How the forces finally learnt to take pride

Nine years after the military lifted its ban on gays, the army has put an openly homosexual soldier on the cover of its magazine.

In the genteel atmosphere of the Coldstream Guards' officers' mess, Lieutenant Mark Wakeling was known as "thug". Amongst his fellow guardsmen, he prided himself on being the toughest, the fittest and the most aggressive.

He not only laughed at homophobic jokes – he was the "straightest of the straight" amongst the young officers. When one of his platoon admitted to being gay, he immediately started the discharge process.

Nobody realised that behind the excessively macho behaviour was a young man who lived in fear that his own homosexuality would be discovered. Eventually, the pressure became too much and he cut short his military career and resigned his commission. "I scurried away like a frightened rat," he explained yesterday, bitter regret still evident in his expression more than a decade later.

This month, for the first time in its history, the cover of the British Army's official publication Soldier magazine shows Trooper James Wharton – openly gay – clad in his dress uniform, complete with Iraq medal, next to the headline "Pride". It is the most obvious sign that almost a decade after the military lifted the ban on homosexuality it is finally comfortable with its new clothes.

British servicemen and women now march at Gay Pride in uniform, all three services have become Stonewall diversity champions and a few months ago the head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt made history when he became the first army chief to address a Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender conference. "Respect for others is not an optional extra," he said.

Perhaps most tellingly, senior officers from the US have been quietly holding talks with their British counterparts on how America can change its "don't ask, don't tell" police which has seen more than 12,500 members discharged since its inception 16 years ago.

For Mr Wakeling, the news that Trooper Wharton can genuinely live openly as a gay man with a boyfriend in another ancient and prestigious regiment, the Household Cavalry, generates such obvious turmoil that he has to pause to compose himself. "I can't express how fantastic it is to know they are able to be themselves. I regret that I lost out. I felt I didn't really fulfil my ambition in the army. It was tragic. I was a good soldier. I could have been useful to the army," explained Mr Wakeling.

The legal change allowing the gay to openly serve 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 – despite 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" – ruled that the MoD policy was not sustainable.

Overnight service personnel who had been expected to inform on anyone they suspected of being gay were told they must now respect the rights of their colleagues. Men and women who had lived in fear of being followed by the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), enduring degrading interrogations and searches, were told they could freely talk of their sexual orientation. In the army alone, 298 personnel had been discharged in 1999 for their sexuality.

Royal Navy officer Mandy McBain came close to meeting the same fate when she was interrogated by her commanding officer after being reported. Months later she could suddenly admit her "crime".

"The change meant I no longer had to worry about my career, my income, my pension, all the things I might have lost. But I was still not sure how I would be accepted. I had lied to close friends and bosses I respected very much. I was worried how my deceit would be accepted. Very, very few people came out immediately," said the Lieutenant Commander, now stationed in Bosnia.

Restricted guidance signed by the chiefs of staff and sent to commanding officers gave answers to a long list of possible queries such as: "How should I protect young people in the Service from predatory homosexuals?" (the response: "It would be wrong to assume homosexuals were predatory") and, "Will homosexuals be able to bring their partners [to mess functions]?" (the response: "It will be for the Mess President to exercise discretion").

"The thought of two men dancing at a mess function was more than some people could cope with," explained one officer. "They thought they would get raped in their beds."

But the predictions proved wrong and the military entered its brave new world with surprising ease. A confidential review two years later across all three services found that most officers and junior ranks, particularly among the younger ones, had accepted the lifting of the ban without much comment. It was only amongst the older Senior Non-Commissioned and Warrant Officers that it had met significant resistance.

With the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005, married quarters were renamed Service Family Accommodation and homosexual couples were given the same priority as their heterosexual counterparts alongside pension and compensation rights.

The change has not been without problems. Last year, the Ministry of Defence was ordered to pay nearly £190,000 to lesbian Lance Bombardier Kerry Fletcher, 32, of the Royal Artillery, after an employment tribunal held up her claim of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, saying she had been victimised in a sustained campaign.

"I would be lying if I say there was no bullying that happened but it is certainly less than other offences such as racial or sexual harassment," explained Lieutenant Colonel Colin Bulleid of the British Army Equality and Diversity Policy Branch.

"There has been no overt homophobic hate wave. We occasionally get the odd prat who behaves inappropriately. But he gets stamped on when he gets found out. We have a reasonably good complaints system."

The new proud2serve website has also become an advice forum. A recent case of a junior non commissioned officer who complained his brothers, also soldiers, were being bullied after he came out was traced and the situation dealt with through the commanding officer.

Apart from simply accepting the change, the last few years has seen a military hierarchy choosing to be vocal and visible on the subject, advertising in the gay press for recruits and seeking to openly connect with a community that still treats it with some suspicion.

In 2005, the Royal Navy joined the Stonewall diversity champions programme for employers, followed 12 months later by the RAF and finally last year, by the army. In similar sequence, each service has allowed its soldiers to march (to great applause) at the Gay Pride event. Several personnel are now listed in the Independent's Pink List of the most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain.

