Elaine became part of a legal challenge group founded by Ed that helped achieve a repeal of the ban on LGB service from Jan 2000. Despite the predictions of critics, Britain's armed forces continue to operate as one of the world's best.
My own long fight to be myself had been won in 1999 when I transitioned gender in service and became the first officer in British military history to do so. So why did a poster girl for a trans inclusive military tell me
'nobody wants to hear about the past, about you, they want to hear about me, about positive stories!'
Is my own story, as someone who openly trailblazed trans service for sixteen years with hard-earned respect won in Iraq and Afghanistan, not positive???
Does today's LGBT community truly only want to hear from LGBT personnel who are fortunate enough to have never served in the days when their livelihood and future was at risk purely for being LGBT? Perhaps it does, Diversity groups seem happy to throw awards at those serving openly in a military that has zero tolerance for harassment and bullying, that has its own out support groups, a military that has once again become reflective of the society it protects, open and non-discriminatory. The British military rightly wants to be seen to be proud of its modern diversity and inclusion record but those outside the military wouldn't realise it has been LGBT inclusive since the turn of this Century. The transformation from punishment to inclusion didn't happen overnight, it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make that happen, from campaigners like Ed and Elaine, from trailblazing role models securing the way, from people 'just doing their jobs', influencers and actioners, straight, gay and trans, these are the ones who actually forged the inclusion enjoyed now; their reward was pride. LGBT pride should value this remarkable part of history, this unsung commitment, courage and strength.
The UK's Armed Forces became a world leading LGBT History maker a long time ago, today's faces can play a PR role but not at the expense of their awards covering up the real achievement, the most positive, life-changing, amazing period of LGBT military history ever.
Dr Emma Vickers chairs a Veterans Q & A Panel at the Manchester event.
L-R: Emma, Elaine, Me, Ed
Photo Credit: Ann Jones