It still shocks and appals me that, just a couple of years before I signed up in 2002, anyone found to be gay in the military would have faced a dishonourable discharge.
Thankfully, times have moved on and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has reversed this discriminatory policy. Since the lifting of the ban in 2000, anyone who joins the services from the LGBT community will discover Defence is a much more welcoming environment. Today we regard our diversity as one of our greatest strengths. We have an LGBT Champion and a range of active military and civilian staff networks that support LGBT personnel.
Same-sex couples have been able to co-habit in all service accommodation since last year. We’ve celebrated as personnel from all three services marched with their civilian counterparts in Pride events. We’ve illuminated our main building in Whitehall with rainbow colours to recognise the value of our LGBT colleagues.
But while Defence has come a long way, not all of our veterans have been able to move on. Consider the case of veteran Joe Ousalice. He served on board the MV Myrmidon as part of the task force dispatched to liberate the Falkland Islands after the Argentinean invasion in 1982. His career included six tours of duty in Northern Ireland and secondment to a Nato task force. But, despite a distinguished career, Joe’s hard earned medals for long service and good conduct were shamefully taken away from him as a result of his sexuality.
We can’t turn the clock back but we can make amends. That’s why last year, 27 years after his medals were confiscated, the defence secretary personally handed Ousalice his medal back. Sadly, Joe’s experience is not unique. Others have forfeited medals too.
So, as we celebrate our LGBT heroes this month, we pledge to do more than praise their enormous contribution to our armed forces. We vow to restore the respect of all those wronged individuals.
For some time MoD has been working hard to rectify the complex legal and practical issues surrounding this unfair medal policy. As a result, from today, we are inviting any personnel affected or, in some cases, the families of those no longer with us, to apply to have their cherished medals returned. All those who believe they are eligible should visit the gov.uk website for further details.
We are also going further. We want to understand the full impact of past in the armed forces in relation to sexuality. In particular, I want to hear from those who suffered because of these policies what else we can do, beyond the return of medals, to address historic discrimination and injustice.
And we’re doing more to make the armed forces of today a more welcoming place. We continue to update our training so our personnel can better understand the experiences of transgender and intersex people and encourage colleagues to be better allies with the LGBT community.
Whenever I hear of personnel who didn’t enjoy their time in the military as much as I did, I am gutted. But when I heard of those whose service was blighted by the bigotry of the past, I am truly ashamed. It’s time to make amends for that unenlightened chapter in our history once and for all.
Our past policies were wrong. Yet the men and women who paid the price for those bad decisions have become role models not just for today’s but for tomorrow’s armed forces. They demonstrated bravery twice over – contending with institutional intolerance even while they fought for their country. Returning them overdue respect and recognition is the least they deserve.