Building LGBTIQ+ Inclusivity in the Armed Forces, 20 Years After the Ban Was Lifted

Change was slow to come but progress has since been swift. Not only can a continuing focus on inclusivity benefit service people and the organization, it is also an essential element of a values-based foreign policy.

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William Davies

Army Chief of General Staff Research Fellow, International Security Programme

Crew members from HMS Westminster march through Admiralty Arch as they exercise their freedom of the city in August 2019 in London. Photo: Getty Images.

Crew members from HMS Westminster march through Admiralty Arch as they exercise their freedom of the city in August 2019 in London. Photo: Getty Images.

The new UK government will conduct a review of foreign, security and defence policy in 2020. If the UK decides to use values as a framework for foreign policy this needs to be reflected in its armed forces. One area where this is essential is continuing to deepen inclusivity for LGBTIQ+ personnel, building on the progress made since the ban on their service was lifted in 2000.

I witnessed the ban first-hand as a young officer in the British Army in 1998. As the duty officer I visited soldiers being held in the regimental detention cells to check all was well. One day a corporal, who I knew, was there awaiting discharge from the army having been convicted of being gay. On the one hand, here was service law in action, which was officially protecting the army’s operational effectiveness and an authority not to be questioned at my level. On the other, here was an excellent soldier in a state of turmoil and public humiliation. How extreme this seems now.

On 12 January 2000 Tony Blair’s Labour government announced an immediate lifting of the ban for lesbian, gay and bisexual personnel (LGB) and introduced a new code of conduct for personal relationships. (LGB is the term used by the armed forces to describe those personnel who had been banned prior to 2000.) This followed a landmark ruling in a case taken to the European Court of Human Rights in 1999 by four LGB ex-service personnel – supported by Stonewall – who had been dismissed from service for their sexuality.

Up to that point the Ministry of Defence’s long-held position had been that LGB personnel had a negative impact on the morale and cohesion of a unit and damaged operational effectiveness. Service personnel were automatically dismissed if it was discovered they were LGB, even though homosexuality had been decriminalized in the UK by 1967.

Proof that the armed forces had been lagging behind the rest of society was confirmed by the positive response to the change among service personnel, despite a handful of vocal political and military leaders who foresaw negative impacts. The noteworthy service of LGBTIQ+ people in Iraq and Afghanistan only served to debunk any residual myths.

Twenty years on, considerable progress has been made and my memories from 1998 now seem alien. This is a story to celebrate – however in the quest for greater inclusivity there is always room for improvement.

Defence Minister Johnny Mercer last week apologized following recent calls from campaign group Liberty for a fuller apology. In December 2019, the Ministry of Defence announced it was putting in place a scheme to return medals stripped from veterans upon their discharge.

The armed forces today have a range of inclusivity measures to improve workplace culture including assessments of workplace climate and diversity networks supported by champions drawn from senior leadership.

But assessing the actual lived experience for LGBTIQ+ people is challenging due to its subjectivity. This has not been helped by low participation in the 2015 initiative to encourage people to declare confidentially their sexual orientation, designed to facilitate more focused and relevant policies. As of 1 October 2019, only 20.3 per cent of regular service people had declared a sexual orientation.

A measure of positive progress is the annual Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, the definitive benchmarking tool for employers to measure their progress on LGBTIQ+ inclusion in the workplace; 2015 marked the first year in which all three services were placed in the top 100 employers in the UK and in 2019 the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force were placed 15th=, 51st= and 68th respectively.

Nevertheless, LGBTIQ+ service people and those in other protected groups still face challenges. The 2019 Ministry of Defence review of inappropriate behaviour in the armed forces, the Wigston Report, concluded there is an unacceptable level of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. It found that 26-36% of LGBTIQ+ service people have experienced negative comments or conduct at work because of their sexual orientation.

The Secretary of State for Defence accepted the report’s 36 recommendations on culture, incident reporting, training and a more effective complaints system. Pivotal to successful implementation will be a coherent strategy driven by fully engaged leaders.

Society is also expecting ever higher standards, particularly in public bodies. The armed forces emphasise their values and standards, including ‘respect for others’, as defining organisational characteristics; individuals are expected to live by them. Only in a genuinely inclusive environment can an individual thrive and operate confidently within a team.

The armed forces also recognize as a priority the need to connect to and reflect society more closely in order to attract and retain talent from across all of society. The armed forces’ active participation in UK Pride is helping to break down barriers in this area.

In a post-Brexit world, the UK’s values, support for human rights and reputation for fairness are distinctive strengths that can have an impact on the world stage and offer a framework for future policy. The armed forces must continue to push and promote greater inclusivity in support. When operating overseas with less liberal regimes, this will be sensitive and require careful handling; however it will be an overt manifestation of a broader policy and a way to communicate strong and consistent values over time.

The armed forces were damagingly behind the times 20 years ago. But good progress has been made since. Inclusion initiatives must continue to be pushed to bring benefits to the individual and the organization as well as demonstrate a values-based foreign policy.