In January 2000, the ban on gay personnel serving in the armed forces was lifted. Twenty years on from the abolition of the ‘gay ban’, we speak to Sgt Craig Rudyk-Smith, who joined the Royal Air Force after the ban was lifted, and Flt Lt Tamsin Wakeham, who joined before and re-joined shortly afterwards. Both discuss their experiences as queer people in the RAF, and the ways in which the organisation has improved, including the introduction of the Freedom Network, which ensures support and inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups.




Craig Many of my reasons for joining were the same as everybody else’s; I was bored with what I was doing, I wanted something different, I wasn’t very happy with the direction my life was going in. But actually, I call it ‘the straight thing to do’. I had got to the point where I decided that I was going to hide my sexuality and I thought doing this would provide adequate cover – obviously it didn’t work. I think it had the complete opposite effect on me. I had grown up in a military family and we had a few family friends who were discharged from the army once they were found out to be gay so I think that had quite a negative effect on my perception of the armed forces because I had seen what had happened to them. That was one of the reasons why I chose the RAF over the


Tamsin I joined up because I always wanted to. I had the career chat to the RAF at school and thought it sounded quite cool, but I also wanted to work in a bank because it looked really peaceful. I applied to the bank and got accepted to Barclays, but after three years of doing that I decided I wasn’t a desk kind of girl and I was bored, so I thought about the Airforce again. I hadn’t even thought about the gay thing until in the careers office. They asked me the questions, ‘are you gay?’ and ‘do you do drugs?’ I was kind of shocked and went a bit red, I did actually think, ‘wow, you’re equating gay to drugs.’ I never went out to break the law. I thought, ‘I’m not gay because I’ve never been with a woman.’ I didn’t feel like I was lying and actually hoped that it would knock some sense into me – that sounds awful, but I hoped that joining the military and living amongst this big block of women would actually put me off them. I had these feelings, but I didn’t want to have them because everybody tells you that it’s wrong.

Coming out.

Craig I met people in the RAF who were living their best lives and were confident in the people that they were, so it actually gave me the confidence to accept who I was. I would say the RAF has probably had the biggest single impact on my ability to accept myself. I remember sitting round my gran’s house one night and I just thought, ‘if I don’t tell my family now, I never will’. I just called and did it in the spur of the moment and it’s one of the best things I ever did. I personally haven’t had many negative reactions from people. I’ve had the odd one or two things said – usually in ignorance – in the form of a joke or something like that, but I’ve never had any major issues. It’s all been relatively positive for me, as much as it can be for any LGBTQ+ person. I know a few of the veterans who were unfortunately discharged because of the law and most of them have turned out positively. Fortunately for them, their stories weren’t as tragic as perhaps they could have been. Obviously there was that transition period, which was horrendous. But if you look at people like Carl Austin-Behan, an RAF firefighter who was discharged, he’s gone on to become lord mayor of Manchester and a very positive role model. Lots of LGBTQ+ people did serve, yet because of the way the law and culture was, they weren’t celebrated. It’s only really over the last few years that we’re looking back at people like that and realising the distinction with which they served.

Tamsin There were always those horrible terms floating around; ‘homo’, ‘freak’, ‘disgusting’, ‘should all be lined up against the wall and shot’. It didn’t exactly make you want to admit it. It wasn’t Tamsin Wakeham 2just the military though, even working in Barclays was the same, the only difference being that you probably couldn’t lose your job at a bank. That was the craziness of it – I’d come out on top of my course, I’d shown aptitude for air traffic, I’d won the merit award, yet you care about who I sleep with. Why should I lose my job for that? I was stationed at RAF Brawdy in South Wales and there was a US Naval facility attached to it. I started seeing one of the women there, and her roommate got wind of it. She was the one who dobbed us in to the naval investigation services, who passed it on to the Royal Air Force security services. They then came to investigate us. Back in the 90s it was pretty much witch-hunting, especially with the US Navy, they would climb up trees and try to take photos of people. The RAF wasn’t quite so bad but they were certainly looking for it. They would go to gay bars looking for people, trying to catch you. I was in the air traffic tower when I got called out of my work and escorted to the police section. There were two women there who asked me about it all, which lasted for several hours. Halfway through, they said, “We want to search your room, can we do that?” I said, “I’d really rather you didn’t.” But it had obviously gone through all the channels up to the highest level and they had already been given the approval. I had to escort them to my room where they pulled it apart. They said they could tell I was ‘one of those’ because I had a picture of Marilyn Monroe up on my wall. People didn’t really understand what being gay was back then. I wasn’t allowed into my room during the search, so I had to stand outside while I watched them rip it apart. Of course, there were people coming and going in the block and so the rumour mill started and never really stopped. One of the most damaging things and something that still irritates me, is that all of my stuff was held for a year until the investigation ended. I didn’t get that stuff back until an RAF police officer came to me and said, “Tam, your stuff is all at the station, just thought you should know because they’re showing it to new people who come in.” I can’t imagine this would happen these days, but because in those days it was so unusual to be gay, the people in the police section were showing it to new people, like, “This is Tam, she’s one of the gay people on campus.” That was quite horrific. After my room was searched, I had to go back and be interrogated for a further few hours where they questioned me about every single item that they’d taken away. I bullshitted because I was so scared about losing my job. I just denied, denied, denied. After that, it continued. They kept asking other people, they kept watching us – we couldn’t really see each other on camp, we had to stay separate – until finally they realised that they couldn’t really prove anything, so had to drop all the charges about a year later. But the damage was done. I stayed in the military but you’re still that person, aren’t you? It had a knock-on effect on how people looked at me and how I interacted with people. I then didn’t tell people at my next post in Germany, I would lie that I had a boyfriend back in the UK to take the heat off, and people just believed that.

Rejoining. Tamsin Wakeham 3

Tamsin I remember when the ban was lifted, I had left the Air Force by then (I joined in 1989 and left in 1994) but it’s why I rejoined. I knew I wanted to be aircrew again, but I just couldn’t stomach the thought of being within that environment. I very much believe in the universe providing signs; I was questioning what I should do and two days later on the news I saw that the ban had been lifted and gays were now allowed. There was my sign. Policy changes don’t stop people’s attitudes or beliefs, it takes generations to turn a culture around and effectively the military was a culture. There’s still certainly work to be done but of course over time it has improved. I went from almost being booted out to being part of the LGBTQ+ network out there helping people, marching in Pride, delivering diversity and inclusion briefs and telling the story. The other day I was at the House of Commons with the Air Secretary and the Armed Forces Minister and they absolutely passionately support the cause and they mean it. That’s coming from the top down, that’s what we need. Can it improve? Yes. Can society improve? Yes. However, I think the RAF is doing a damn fine job where it’s at. It will be nice when society – let alone the RAF – can stop having these conversations and basically get out of everyone’s bedroom.

Freedom Network. Craig Rudyk Smith 2

Craig I’m one of the co-vice chairs for the Freedom Network, specifically looking at policy. My role is about making sure that the wheels are all turning in the same direction, but I also look at policy issues, making sure that both new and existing policies are reflective and inclusive. Often gendered language is included in this, which a lot of the time is used unintentionally, but it can still exclude people. Another part of the network is bringing our queer history to the front so that people know about it, talk about it, and people can be rightfully celebrated.

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