To mark Pride month, currently serving LGBTQ+ members of the Armed Forces and those who served before the lifting of the ban on gay and bisexual people serving in the military in 2000 have provided their top tips to coming out in the military.
Every member of the LGBTQ+ community faces the prospect of coming out to family, friends, and colleagues for the first time. As a rite of passage, everybody who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer will likely face this moment with great trepidation. Of course, it is entirely normal to feel like this. But do not worry. All you have to remember is this: you are not alone.
And that could not be truer than in the Armed Forces.
For more than 20 years, LGB people have served lawfully and with authenticity in the three armed services and the Ministry of Defence. From 2014, Trans people were officially permitted to join and serve in the military too (even though they had been in service without facing consequences for more than a decade already).
In every part of the military, LGBTQ+ people – just like you – serve with pride.
Alongside their advice, this article also provides information on all service LGBTQ+ support groups and LGBT veteran organisations available to members of the Armed Forces community.
What is coming out?
Stonewall, a leading LGBT charity, provides this definition of 'coming out'…
'Coming out' means telling someone something about yourself that isn't immediately obvious. In relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, this means sharing with others that you are lesbian, gay, bi and/or trans (LGBT). The process of coming out can be very different for everyone, and it can take some time to get to a point where you feel comfortable and confident enough to have those conversations with people.
Stonewall works to ensure the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the UK, including those who serve in the Armed Forces, are equal alongside those who identify as straight. This work has positioned the individual branches of the military to feature in the Stonewall Top 100 LGBT Inclusive Workplaces on several occasions. An incredible feat considering it was illegal for the LGBTQ+ people to serve a little over 20 years ago.
What dies all the different terminology mean?
Quite frankly, it is difficult, even for those in the community, to keep up with the ever-growing list of acronyms.
Different organisations use different short-form letter groupings to describe the LGBTQ+ community. As an example, BFBS uses LGBTQ+, but others, like Stonewall, use LGBT. For many years, it was also the case that people referred to the LGBTQ+ community as simply 'the gay community'.
However, what really matters is the culture of an organisation, not which style of acronym it uses. The British Army uses LGBT+, hence its support network being called The Army LGBT+ Network.
LGBTQ+ stands for:
- Trans (or Transgender)
- + is used to define 'others', including pansexual, Agender and genderqueer
Is the word 'queer' offensive?
'Queer' has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community after it was, for a long time, used in a derogatory way. This style of reclamation is seen in other minority groups, too, as it provides empowerment to communities and is viewed as an act of defiance. However, some people still use the term offensively, and when this occurs, it is considered homophobic. Under the law, including Military Law, homophobia is a hate crime.
Coming out in the military - advice from Fighting With Pride
'Fighting With Pride' is a charity that supports the health and wellbeing of LGBT+ veterans and service personnel plus their families. In particular, the organisation helps those most impacted by the ban on LGBT+ personnel serving in the Armed Forces before January 2000.
Here, members of the organisation's executive board – including two currently serving members of the British Army and Royal Navy – provide their top tips for coming out in the Armed Forces.
Caroline Paige – Joint chief executive of Fighting With Pride and former pilot who served in the Gulf War
I travelled 450 miles to visit my sister, to tell her that I identified as female and intended to transition gender and would hopefully be allowed to stay in the RAF. I had spent 30+ years hiding my true identity in fear of losing my family if they found out. We chatted solidly for six hours before I worked up the courage to tell her. I was scared that the moment I told her would be the moment she would never speak to me again.
But I was wrong. Instead, we became closer than we had ever been. Fear of loss prevents many of us from living our lives openly, along with fear of rejection, isolation, and harm.
But how can we know if it is safe to 'come out'? How can we see, if 'crewroom banter' coincidentally mocks who we are, because everyone assumes we aren't like that; if the person we have hope in remains silent; if we don't witness inclusive leadership; if Allies aren't visible; if prejudice goes unchallenged? The answer is, we won't. So we remain hidden, painfully waiting for the time to be right.
So, my top tip isn't for those who might 'come out'. It is to everyone else.
Make sure any time would be the right time. Be inclusive, be perceptive, ensure your workspace always reflects a safe, welcome environment, and never assume you know everything about everyone in the room, even your closest friend. How we live is down to us all, but just one person can make a significant difference, be that person.
Sgt Alastair Smith-Weston PWRR
When I joined the Army in 1998, the ban on LGBT people serving in the military was in its final death throws; however, the atmosphere was still the same. It was a strict no-no and resulted in discharge.
I knew there had been a ban and that the result was always the end of military service for a soldier who was found to be gay. Still, it took me time, stories and education to realise the full repercussions of this draconian policy.
By the time I was ready to come out in the 2000s, I was welcomed and applauded for being honest and myself. Although this always came with a sense of survivors' guilt. I am proud to be out and open. Still, I will always remember that we haven't always been so accepting. We need to educate ourselves and our peers on how things were before fully encompassing that change.
Change comes from a need to improve for the better, not just because we want to.
Craig Jones MBE - Joint chief executive of Fighting With Pride and former Royal Navy officer
I came out on January 12, 2000, just hours before the ban was lifted at a time of bewildering change when the future was very uncertain for LGBT+ members of the Armed Forces.
My top tip would be to choose the right moment and ideally a quieter day than I did.
Find a time when you feel well prepared and can think through how you want to tell people. We all live in enlightened times, but it's still the case that people will learn something new about you, and that takes time to square away.
Take care to make sure that you are ready to support them so that they can understand and support your true self in the future. Good luck; I have never looked back at my closet. It was a dark place from which I stepped into the rainbow.
Cdr Roly Woods RN
Having served over 40 years in the Royal Navy, including over 20 years before the ban on LGBT service was lifted, my top tip would be don't underestimate the amount of support you will receive when you come out.
Even though I came out to close military friends and colleagues before the ban was lifted, those I came out to were universally accepting and could not do enough to offer me their support.
Time and again, I was blown away by their acceptance and considerate responses, even though I was concerned about putting them in a position of having to choose whether to report me or not.
Clearly, this type of response is not a given, but those closest to you will love you for who you are, not what you are. Whilst coming out is still a hurdle for practically all LGBTQ+ individuals, society, in general, is much more accepting, so if you're struggling with coming out, confide in a close friend first - you will probably be surprised by their positive response.
Service LGBT support networks – for LGBTQ people serving in the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force
All branches of Britain's Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence include within their organisation official employee support networks for LGBTQ+ personnel.
Frequently, members of the military are invited to participate in national and local pride events, which has been the case since 2008 - when LGBTQ+ members of the Armed Forces marched at London Pride for the first time.
In 2019, a crowd of one million people cheered on the uniformed representatives of Britain's Armed Forces at Pride in London.
Additionally, via the official support networks, additional activities frequently take place, bringing LGBTQ+ service personnel together to advance the inclusion agendas of the Armed Forces.
The support networks also provide help, information and assistance about all aspects of service life for LGBTQ+ military members and their families.
Getting in touch with LGBTQ+ support networks in the Armed Forces
Any member of the Armed Forces who wants specific advice or support ahead of coming out, or indeed for all matters LGBTQ+, are encouraged to make contact with their respective LGBTQ+ service network. Their details are as follows:
The Royal Navy's LGBTQ+ support network is called Royal Navy Compass.
For LGBTQ+ members of the British Army, the Army LGBT+ Network is available to engage with for support, networking or advice. You can reach out to them by visiting their website here.
Veterans - Fighting With Pride's website is full of information on the excellent work it does. Importantly, this includes essential advice for those entitled to have their medals re-issued following the recently announced policy of returning awards to those who lost their careers during the LGBT ban.