How Simon came out and was grounded: His service in the RAF included the Gulf war. Then they found he was gay, and there are rules about such things. Edmund Hall reports

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ON TUESDAY 26 January this year Sergeant Simon Ingram sat for the last time with the rest of his Nimrod crew in the flight briefing room at RAF Kinloss in Scotland. He was preparing to fly out over the sea on a routine training mission. The Nimrod's captain, a flight lieutenant, was going through the final briefing details, but while Simon tried to pay attention he was also fighting the nervous tension shaking his stomach.

Before the briefing Simon had seen the squadron leader speak to his flight lieutenant and somehow sensed that he was in trouble. As soon as the briefing finished and the aircrew began to leave for their aircraft, Simon was stopped by the squadron leader: 'Simon, you won't be going flying.' One of Simon's crew asked him if everything was OK. 'I think my Air Force career is about to come to an end,' Simon remembers saying.

Simon and the squadron leader walked over to the RAF Police building on the air station and went into an interview room. He was met there by two members of the RAF's investigation unit, and after all present had identified themselves on tape, the investigating officer stated what Simon had feared most.

'We are here to investigate you for alleged homosexual tendencies . . . Have you ever kissed a man?'

Simon refused to answer, and listened as the investigating officer read out detailed allegations about Simon's personal life.

'What surprised me was that this statement was made by an Air Force colleague. I would have described him as a friend. He had known that I was gay . . . he had met my boyfriend.'

The investigating officer continued, asking if it was true that Simon had had a gay man visit the house.

'I was staggered and numb. Trying to remember the detail of it all is hard. I know that I tried to deny it for a while, but when they asked about my boyfriend, who is a civillian, I probably protested too much - I was so angry that they had brought David into it. I said that I thought I had better speak to a lawyer, and they took me to a room with a telephone and gave me a list of solicitors.

'I sat in that room for at least 40 minutes doing nothing, just staring at the wall. Eventually I phoned home and found that David had gone out. My lodger was home, and I asked him to phone Stonewall (the equal rights lobbyists) and Rank Outsiders (lesbian and gay support group for the Services) to ask for advice. They said I should not say anything until I had got more advice, and that I should call a solicitor. I picked a name from the list and phoned. I have subsequently been told that the solicitor I spoke to is an honorary member of the Officers' Mess, but he seemed helpful.'

Simon went home in the knowledge that the investigation was going to continue. His squadron leader suggested he take a couple of days' leave. That evening Simon and his David went through the house removing anything that could suggest that they were gay and hid it in David's car. They knew that the investigation branches of the armed forces had been known to search servicemen's homes for evidence of homosexuality.

By the Friday, Simon realised that he could not deny the allegations indefinitely, and that he didn't really want to. Throughout his six-and-a- half years in the Royal Air Force, he had avoided directly denying his homosexuality at every opportunity, and had decided that if he was ever directly asked he would admit it. A small number of Simon's colleagues had been aware of his sexuality for a number of years.

On the Friday, Simon put on his uniform and went back to the squadron. As he walked through the building, he was stopped by an older sergeant who was well known and liked. He took Simon's hand and said: 'I think what you're doing is incredible.' Considerably boosted, Simon walked into the squadron leader's office and told him that he was gay.

'The squadron leader took me to see his boss, the wing commander, and I told him that I was gay. They were both extremely sensitive and sympathetic, and the wing commander asked what I wanted to happen now. I told him that I just wanted to be left alone to do my job.'

Simon was a successful air electronics operator who served in the Gulf war and was recommended twice for commission as an officer. Despite the obvious difficulties of keeping his sexuality a secret, he enjoyed his job and was looking forward to a job monitoring and to testing the performance of the other air electronics operators in his branch.

On Tuesday 2 February he was called back for a further interview with the investigating officer.

'Sergeant Ingram, I believe you made a statement to your commanding officer. Could you repeat that for the record?' Simon told them that he was still gay, but this admission was not sufficient. The investigating officer asked him: 'Do you have sex with other men?' Simon said that yes, he did indeed have sex with other men, although not perhaps as indiscriminately as the question implied.

