The UK military needs to fight for its LGBT+ personnel

by Hannah Swarbrick | Bolt Burdon Kemp
Wednesday, 2 February 2022 11:56 GMT

A Chelsea pensioner wears his medals as he takes part in the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony on Armistice Day at Whitehall in central London in this November 11, 2007. To match Reuters Life! BRITAIN-ARMY/PENSIONERS REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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Despite moves to correct historic wrongs, bullying and harassment remain rife in the UK armed forces

Hannah Swarbrick is an associate in the military claims team at Bolt Burdon Kemp

In an effort to better understand the lived experience of LGBT+ veterans, the British government has launched an independent review into the impact of the pre-2000 ban on homosexual personnel serving in the military. Prior to 2000, large numbers of LGBT+ service personnel were either removed or forced out of service and often subjected to cruel and degrading treatment.

The review is part of a wider initiative to support veterans and aims, among other things, to listen, learn and address the historic hurt and disadvantage that sections of the veteran community have experienced. It seems that only now, some 20 years since the ban was lifted, that the consequences are being recognised and understood.

Many of those who served did so within a culture that made them feel ashamed of who they were and made it impossible to speak out without facing terrible consequences.

It wasn’t until 2020 that the government formally apologised for the ban and admitted that it had been unacceptable. It is not surprising, therefore, that many veterans have continued to feel a deep sense of hurt at the lack of acknowledgment of what they suffered.

It is only recently that steps such as returning medals to those who were dishonourable discharged has been implemented. While a welcome step, this hasn’t addressed the financial hardship that many veterans have faced after seeing careers ruined, nor has it addressed the damaging consequences for those who have suffered from a lack of support for many years and may have suffered with severe mental health conditions as a result.  

While the review is expected to produce recommendations in respect of the accessibility of veterans’ service for LGBT+ veterans, and ways in which these veterans can be recognised and accepted as members of the Armed Forces community, there is little concrete detail as yet as to what practical steps will be taken and whether financial compensation will be made available.

Military charities have been calling for steps to be taken such as the restoration of pensions, and restoring veterans to the Retired List – a list of retired military personnel - as a proper acknowledgment of their service. 

It is important to recognise the progress that has made within the armed forces to promote inclusion and prevent incidents of homophobic discrimination.

Unfortunately, there are still individuals in the military who are being subjected to bullying and harassment because of their sexuality. The 2019 Wigston Report conducted by the MoD highlights this, pointing to figures which state 26-36% of LGBTQ+ Service people experienced negative comments or conduct from their colleagues due to their sexual orientation that year. Many of them are afraid to speak about these issues – this is also highlighted in the Report, which describes the process as ‘neither efficient, effective or fair’.  

In 2020 another report from the MoD stated that 90% of those subjected to bullying, discrimination or harassment in the armed forces do not make a complaint, with the main reasons cited as 1) not believing any action would be taken, and 2) belief it would affect their career. Clearly, the armed forces still needs to do more to promote a culture in which people aren’t afraid to speak up, and where issues can be confronted and dealt with without anyone being made to feel they are being persecuted. More is being done to promote diversity when it comes to recruitment, but this needs to be followed through with appropriate training for staff in positions of influence who will be setting an example for others to follow. More is being done to promote diversity when it comes to recruitment, but this needs to be followed through with appropriate training for staff in positions of influence who will be setting an example for others to follow.

Achieving progress in any institution often involves accepting hard truths and learning from them. I hope that the lessons learned from this review will inform current decision making on the steps which can be taken to make sure that all service personnel are made to feel secure and supported during their careers.

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