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Queen and Country

Emma Vickers

Extract Copyrighted Material

 1967 marked a watershed in English law. Twenty-two years after the end of the Second World War, the Sexual Offences Act decriminalized same-sex acts between men in England and Wales. Before the introduc­tion of the new legislation, the hero of Alamein, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, urged the House of Lords not to sanction it.

"Our task is to build a bulwark which will defy the evil influences seek­ing to undermine the very foundations of our national character. I know it is said this is allowed in France and some other countries. We are not French, we are not from other nations, we are British - thank God."

While Montgomery could not slow the momentum of change to civilian law nor shake off the rumours that he himself desired other men, his concerns were at least shared by policymakers within the armed forces. Military chiefs and the Wolfenden Committee agreed that decriminalising homosexual acts in the forces would affect discipline and threaten the safety of low-ranking servicemen. As a result, they remained punishable by military law even though they ceased to be ille­gal between consenting civilian men over the age of twenty-one.

By the middle of the 1990s, human rights campaigns spearheaded by Stonewall, Outrage! and Rank Outsiders were increasing their pres­sure on the government to overturn the ban. Within Parliament, debate raged. In 1995, Harry Cohen, Labour MP for Leyton, argued for the inclusion of queer personnel in the armed forces by referring back to the Second World War:

"This year is the 50th anniversary of the end of the last war. The Minister [Roger Freeman] should remember that then the country was happy for many people of homosexual orientation to fight and to lay down their lives for it. Their orientation was not held against them by the country then, so why is the Minister adopting such a backward attitude now?"

Some of the most poignant arguments for inclusion came not from campaigners and politicians but from heterosexual veterans of the Second World War writing to the national press. Their letters helped to inform the debate, revealing not only the existence of men and women who desired members of the same sex, but their unquestionable value to the armed forces. As one veteran recalled, 'In 1943 I had a Divisional Officer, a captain of Marines, who was overtly gay. He was also a heavily decorated hero. He was the first of many gay servicemen and women I met during four years in the Navy and later the R.A.F. I did not see or hear of any trouble [or] loss of discipline.'

In a letter to The Independent, another veteran highlighted the irrel­evance of sexuality to service.

"I never detected that any of my colleagues in the skilled and demand­ing work then being carried out by GCHQ were homosexuals, nor would it have occurred to us that it could make the slightest difference to our acceptability or usefulness. But if the authorities had suddenly decided in the middle of the Second World War to expel all homosexu­als from the armed forces - now that really would have been damaging. If Britain could win the war without expelling homosexuals from the armed forces, then I should have thought the British armed services could survive, and indeed flourish, in peacetime without worrying about the homosexuals in their ranks."

The general public also appeared to support the lifting of the ban. In May 1997, two television chat-show phone-ins showed that 75 per cent and 80 per cent respectively of those calling in believed that the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military should be lifted. Two years later, a national opinion poll commissioned by Stonewall revealed that seven out of ten Britons believed that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve. In the face of this rising tide of support, the Ministry of Defence continued its unflinching adherence to its policy, even though its foun­dations were beginning to look increasingly vulnerable. On one memo­rable occasion, a serving member of the armed forces who was sitting in the audience of Question Time tried to explain his objection to serving with an 'out' colleague and eventually concluded, amid much audience hilarity, that he was scared by the thought of sharing a shower."

Out on the streets of the capital, the activities of Peter Tatchell and Outrage! were beginning to have a significant effect on the visibility of the issue in the public domain. On 2 November 1997 Tatchell organised a 'Queer Remembrance Day' which was followed up by similar days in 1998 and 1999. Tatchell's main mouthpiece was the queer Army veteran Dudley Cave, a former prisoner of war and a staunch critic of the Ministry of Defence. For twenty years before his death, Cave cam­paigned against the Royal British Legion's refusal to acknowledge that queer men and women served and died protecting Britain's interests and lambasted their unwillingness to accept the involvement of LGBT organ­isations in Remembrance Day. In 1997 Cave marched at the head of a 'Queer Remembrance Day' parade. Following Cave's lead, campaigners followed the last group of veterans marching past the Cenotaph. They carried pink flags, and laid pink triangles at the base of the memorial in a protest against the refusal of the armed forces to allow queer person­nel to serve and their failure to acknowledge that thousands had served during the Second World War. The British Legion publicly denounced the ceremony as 'distasteful'. By 1999, the protest had burgeoned into a significant day of protest after Outrage! was approached by the partner of a queer serviceman who had recently died. He claimed that the British Legion prevented him from joining the widows and widowers on the parade past the Cenotaph because same-sex partners were not recog­nised. This response should have come as no surprise. In the early 1980s, the Legion's Assistant Secretary, Group Captain D. J. Mountford, had condemned moves to promote the acceptance of queer men and women as an attempt to 'weaken our society', and declared that such individuals had no right to complain about being ostracised by Legion members.

Despite the attempts of Tatchell and the evident momentum gener­ated in the public domain, the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces was retained until 2000 due to three fundamental con­cerns: the potentially disruptive influence of 'homosexual practices' on military discipline, the desire to prevent the abuse of authority by those in charge of junior personnel, and the security risk implied by the pres­ence of queer personnel, specifically the threat of blackmail. Not even the memory of apparent inclusivity in Britain's 'finest hour', nor the visible presence of queer veterans on the streets, could influence policy­makers to change.

Returning to Tatchell's campaign to lift the ban, the cornerstone of his argument rested on the estimation that some 250,000 queer men served in the British armed forces during the Second World War, an assessment which he based on findings from the 1990-91 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. Six per cent of the survey's respond­ents declared that they had experienced sexual contact with a member of the same sex. Tatchell's figure did not incorporate women, nor did it.......