Among them is Mark Abrahams, the RAF's most senior serving openly gay officer who was promoted to Wing Commander this month. He said: "The RAF's attitude towards LGBT matters has changed immensely over the last five to six years. People are judged and valued on their ability to do their job and the contribution they make to the team effort. Ultimately, when they can be themselves, people produce their best."

Dave Small, a former Navy Warrant Officer who left five years ago and is now working for Stonewall, insisted that all three services were demonstrating a commitment to working closely with them. "Like any big organisation, at certain times you are going to come across problems. But the services certainly have strong processes in place which they are encouraging their staff to take up, if you are subjected to bullying or harassment, they want to know. The last five years has been more about letting this policy make a difference and not be just a piece of paper. That is why we have seen these big changes."

The military does not have figures for the number of gay staff, stating it is a private matter. But Stonewall estimates that it mirrors the national average of eight per cent, which equates to about 14,000 gay service personnel. Some, however, still feel wary of coming out. A survey on the website proud2serve found two-thirds were open to all their colleagues.

But the current situation is still centuries away from the world that former Lieutenant Wakeling knew just a few years ago. The 37-year-old, who is now an accomplished actor running his own drama company, still has one last barrier to break down.

He is working on a film entitled To Die for Your Country – the story of two gay Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan. It is largely based on his personal experiences and will be a final coming out to the one section of the community he has still failed to openly face, 14 years on – the army.

Gay heroes?

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (1887-1976)

The best known general of the Second World War urged the House of Lords not to legalise gay sex in 1967, declaring: "This sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we're British – thank God." But several biographers have claimed that he had a "predilection for the company of young men" and enjoyed platonic love affairs.

Thomas Edward (T E) Lawrence (1888-1935)

The soldier whose heroic role as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 earned him the title Lawrence of Arabia has often been described as gay but there is no concrete evidence he had an intimate relationship with anyone, male or female, and willingly chose celibacy instead.

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916)

His sexuality is hotly contested by historians. Those who claim he was gay point out that Captain Oswald Fitzgerald was his constant companion until their deaths. He was said to gather a cadre of young, unmarried officers nicknamed "Kitchener's band of boys".

King Richard I (1157-1199)

Academics have long debated the sexual orientation of Richard the Lionheart. He married Berengaria, the eldest daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre, but only took her briefly on one of his crusades. They were never reunited and he never had children.

James Warton: 'You're gay. Want another pint?'

Relaxing at the Household Cavalry's Windsor barracks, Trooper James Wharton chatted happily about his boyfriend over a coffee. Nearby, a gruff looking non-commissioned officer turned in mock horror. "You're gay?" he boomed before the two men laughed. Trooper Wharton's sexuality is old news in this frontline regiment.

In an army where banter is common currency, the 22-year-old has heard all the jokes but said that he would be far more worried if his colleagues fell silent. "If someone is not taking the piss in the Army, it is because they don't like you," he said.

A youngster from a small Welsh village, he thought little of his sexuality when he signed up to the Blues and Royals at 16. It was only when he went to London for ceremonial duties that he began to consider a social life. When he appeared preoccupied, a Trooper challenged him. "He said 'I know what it is. You're gay'. I just went 'Yeah' and he said 'I knew it. Do you want another pint?'." Within days, everybody was pestering him with questions.

"I got back to Knightsbridge [barracks] one day and somebody opened a window seven floors up and yelled 'Are you gay?' The whole of Hyde Park must have heard it. They weren't shocked in a horrible way, they were just interested." he added. Most reassuringly, one of the most powerful men in the squadron, his Corporal Major (equivalent to Sergeant Major), "an individual you would never cross", made it clear with a few understated words that Trooper Wharton suffered any problems, he should inform him immediately.

Nevertheless, four years ago he was badly beaten by a drunken soldier in a homophobic attack. "I felt embarrassed. The lads were completely supportive. He was a bit of a low life and no one liked him. He was court martialled and I think he has left the Army," he said, insisting it never occurred to him to let it affect his Army career. "In everyone's life, you get a bit of crap, whoever you are."

Mandy McBain: 'We can't get rid of all prejudice'

One of the hardest parts of being gay in the military, Lieutenant Commander Mandy McBain explained, was that you had to go through the emotional turmoil of coming out yet again with each new posting.

It was even harder when she was posted recently to the multi-national Eufor offices in Sarajevo to work with personnel from other militaries, such as the Americans, who do not accept openly gay servicemen or women as well as less-liberal-thinking locals.

But even that was a world away from the time 10 years ago when she was reported and investigated for being a lesbian. In the final months before the ban was lifted, she was forced to lie to a commander she respected because to admit she had a girlfriend would have meant instant dismissal.

Today she heads the Royal Navy's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender forum, although she admitted that some people on her database still live in fear of being discovered. But since setting up the forum a year ago, only two people have complained of difficulties at work.

While the Navy has put recruitment ads in the Pink press, she learned of one recruiter who informed a potential candidate that he could not be openly gay in the Royal Marines. The recruiter was spoken to and reminded that the British military no longer has any issue with sexual orientation.

"We educate as much as possible but we can't get rid of all the prejudices," she said: "It has been a big learning process for everybody. The forum is there to help people if they find themselves in an uncomfortable position."

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