Making social science accessible

19 Jul 2023

Politics and Society

Following today’s publication of the independent review into the military’s pre-2000 ban on LGBT personnel, Tara Zammit explores the Review’s context, history, and the long-awaited apology from government.

The year 2000 was momentous for a variety of reasons, but one of the most interesting and important developments was the lifting of the discriminatory ban against LGBT individuals serving in the British Armed Forces (BAF).

Almost a quarter of the way through this new century, the LGBT Veterans Independent Review is underway to consider and emphasise the experiences of individuals affected by the ban. But how did we get here? And what might we expect when the Review is published? Understanding the history of the ban, the limited research done to date on the experiences of LGBT veterans, and what current and future research and policy might offer will enable us to enrich our understandings of this period and ensure these communities are given the respect and compensation they deserve.

Measuring progress in this area is difficult, particularly given that the application of laws related to non-heterosexuality in the UK varied at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances. For example, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was denoted as progressive, given it “permitted homosexual acts between two consenting adults over the age of twenty-one”. However, it was initially only applicable in England and Wales, and was not applied in Scotland until 1980, nor in Northern Ireland until 1982.

Simultaneously, the Act was inapplicable to the British Armed Forces, in part due to legislation from the 1950s which made “any disgraceful conduct of a cruel, indecent and unnatural kind” or any which was “prejudice of good order …discipline” an offence. According to the LGBT Veterans Independent Review webpage, “Prior to 2000 homosexual acts were regarded under the policy of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces as falling within both of those descriptions.” From 1967 to 2000, the ban on LGBT personnel was in place instead.

In the 1990s, following the discharge of personnel suspected of violating the ban, the European Commission of Human Rights was called upon by some of these individuals to investigate their cases. The European Court of Human Rights decision that the ban constituted a human rights violation conflicted with the Armed Forces’ position that the ban served to boost unit morale and operational effectiveness, but the Court’s decision would have significant repercussions for the removal of the ban on 12 January 2000.

Although it has been over two decades since the ban was lifted, the consequences of it are wide-ranging and present many challenges to veterans today who spent their working lives in fear of being ‘outed,’ lost their service careers, faced financial precarity, had medals revoked, and who suffer from the emotional and psychological torment that this period inflicted upon them.

Research conducted by Northumbria University in collaboration with the LGBTQ+ veterans organisation Fighting with Pride illuminates some of these trends. The recently launched report, Lost and Found, has revealed that the ban caused “ongoing poverty; homelessness; poor mental and physical health. An underlying sense of stigma and shame has contributed to loneliness and isolation” and had substantial negative implications for people’s finances, social lives, and their livelihoods more broadly.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson formally acknowledged this “historical wrong” in 2021 and introduced a scheme where personnel who had had their medals revoked as a result of the ban could apply for them to be returned. In this context, one might argue that progress has been made.

But when we talk about progress, what do we mean? Something might be an “historical wrong,” but the consequences have carried on for decades, and continue to impact the lives of veterans today. The Ministry of Defence and the government’s recognition of these failings is an important and long overdue first step, but much of the advocating for those who faced discrimination and dismissal is coming from external groups and research conducted in these areas.

It is difficult to research the experiences of diverse personnel without coming across Fighting with Pride, a charity which has gained huge prominence since its launch in 2020. Advocating for the well-being of and support for LGBT veterans, the organisation’s academic partnerships (with Northumbria, for example) and media presence have helped it to contribute to widespread impact and awareness of these issues in a variety of spheres.

The ability to connect academic research and policy recommendations in such a public-facing, accessible way, and in such a relatively short period of time attests to the need for greater research on LGBT service, and the imperative to translate this research into practice which supports service members, past, present, and future.

The goals of the LGBT Veterans Independent Review are of great importance. According to the webpage for the Review, “The Government accepts that this historic policy was wrong and has committed to work to understand, acknowledge and where appropriate address the effect it has had on veterans, in particular in relation to members of the LGBT community.” This includes a focus on veterans’ service programmes, recognition of service experiences, and understanding in greater detail how the ban impacted and continues to impact the lives of personnel.

Although the Call for Evidence concluded in December 2022, and it was predicted that the findings would be published in June 2023, the Review was repeatedly delayed. During Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 July 2023, however, Rishi Sunak delivered the long-awaited acknowledgement that that ban was “an appalling failure of the British State, decades behind the law of this land” and formally apologised to personnel. Now that the Review is available to the public, the findings will surely provide fascinating and troubling insights into the experiences of personnel during and following this period, and importantly, could help defence as a sector to work towards a more integrative and inclusive future.

Authors note:

As per the language used in the production and publication of the Review, the acronym ‘LGBT’ is used in place of ‘LGBTQ+’. The language in certain places reflects that which was used in legislation of the period.

By Tara Zammit, PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. 

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