A conversation between an RAF veteran and a serving air technician has revealed how changing attitudes could be a positive sign of a more diverse military in the future.
RAF veteran Carl Austin-Behan and Corporal Owain Bridge spoke of their experiences.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the lifting of the ban on LGBTQ personnel serving in the British armed forces and their contrasting experiences reveal an insight into how the Armed Forces are evolving to incorporate more equality and diversity to reflect society at large.
To recognise and celebrate, we’ve been speaking to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual 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 20 years ago, we are sharing the stories of LGBTQ personnel and veterans.
Some of those speaking out are serving openly, some have hidden their sexuality and, prior to the ban being lifted in 2000, some were forced to leave because they were found out.
Carl, the former Lord Mayor of Manchester, said he had been ordered out of the RAF for being gay. He took a trip down memory lane to meet with openly bisexual serviceman Owain, who is currently serving at RAF Wittering and whose experience is being seen by many positive change in Britain’s military.
Here they reveal their own personal stories in conversation with each other.
Carl, who served in the RAF between 1991 and 1997, said: “I was discharged for my sexuality because at the time it was illegal to be gay.
“During that time, I got the British Humane Society’s bronze award for bravery for rescuing a pilot from an aircraft, I got a Good Show award and I was also mentioned in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list by a Commander-In-Chief’s commendation.
“However, just because of my sexuality, it was seemed I was incompatible to service life.”
Carl told how he had joined up in 1991 and had to keep his sexuality a secret until one life-changing moment in his life in the Armed Forces.
Looking back, he told how he remembered once, at an Armed Forces Careers Information Office, how laughter accompanied the question “you’re not gay are you?” as he said at the time you had sign up accordingly under oath.
He said: “It was like living a double, treble, quadruple life at times.”
During the conversation, Carl told how he had signed up with the RAF and planned a full career in the service.
He said: “I’d signed up for 22 years, I loved and still love the Air Force today.”
Talking about the ordeal which lead to him leaving the service, he told of his ordeal when he was ordered out after a disgruntled partner outed him – revealing his sexuality to his superior officers.
He said his partner at the time had not wanted him to be posted away on location so contacted the RAF.
Carl said: “I remember I’d just started seeing a lad in Manchester. He got in touch with the Air Force - told the Air Force that I was gay.”
He added: “I remember them just turning around and asking me ‘do you have homosexual tendencies?
“That split second changed my life. I know I could have quite easily have said no and I think they would have just dismissed it and said ‘thank you very much, there you go’ but there comes a time in your life when you’ve got to be true to yourself.
“I suppose it’s a bit like when you come out, for anybody, there’s a time that you just have to accept yourself, who you are.
“It was as if that pressure cooker was just having the lid lifted off it and you could just be yourself.
“So I just burst into tears and, literally, I think that answered the question for them.”
Even more distressing for Carl was how he said his career in the service came to an abrupt end.
He said: “They then told me I had to get off camp within ten minutes because ‘I was going to be a threat to the other servicemen and the other people’.”
Aircraft technician Owain, however, experienced a very different outcome after coming out during his service.
He joined the RAF in 2005 and initially kept his sexuality quiet.
While he said that during his time on one squadron, some of the attitudes were "perhaps perceived as a little bit old fashioned", revealing his sexuality has had much more positive outcome than Carl’s experience.
Owain, an aircraft technician at 71 Inspection and Repair Squadron at RAF Wittering and a representative of the Royal Air Force Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Freedom Network, said that initially, he thought being open about his sexuality would be a distraction to training.
He said: “I didn’t really feel the pressure to tell anybody at that time, plus I was probably still trying to figure things out for myself anyway and just work out how I felt I would identify myself as well as I could do.”
He added: “I was never directly targeted for anything because nobody knew really, about my bisexuality, apart from just one or two people and partner at the time.
“I came out in work two and a half years ago. The pressures had got to me really, I thought I need to have this out in the open regardless of whether anybody needs to know or whether they don’t need to know.
“I felt that if I was going to be open about it to everybody, I need to be open about it to myself as well.
“And then it was business as usual really, so there was no sort of trauma to do with it.
"That's when I realised a) I’d been wasting a lot of time with this pressure inside of me, keeping it in myself when today’s Air Force is more accepting and tolerant of it and b) I’m much happier for it myself now as well.”
He added: “It doesn’t even put me in a position of worrying about my career or future in the Air Force just because of something that I was born with and I can’t help.”
Owain said he felt quite lucky, especially after hearing Carl’s story, to be serving now, at a time when he felt his sexuality was not even questioned.
Carl, reacting to Owain’s experience of finding the RAF more tolerant in today’s society, said:
“How fantastic is that?
“From experiences that are only 21 years ago, from being kicked out – listening to that just warms you up,” adding that it upsets him at the same time to think how different service life could have been during his time serving.
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."
Image of the Ministry of Defence Main Building HQ in London, illuminated with rainbow colours to mark 20 years since lifting of LGB military ban. Credit: Sgt Peter Devine, Crown Copyright.