The investigating officer asked Simon if he was having a relationship with David. Simon replied that, as far as he was concerned, that had nothing to do with the RAF. After it became clear that Simon was not going to answer any more questions, the investigating officer finished the interview. While the tape was still running, the officer said to Simon: 'If you want to know, my personal feelings on the matter are that it's stupid.'

However, despite people's personal feelings and the support Simon has received from officers and colleagues, no one seems able to acknowledge that Simon has made and could continue to make a significant contribution to the RAF.

'I am not looking for any special consideration or privilege, but at the moment I do not even have the right to be judged on the same criteria as my peers. Of course there are lesbians and gay men who would make hopeless airmen; there are plenty of heterosexuals whom I wouldn't let near an

aircraft either,' he says.

'Whether or not an individual is capable of doing their job should be what counts. However good I am I will never be allowed to continue in the RAF, not because I can't do my job but because the person I sleep with is called David and not Sheila.'

There is the argument that, knowing the position the armed forces take on homosexuality, Simon should never have joined in the first place.

'Retrospectively, I guess it's easy to say that I always knew I was gay. My first sexual experience was at prep school when I was about 10 with another boy, but to be honest I don't really think that's unusual. When I was 17, 18 and just before I joined the RAF when I was 19 I was having a kind of detached relationship with another boy. We had sex, of sorts, but never spoke about it.

'I always believed I would be able to give it up, just stop and go and get married and have children and stuff. Before I joined the RAF I had never met an 'out' gay man and so had no role model or culture to evaluate myself against. I certainly did not consider myself to be gay.

'At my interview to join the RAF, I was asked whether I knew that it was illegal to be a homosexual in the forces. I said yes. Then they asked me if I was a homosexual, and I said no.'

When Simon was 21 he met a man while he was on holiday in France and fell in love. That experience, although they never slept together, was enough to 'out' Simon to himself.

'I was in tears when I left, and when I got back to England I could hardly deny to myself that I was gay when I was clearly feeling so deeply for this guy. But although I knew I was gay, I could not discuss my private life with anyone properly, and I bottled up emotions all the time.

'The last few months, since I was 'outed' at work, have been a freeing experience in many ways. I have been able to say that I am interested in drawing, painting and all types of art. I never dared to be interested in arty things before. I've even started crying at films, something I never did before. It's as though I have been storing up my emotions and now they are all trying to come out at once.'

Simon is still technically serving in the RAF, but has risked speaking out because he wants to let people know what is happening. The RAF has offered him his full entitlements financially and in terms of 'resettlement' courses, although I'm sure the content of a Ministry of Defence resettlement course for homosexuals would be a sight to behold.

'Everyone in the RAF has been helpful and supportive, I can't emphasise that enough,' Simon says. 'I'm even going to have a proper leaving party. But the system doesn't change, my career is in ruins and nobody has explained to me why I am losing my job. Why does the fact that I'm gay mean that my record of the last six years is viewed as though it must be a mistake?

'I have spoken to people in other parts of the armed forces who are in similar positions. There are people in all the services at the moment who are going through hell, lying about themselves, even sleeping with women they don't want to sleep with just to ensure that their sexuality is not open to question. Please will somebody just allow me the same rights as my heterosexual colleagues?'

In June the House of Commons debated and renewed the Naval, Army and Air Force Discipline Acts, which specifically outlaw homosexuality. The civilian decriminalisation of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 has never applied to the forces. During the debate Jeremy Hanley, the Armed Forces Minister, defended the policy of discharging men and women from the services for homosexuality.

Edwina Currie MP (Conservative), Tony Banks MP (Labour) and Menzies Campbell MP (Liberal Democrat) all agreed that it is time for a change. Mr Banks listed the policies of most of our Nato and Commonwealth allies on homosexuality. It is acceptable in France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Canada and Australia.

As Simon says: 'What on earth is so different in those countries that makes it acceptable? Or is the Ministry of Defence suggesting that our Nato allies have armed forces with discipline problems and pansies wilting on the front line?'

Rank Outsiders can be contacted through Stonewall on 071 222 9007.

(Photograph omitted)