I read this article in the Independent yesterday, discussing the approach to homosexuality in the Foreign Office leading to the removal of the bar on employment in the 90s, and now to the civil partnership ceremony for a Foreign Office minister on the parliamentary estate. that’s come a couple of days after reading about the civil partnership of a trooper in the Household Cavalry. I ended up reflecting on a parallel transition for the armed forces during my time.
I joined the Royal Navy as the rules allowed women to serve at sea, a time of much change both with the investment in facilities at sea and in terms of the culture, processes and ways of working to support that. Inevitably there was a lot of resistance, many entrenched views and some cack-handed change management. But over about 10 years things settled down. I worked in both all-male and mixed ships and in my opinion the mixed were much better working environments, and perfectly effective. There were some headaches for me as a junior officer, but no worse than some of the others headaches that my teams gave me.
Alongside that there was the explicit ban on homosexuality in the service. Those suspected were investigated by the Special Investigation Branch, military CID, as it was a service crime. My perception was that in my time sexuality was of minimal interest, those that did end up being investigated had drawn attention to themselves or were reported as a result of a personal antagonism. There was a tacit acknowledgement by most that sexuality wasn’t an issue. I know of a small handful who were thrown out, one for a serious breach of both common sense and service discipline only partially related to his sexuality that would have led to his dismissal anyway and the others following reports to SIB.
The rules changed in 2000, and now ten years on it’s clear that there hasn’t been a problem. those behaviours that the service had been concerned about are now encompassed by the Code of Social Conduct that rightly applies to everyone, regardless of sexuality. At the time many arguments were presented supporting a continued ban, many echoed the same arguments used about women 10 years before. The process of change itself was challenging, people who tolerated their gay and lesbian peers suddenly rediscovered their prejudices and some utter tripe was said. I can’t compare that as by this time in a more senior management role I was involved in managing things I’d been on the receiving end of shortly after joining.
Many of the arguments were easily countered by highlighting the double standards of those complaining. The good catholic Commanding Officer who had a woman in every port was significantly more promiscuous than the quietly gay senior rating in the same ship. Pointing out that promiscuity wasn’t the preserve of gay and lesbian community didn’t win me many friends that time. Strangely the most vehement objections came from aircrew, although I never managed to understand why. A number of otherwise reasonable people went far down in my estimation.
In the immediate aftermath some people came out, to almost universal reactions of ”good for you, now get on with the job”. A few resignations happened, but not as many as had been threatened. There were a few disciplinary issues, but not many and all dealt with in the way they should have been; through the service legal framework.
Implementing the Code of Social Conduct suddenly brought focus on the behaviour of others that had been tacitly endorsed but was now unacceptable. An increase in workload, but really things that should have been happening anyway as part of the exercise of effective command and leadership.
During 2001 we had other things on our minds, and our gay and lesbian peers were there alongside us getting on with the job.
Now all that seems ancient history. Looking back I find it hard to remember what the fuss was all about. The Armed Forces evolve, always have and always will. Sometimes with much resistance, and sometimes not.
This was a change that was long overdue and I’m glad it happened.