It is incredible to think how far the British Armed Forces have evolved since 12 January 2000 when their law barring service by lesbian, gay and bi people was finally repealed. With the 20th anniversary comes celebration and pride in what has been achieved, pride that all three armed forces have been Stonewall Top 100 Employers, pride in the triumph of diversity and inclusion, pride from the cities through which they march, pride in the right to be open and to serve, without fear of being cast out or criminalised. But this was not always the case. The aspiring charity, Fighting With Pride (FWP) has evolved from an incredible LGBTQ+ armed forces anthology which captures the stories of ten individuals, including some of those who fought the battles to bring about these amazing achievements. But change was not an overnight rewire of attitudes and acceptance. Inclusion itself had to be fought for, and it would be several years before the services would truly become a safe and inclusive environment to be openly LGBTQ+. Craig Jones MBE is chief executive of Fighting With Pride and editor of the anthology, in which his own armed forces story is also included. Here he thinks back to when the ban was lifted and addresses the work still left to do.

 

A book is quite a commitment to mark the 20th anniversary of the ‘gay ban’ being lifted.

This community really struggled. The fight for justice was a tough fight and after that was won, people felt very upset and quite damaged by the process, and through the noughties were self-protective. In consequence there has been very little attempt to record these important issues. Twenty years on, I felt people were ready to tell their stories. It is really important that we get these stories down because lest we forget where we came from and what our journey has been. It’s fantastic that we have young men and women joining the armed forces today who have no idea thatHouseofcommons (2) there was ever a gay ban, but it is important that we record this bit of social history.

 

How did you find editing the anthology and contributing your own chapter?

Many people were reliving episodes in their lives which were profoundly challenging. People were talking about being arrested, placed in detention, dismissed, outed to their families, losing their homes – overnight. That will have been really tough. So, editing involved a lot of individual support including – in some cases – for people who just didn’t feel able to sit down and write; some of them were done by telephone discussions and transcriptions over a period of six months to allow people space and time between talking about each episode. I suppose my own chapter was difficult. I may be a son of Nelson but I’m not a son of Shakespeare, so it was quite difficult to sit down and focus. I never believed that I would be involved in writing or editing a book, so I have found that quite challenging. I’m a military man so I’m much better if you give me a task that I can see, and it involves a group of sailors, some equipment and a cask. That’s the type of person I am, I’m not really a desk person.

Fighting With Pride

Both Flt Lt Caroline Paige and Lt Elaine Chambers feature in the anthology.

Their stories are particularly important. Caroline Paige is one of the bravest women I’ve ever met. To come out and be the first transgender officer in the armed forces, and to do it with such incredible dignity, is humbling. It’s a different kind of courage to the courage of battle, but no less important. I was very keen that Caroline’s story should be seen by as many people as possible. Elaine Chambers had a harrowing experience of investigation which I think will be difficult for her to ever recover from. Despite that, like the amazing servicewoman she is, she dusted herself down and created an organisation – Rank Outsiders – that would come to support other people who have found themselves in the same circumstance, and which ultimately would lead to the court cases and the repeal of the ban.

Personnel within the book have crossed paths at various points during their service.

The coincidence is their paths have crossed with mine at one stage or another. I served with Roly Woods in HMS Cornwall, he actually introduced me to my husband. I met Darren Ford at a beach bar in The Gambia in 1995 when we were both struggling. I met Patrick Lyster-Todd, Elaine Chambers and Ed Hall through Rank Outsiders. The common thread is when I met those people and sat down and talked to them about their experiences, I was very moved by what they’d been through and how they had come to the end of their journeys and found some level of contentment and peace.

 

Where were you when you heard the ban had been lifted?

It was 10 January when I came to know that the ban was going to be lifted. I was in a very large ship and I was the head of communications. The news came through on the teleprinter and it was a special type of signal which could only be decrypted by a senior officer. I was the first person to see that signal in my ship; it was marked for commanding officers only. I ripped it off the teleprinter and took it through to the captain who told me how disappointed he was that Whitehall had let down the armed forces by allowing these people to serve, which was a difficult moment for both of us. The actual repeal of the ban was two days later at about half past three in the afternoon, after Prime Minister’s Questions. It was announced by the then Secretary of State Geoff Hoon, and I sat in my cabin in HMS Fearless with the door wedged shut and the radio on. It was a difficult speech to hear because there was absolutely nothing triumphant about it. He said, “There will be those who would have preferred to continue to exclude homosexuals, but the law is the law. We cannot choose the decisions we implement.” And it just kind of set us up for some difficult years in which we had a policy that dare not speak its name. At the time I felt very mixed. There was no joy. I knew that I had exchanged one difficult life in the shadows for an equally difficult life in the spotlight.

 

There are those in Fighting With Pride who are still serving as out and proud members of the LGBTQ+ community. That’s not the case for all LGBTQ+ military personnel.

There are two contributors, Roly Woods and Michael Brigham, who are still serving today. Roly served from 1978 right the way though and Michael Brigham joined in 2000 after the ban was lifted. For many others, their lives were irreparably changed. The lives that they have lived are not the ones they had when they joined the armed forces full of hope and excited about wonderful careers. They were absolutely cut down in their prime. There are hundreds and hundreds of individuals who were forced to retire or dismissed, who live outside the protections of the Military Covenant, because we shunned them and pushed them away. Something really does need to be done to look at how they can be helped in the future. In discussion with NHS England, the Royal British Legion and Stonewall, we created the charity Fighting With Pride, which is working with the government and other charities to put in place a new range of measures to better support people.

Fighting with Pride is published by Pen and Sword and available now.

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