Lesbians, gay men and bisexual people in the Armed Forces

One of Stonewall’s first and longest campaigns was to lift the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces – a campaign we finally won in 1999.

How it all started
It began when Robert Ely, who had served in the army for seventeen years, came to see us. The discovery of a letter had led to his sexual orientation being disclosed. He was subjected to a humiliating investigation and thrown out of the army.

Robert, along with Elaine Chambers who had been dismissed from the armed forces in 1988, went on to co-found Rank Outsiders in 1991 (now known as AFLaGA), the support group for lesbians and gay men in the armed forces.

First challenge in Parliament
In 1992 Rank Outsiders and Stonewall gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on the armed forces. This was the first time ever that lesbians and gay men had challenged the ban. As a result of that evidence the Conservative government promised to stop the criminal prosecution of armed service personnel who were 'homosexual'.

Nevertheless the dismissals and the degrading investigations continued. The Ministry of Defence argued that the presence of lesbians and gay men in the armed forces would undermine morale and fighting capability.

The legal battle
Stonewall was approached by Ed Hall, a Navy Officer who had been dismissed in 1988 for being gay, and in 1994 Ed founded the Armed Forces Legal Challenge Group with the support of Stonewall and Rank Outsiders. In 1995 Ed published his book We Can't Even March Straight which raised awareness of the discrimination and homophobia faced by lesbian and gay people in the armed forces.

In 1998 Stonewall was contacted by Jeanette Smith, who had been thrown out of the airforce and Duncan Lustig Prean, naval commander who was being dismissed. They asked us to arrange legal representation. This began the long battle through the courts with the help of the Armed Forces Legal Challenge Group and Rank Outsiders. Graham Grady and John Beckett also joined the case.

At that time there was no Human Rights Act. Although the judges in the High Court and Court of Appeal said that they felt the ban was not justified they could not overturn it and Stonewall had to go to Strasbourg and the European Court of Human Rights to finally win victory (see legal judgments below). The judgment of the Court was a resounding vindication of the rights of lesbians and gay men and the Labour government immediately announced that they would lift the ban.

A happy ending
This was done on 12 January 2000 and a new general code of sexual conduct was introduced. The armed forces have stated that the new policy has caused no problems.

In February 2005, the Royal Navy joined Stonewall's Diversity Champions programme, followed in November 2006 by the RAF and by the Army in June 2008, to promote good working conditions for all existing and potential employees and to ensure equal treatment for those who are lesbian, gay and bisexual.

At London Pride 2008, all three armed services marched in uniform for the first time.

Challenging the underlying cultural and attitudinal values that allow discrimination to flourish. Changing cultures and attitudes to positively value diversity.