These former British Army soldiers have told how attitudes appear to be changing to the LGBTQ community in a service they once saw as ‘sexist, racist and homophobic’ – and say the media is partly to thank.
Andrew Scott and James Walton discuss their experiences when they came out while serving in the Army – and say a greater presence of LGBTQ issues in the media, and following groundbreaking TV series such as Queer As Folk - have helped turn around how people view the community to a more positive attitude, including within the Armed Forces.
The 1999 television show Queer As Folk, which chronicled the lives of three gay men living in Manchester’s gay village, is credited with changing the lives of a generation of LGBTQ people and leading the way for a cultural transformation of how the wider society views the community.
To recognise and celebrate LGBTQ history month, we’ve been speaking to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service men and women, about their experience of being LGBTQ while serving in the British military.
To demonstrate how far the British Forces have come since the ban was lifted 19 years ago, we are sharing the stories of LGBTQ personnel and veterans.
Some of these individuals are serving openly, some have hidden their sexuality and, prior to the ban being lifted, some were forced to leave because they were found out.
Andrew Scott joined the British Army in 1997, three years before the ban was lifted in 2000. He is comfortable with his sexuality now but remembers having to keep that he was gay a secret from his roommate.
James Walton joined the British Army in 2003 and served with the Household Cavalry. He came out as gay to his military friends when he was 18 in 2005.
Here they reveal their own personal stories in conversation with each other.
James: “What I remember about my first couple of weeks and months in the Army was that it was, if I’m honest, quite a dark place. I felt the Army was quite sexist, I thought it was quite racist and it definitely was homophobic, even though on paper all those things were absolutely fine. You could be gay in 2003 in the Army, just to me, the culture didn’t seem to support it.”
Andrew: “I joined the Army at a time when it was just kind of allowed to be LGBT and for a number of years there was still no talk of it. There was no kind of mention of it until probably around 2001/2002 that I finally started to hear of people coming out in the forces. At the time when I was there, I think I was just in a kind of my own bubble that I just didn’t see any of it and probably because that was a time when I was trying to come to terms with my own sexuality. It didn’t really matter what anyone else was going through.”
"I felt the Army was quite sexist, I thought it was quite racist and it definitely was homophobic, even though on paper all those things were absolutely fine."
James: “When I did come out in 2005, so when I was 18, within the regiment, it’s interesting because if you go back and ask those boys what their reaction was they’d be like ‘oh yeah, he’s fine, no one was bothered’ but what they’re not accounting for is what it was like to be that person who everybody was talking about for weeks.
“Firstly, I didn’t want to be gay and I certainly didn’t want to come out and actually it took very little effort to be able to really put that stuff away because I was busy being a soldier. So, I didn’t want to be gay and I didn’t want to come out and that was easy because I was busy trying to become a soldier and I was concentrating on that so much.
“Firstly, I didn’t want to be gay and I certainly didn’t want to come out and actually it took very little effort to be able to really put that stuff away because I was busy being a soldier."
“I was quite popular anyway so before I came out I was quite well liked, I had quite a lot of mates in the regiment. I had a bit of a personality, that seemed to go OK. And I was also quite a good soldier, so I was quite dependable. With all that given I had my own group of friends and I remember the moment I came out to them that I was gay. I was watching Six Nations Rugby, England versus Wales, the opening match of the tournament in 2005. Wales won, I was Welsh, they were English, I was very happy, we got very drunk, it was in a bar in Chelsea and they basically said to me ‘James is there something on your mind you want to tell us?’ and I was thinking what could it possibly be? No, there’s nothing. They were saying ‘are you skint?’ and then my mate Dean, the gobby one, just said ‘well it’s because you’re gay isn’t it?’ and I couldn’t stop myself from just saying yeah and that was it, I was out.”
Andrew: “I’m quite comfortable and confident now with my own sexuality but at the time, even looking back I just don’t think I could have done that.”
James: “But where were you based? The thing I had, which it probably was a blessing, was that I was in London and the moment those boys asked me if I was gay it was like an avalanche, I just couldn’t stop it but of course I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover in the world thinking ‘oh my god, what have I done?’ you know.”
Andrew: “I was based near Norwich. I was based in Aldershot. I was based in Hohne in Germany. All kind of places that you know, you don’t really find the local gay bar. In fact opposite the barracks in Hohne was a brothel with a late night license and you’d find yourself in there even if it was just for a drink and nothing else.
James: “I think the Army has probably changed significantly for sure since I’ve left but I’d probably say Andrew, definitely since you’ve left.”
"Opposite the barracks in Hohne was a brothel with a late night license and you’d find yourself in there even if it was just for a drink and nothing else."
Andrew: “I would agree there. Education is what it all boils down to. The people that I know joining the Army have had the opportunity to be around gay people, they’ve had the opportunity to see LGBT on TV, in the media. At the time when I was in the Army, you didn’t see that and I can remember Queer As Folk coming on and the time when thankfully my person I shared a room with was out that evening so I was able to watch it but it was all in secret. I can’t imagine that happening now just because people of the age who are in the Army are more comfortable and it’s out there as opposed to 1997 to 2003 it wasn’t.”
The conversation was recorded as part of a project to listen to the experiences of the British military’s LGBTQ community as part of LGBTQ History Month.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, responding to the conversations, said: “The military’s greatest strength is the diversity and talent of those who serve, and we are committed to maintaining the Armed Forces’ status as an inclusive workplace for all personnel, no matter their sexual orientation."