The love that dared not speak its name in the Foreign Office

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Chris Bryant's civil partnership is a measure of how far the Foreign Office has come on gay rights. Charles Crawford, a former ambassador to Sarajevo and Belgrade, remembers a darker time and the colleague driven to suicide because of his sexuality

Late one evening back in 1986, perched in a room high in the Foreign Office overlooking St James's Park, I was the diplomatic service's duty officer, tasked with dealing sensibly with anything that might turn up.

The telephone rang. A colleague called Robert Facey was at the front desk, asking if he could borrow some money. I happened to know him and invited him up. He arrived with a Nigerian student he had met at an anti-apartheid demonstration.

Robert had "come out" on a posting in Latin America. Homosexuality was a bar to a Foreign Office career – memories of British Cold War traitors ran deep, and gays were considered especially vulnerable to blackmail. He was now in a bad way. His FCO job prospects were somewhere between bleak and nil and he said he had fallen out with friends and family; he was almost living rough on the streets.

A surreal couple of hours ensued. Robert was under evident stress and talked furiously about gay rights in Africa (the baffled but amused Nigerian student denying that there were any gays in Africa). I lent Robert £20. He and his companion eventually left.

I never saw Robert Facey again. His life and career dissolved, and he committed suicide in June 1989.

Twenty years later, in January 2010, I thought of him. Tall and stocky, with dark tightly-curled hair, he had been a quirky, brilliant diplomat who talked in non-stop Oscar Wildeish epigrams, with ghastly vivid stories of his posting in Lagos and dead bodies on the streets.

His life had been destroyed.

So I decided to ask the Foreign Office under Freedom of Information to open its archives from that period, in search of answers. Throughout the 80s, ministers and diplomats had mulled over whether the Foreign Office should continue to ban gays from the service.

There was to be no change to the policy while Margaret Thatcher was in office. So how was it justified by ministers and senior diplomats? What eventually ended it?

I received a heavy bundle of papers.

In the 1980s, the Foreign Office, like the rest of Whitehall, was busy implementing the recommendations of a National Security Commission which had identified "character defects" exposing a person to blackmail or undue influence by a foreign hostile intelligence service. These included male homosexual tendencies "which may remain latent or manifest themselves in a broader gamut of forms from inconspicuous stable relationships through promiscuity or exhibitionism to paederasty". The report, warmly welcomed by the Thatcher government, recommended that homosexuality be a bar to recruitment to the FCO. If homosexuality came to light, the officer concerned might have to leave. A story circulated that a young male UK diplomat in apartheid South Africa had been quietly asked to leave post because of an affair with a black ballet dancer – not so much the fact that he was black, but because he was male.

The Foreign Office papers just released show in fascinating detail how ministers and diplomats pored over this for a decade. The record is unusually clear: Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe asked in 1984 for an annual review of the issue, and elegant papers were prepared accordingly.

The ban on homosexuals was forced on to the Foreign Secretary's desk that year when colleges such as Brighton Polytechnic threatened to block distribution of "discriminatory" recruitment literature on campus. A long FCO letter was sent to them in 1985 stressing the core argument: homosexuality was illegal in more than half the countries where the UK had a diplomatic presence, hence the FCO could not offer gays a full diplomatic career, and "a separate restricted circuit" of postings for gay officers would be impractical. Complaints subsided.

Homosexuality nonetheless was seen as an operational problem within the Service. A draft minute in 1987 noted: "One officer is still on sick leave after over a year, having had a mental breakdown; and another who was given a chance to serve overseas after an isolated homosexual incident has had to be withdrawn as his behaviour was giving rise to an unacceptable level of gossip."

The existing rules, the note added, "while interpreted by some as severe, do at least have the merit of clarity and affect only a small minority". A later memo insisted that the status quo was "safer since homosexuals tended to promiscuity which involved mixing with 'undesirable elements' with consequent security implications".

Importantly, the Foreign Secretary's office was warned on 18 September 1987 that "there is no diminution of the threat from hostile intelligence services or in their unscrupulousness; if anything, the reverse."

One document hinted that the attitude of the Thatcher government might be the real issue. A minute from the FCO Security Department on 19 May 1987 stated: "If there is no longer a Conservative Government [after the election], the time may perhaps have come to recommend something more radical." Mrs Thatcher won the 1987 election in a landslide.

The files suggest that Howe himself was sympathetic to a more liberal approach but, perhaps with Mrs Thatcher's likely views in mind, loath to force the issue. One of his aides noted in November 1988: "The Secretary of State continues to think this is a very difficult issue... However regrettable it may be, he believes we are not the sort of organisation which can afford to get in front of public opinion on this issue.

