A very modern military partnership

Only 10 years ago, the Army was expelling soldiers for homosexuality. Now gay weddings get the regimental blessing. Terri Judd reports

One groom wore ceremonial uniform with his Iraq medal, the other morning dress with an orchid. Surrounded by silverware and paintings commemorating great battles, Lance Corporal James Wharton, 23, and his new husband enjoyed their first dance to Tina Turner in the warrant officers' mess of the most prestigious regiment in the land.

The Household Cavalry, famed for escorting the Queen during state occasions and the fact that it counts both her grandsons among its officers, celebrated its first gay wedding in style. L/Cpl Wharton was joined in a civil partnership with his boyfriend, the Virgin air steward Thom McCaffrey, 21, surrounded by members of L/Cpl Wharton's regiment, the Blues and Royals.

"The entire regiment has been really supportive," he said. "When I went to ask the Squadron Leader, Major Nana Twumasi-Ankrah, for permission to get married, he just said 'This is fantastic, congratulations'."

"The lads joked it was the gay event of the year. Everyone was excited. It was the talk of the barracks. This generation of soldiers is completely liberal," added the junior non-commissioned officer, whose only regret was that some of his friends would not be back from Afghanistan in time to enjoy the nuptials.

Just over 10 years ago, before a ban on homosexuality was lifted, gay soldiers faced interrogation and expulsion from the Army if discovered. But, in a very visible sign of the changing times, L/Cpl Wharton was given permission to host his wedding reception at the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment's Knightsbridge barracks.

"Colour, creed, age and who you sleep with all become irrelevant when you're both being shot at. All that matters to me is that he is an effective, well-trained and fit operational soldier," said his troop leader, Captain Michael Fry. "I hope people will focus less on L/Cpl Wharton's sexuality, and more on the fact that he is a good soldier."

"The Household Cavalry has a fine tradition of leading from the front, so it is unsurprising that we continue to represent the face of the modern Army," added his commanding officer, Lt-Col Crispin Lockhart MBE. "We recognise and value individuals from diverse backgrounds who bring fresh ideas, knowledge, experience and talent to the regimental family."

Earlier in the day the couple had tied the knot at Westminster registry office, L/Cpl Wharton clad in ceremonial dress as were his best man and usher, Lance Corporals Michael Faulkner and James Hawley.

"It is good for the Army and it is good for the regiment. They have supported him 100 per cent. It is progress," said L/Cpl Hawley.

As their respective mothers dabbed away tears, the pair spoke their vows at a civil partnership ceremony before L/Cpl Wharton's sister Liza Ridge read "You're The One For Me" by Dallas Fisher. Their choice of the gay anthem, The Pet Shop Boys' "Go West", during the signing of the register drew applause and laughter from friends.

As they emerged on to the steps of Old Marylebone Town Hall – which has witnessed a host of celebrity weddings – the pair were covered with confetti as passing cars honked their horns.

"Ecstatic – I am over the moon," said L/Cpl Wharton as he hugged his new husband.

"This is our first gay wedding," explained the soldier's step-father Philip Ellis. "We come from north Wales and some people are still old-fashioned." "We are very, very proud of him. It is fantastic," added his sister.

Both from Wrexham, L/Cpl Wharton and Mr McCaffrey met several years ago but only decided to make it official during a holiday in New York.

"We just clicked when we met. We laugh a lot together," said Mr McCaffrey. "It is really quite strange. I went to the regiment's Christmas ball and we were the first gay couple to go there and everyone was really nice. I would have thought they would have been more old-fashioned but they have been brilliant."

Mr McCaffrey's father Paul, a former Regimental Sergeant Major, added: "We are just over the moon. All we ever wanted for Thom, as any parent, is to see him happy."

He continued: "It is unbelievable. It was so completely alien to the Army that was then. It is not that it went from a homophobic organisation one day to an accepting organisation the next day, but it is still a big change. I do a little bit of work with the Territorial Army and we have gay guys and girls and we just accept it."

In less enlightened times, service personnel were expected to inform on anyone they suspected of being gay. In the Army alone, 298 personnel were discharged in 1999 for their sexuality after enduring SIB (Special Investigation Branch) interrogations and humiliating searches of their property.

The legal change allowing homosexual men and women in the services took place in January 2000 after a two-year legal battle involving three gay men and a lesbian, who had been discharged from the Royal Navy and RAF after being found to be gay.

The case went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, which rejected the Government's argument that the military should be treated as a special case because of the "close physical and shared living conditions together with external pressures such as grave danger and war", and ruled that the Ministry of Defence's policy was not sustainable.

Despite predictions of doom and gloom from some quarters, the lifting of the ban was welcomed by most with few hitches.

L/Cpl Wharton said his sexuality was accepted by everyone in the regiment and, with banter common currency in the Army, he has got used to being ribbed. "If someone is not taking the piss in the Army, it is because they don't like you," he explained.

In dramatic contrast to the United States, where senior military figures have been publicly rowing over President Barack Obama's proposed lifting of its "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which sees around 800 service personnel discharged for homosexuality a year, one of Britain's oldest and most distinguished regiments insists that it has moved into the 21st century with ease.

L/Cpl Wharton and Mr McCaffrey were not only given permission to celebrate their union in the warrant officers' and non-commissioned officers' mess last Friday, but the curry lunch was personally overseen by the Regimental Master Chef.

After a honeymoon in San Francisco, the young couple will be heading home to their new married quarters, which were renamed Service Family Accommodation with the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005.

L/Cpl Wharton added: "It is a big thing for Thom and I that it is now allowed. I have a friend who is ex-Life Guards [Household Cavalry] and keeps reminding me how incredible it is that someone in the Household Cavalry Regiment is getting married and no one is saying a bad thing about it. I hope other people will see it and think, 'Our regiment should be as open-minded'."

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