"He also believes that the lifestyle of homosexuals probably does render them more open to blackmail, even if their homosexuality is declared."

The Security Department continued to warn senior management of the perceived dangers for gay staff, cautioning in December 1989 that they were "open to compromise if they indulge in unlawful activities, or mix with unsavoury elements in louche bars".

However, by then, anomalies had emerged. Should the bar apply to those civil servants in the FCO working in the UK and ineligible for overseas postings? "Here we are clearly on shakier ground," admitted an officer in May 1987. Homosexuality among the FCO's home civil servants was thereafter accepted. There was even a conversation about whether the FCO should explicitly bar lesbians as well as gay men, on the grounds of equality.

Come 1988, the department acknowledged internally, in a report to Howe, that there was "no inherent link between homosexuality and disloyalty". By then, Robert Facey had been sidelined well away from mainstream diplomatic activity. On 5 March 1988 he left the service. The following summer he would be dead.

A turning point came in 1989, with the gradual realisation that the core security argument may in fact have created its own security problems, by exposing Foreign Office staff who were secretly gay to blackmail if a hostile intelligence agency discovered their "preferences".

In July that year, a strong minute was sent to the Security Department (from whom is not disclosed) arguing that homosexuals within the FCO were "in a Catch 22 situation". The senior diplomat explained: "There is a serious case for asserting that the policy we operate ... in itself represents an incalculable but potential security hazard for the Service. If we ever faced a case involving a homosexual member of the Service being blackmailed for that fact, we would find ourselves faced with a major public embarrassment."

The official urged that the British look at other allies' laidback attitudes. "I was most impressed by the relaxed attitudes of the Spaniards," he said. "Because homosexuals have no domestic ties, the administration has a conscious policy of putting them in departments where long and unconscionable hours are the norm, eg. the Minister's Private Office. The system works admirably well."

Someone from the FCO's human resources department took up the matter with MI6 in October 1989: "To my astonishment there was very strong agreement. He said very firmly that he agreed on security grounds that there should be a change."

Although the Ministry of Defence was resolute in its refusal to admit gays into the Armed Forces, MI5 was relatively relaxed about a policy change, as was GCHQ, and MI6 was also reviewing the issue.

So in November 1989 the heads of human resources at the Foreign Office met to look again at the arguments for banning gays. Was FCO recruitment likely to suffer if the 10 per cent of the population thought to be homosexuals were excluded? How was the Aids scare [sic] affecting public attitudes? If the policy were liberalised should there be an amnesty for homosexuals who previously concealed their sexuality?

Public attitudes seemed to have become more liberal and the FCO looked to be out of step with practice in France, the USA, Germany and other allies. On balance a change of policy looked to make sense. But not yet.

In 1990: the Cold War was ending. The arguments against posting homosexuals to countries banning homosexuality looked unconvincing. One diplomat observed in February: "Saudi Arabia's legal constraints on alcohol and on Christian worship do not affect our postings there."

Douglas Hurd was now Foreign Secretary. On 5 March he asked officials to "consider the distinction between homosexual tendencies and homosexual practice. If the security argument is by and large out-of-date, then we are left with considerations of discretion and avoidance of scandal."

If change was to be effected, how? The issue would need to be referred back to the Security Commission and would ultimately require the Prime Minister's personal sanction.

There was a logic, it was noted, in beginning to treat promiscuity of any sort as a disciplinary offence: "It is sex that is the problem rather than a particular inclination!"

At the end of 1990 Mrs Thatcher fell from power. John Major moved into No 10. The Foreign Office pondered a gay amnesty on a case-by-case basis, with frankness "regarded as a favourable factor offsetting concerns about the possibility of past attempts at concealment".

Finally, on 23 July 1991, Prime Minister John Major announced, in an unobtrusive written answer, the end of the automatic bar on homosexuals being given access to high security posts or classified papers "except in the special case of the armed forces where homosexual acts remain offences under the service disciplinary Acts".

Almost two decades later, gay couples have been posted at ambassadorial level, discriminatory elements have been removed from overseas allowances, and the Foreign Office has a gay Minister of State. MI5 is actively recruiting gay intelligence officers. Some British Embassies have flown a rainbow flag as a gesture of support for LGBT issues.

Maybe the time has come for the Foreign Office at least to hold a short ceremony to honour Robert Facey's memory and those of all the other able, loyal colleagues whose lives and careers suffered under the policy of the times?

Charles Crawford served as British Ambassador in Sarajevo from 1996-98, in Belgrade from 2001-03, and in Warsaw from 2003-07. © Charles Crawford, 2010

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