The wrong sort to serve in the Navy: In other European countries Brett Burnell would have had no problems, but you can't be a gay British sailor. Simon Garfield reports

Simon Garfield
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:41

Brett Burnell is not used to discussing his personal life with strangers, certainly not in the tiny kitchen of his family home in the Rhondda Valley. Brett is 20, as gawky as they come at that age, skinny with buck teeth, and a bit awkward with words. Discourse, theory and legalese never much entered his world until now. He lived a quiet life, plain and predictable in his youth, respectful and subservient in his two-year term in the armed forces. This is about to change.

A few weeks ago Brett was discharged from the Royal Navy for being gay. A routine dismissal, one of eight so far this year, one of many promising careers cut short (being gay or lesbian in the Navy is not illegal, but 'incompatible' with Ministry of Defence policy). But the Navy may remember Brett's case more than most, because he has decided to fight. 'I'm going to pressure them and embarrass them,' he says. 'Their rules are pathetic.'

He is an unlikely activist. In the sitting room of his parents' house in Cwmparc, a cramped village in Mid Glamorgan, his mother and seven-year-old sister, Rebecca, watch Sooty & Co. Brother Ian, 15, just back from school with a scowl, thinks Sooty is useless. On this freezing afternoon, with snow in the Valleys, their father is out driving an ice-cream van round local streets. Rebecca talks about what she may get from Santa. In the hallway, the phone has been disconnected.

Brett Burnell wanted to leave this place at an early age. He didn't do much at school, although he liked geography, and he didn't have much of a social life. From the age of 12 his spare time was spent with the army cadets, and he'd go away at weekends to play soldiers and run round mountains firing blanks. He left school at 16, did electronics on a YTS, got a factory job. Most of his friends had joined the Army, but the Navy appealed more. The usual reasons: to see the world, escape from home. 'It seemed like a solid, ordered way of life.' He looks through the kitchen window to the hillside beyond. 'It was a better way of life than this.'

He signed up in Cardiff in 1991. He says he had a 45- minute interview and the normal medicals, but the issue of sexuality never arose. Two weeks before joining, he returned to Cardiff for a final briefing. 'They told you about what kit you needed, and put on a short video. Then someone comes in and reads out a list of things you can't do: can't do drugs, can't have a criminal record, can't be gay. I didn't think much about it.'

Brett thought he might be gay from an early age, 'but you don't know, it's a strange feeling, and you just let it pass. The Valleys are a very old-fashioned place. It's a good 10 years behind most places, and attitudes don't change very fast. Coming out is a nightmare in itself, but in the Valleys it's like being a minority within a minority.' With no gay scene, no newsletters, and only guy-

seeks-girl lonely hearts in the local press, Brett began to believe he might have been the only gay man in Wales.

He didn't tell anyone until he walked into the Swallow in Plymouth, his first gay pub, in August 1992. He was 19, and had been with the Navy for 15 months. 'I walked past, looking in the window and the door about 20 times before I went in. It was on the corner of a busy main road, so I was also looking over my shoulder in case anyone from the Navy saw me go in there.' It didn't occur to him that there might be Navy people inside.

'I made straight for the bar, ordered a pint and didn't look up. I ordered another, and after almost two hours I left without talking to anyone.' He returned a week later, just as nervous, but this time a few people came up and said they'd seen him in there last time, and that he should really calm down a bit. Coming out wasn't such a big thing. He's been friends with them ever since.

Brett had been working on frigates and destroyers, doing security, administration and sonar (radar work). He liked the life and seemed to get on well with almost everyone. But last June, weeks away from a seven-month trip to the West Indies, his world fell apart.

Brett and a colleague were on armed security patrol on the gangway of HMS Active when some cars pulled up to the jetty, followed by a television crew making a film about naval discipline. Brett joked to his mate that they were going to be film stars. The next minute he had his gun taken off him, and was escorted from the ship. 'It dawns on you then what they're on to. You think, 'Oh no'.' His superiors had received an anonymous call saying that a man called Brett, who worked on sonar, was gay.

'They sit you down, awfully nice with lots of coffee, and say: 'We'd just like to ask you a few questions.' I said: 'About what?' 'We'll tell you in a minute, but first what were you doing last weekend?' ' Brett bluffed and lied and resisted as best he could. 'You fight it,' he says. 'From that point in. You don't give up.'

In the course of an early interview, he was asked whether he had any objection to having his locker searched. He said he did object, but they searched anyway. They found an unsent love letter, a list of gay pubs, and an address book with no female names. Yes, he had been to those bars, he said, but what was to prove he was gay? It was a losing battle, so he told them the truth a few days later.

The interview process lasted several months, and was polite but extremely thorough. 'Before you discharge a chap you have to conduct an investigation to make sure he's genuinely homosexual,' says Commander Bernard Davis, a naval barrister. 'You have to bear in mind that you might get someone who is emotionally upset, away from home for the first time, and it's all this great big new world.

'You might also get someone who's manipulative and doesn't want to be in the Navy any more, especially if there's some unpleasant deployment coming up. You also have to make sure they're not committing offences against others, using their power to corrupt younger people. In the case of Burnell, you also have to ensure that he isn't being seduced by older men.'

Commander Davis suggests that there might be a breakdown of discipline if men objected to working alongside a gay or lesbian. 'In the Royal Navy you have maybe 30 or 40 men sleeping in three-tier bunks in a confined space, and they're going to live and work together for months at a time. We don't want sexual relations developing, because if they do, they'll lead to allegations of unfairness and favouritism and jealousy and exploitation. They could even lead to an alternative powerbase.'

Brett fumes at this. 'What sort of grounds are those? What's to stop a senior officer seducing a Wren? And what if there were people who didn't like black people or Welsh people? That black person wouldn't be discharged.'

In 1992, 12 gay men and three lesbians were discharged from the Navy. This year, six gay men and two lesbians have lost their jobs. Gays and lesbians can serve in the armed forces in Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In the US, President Bill Clinton has been forced to compromise on his election promise to remove the ban on homosexuals, but there is now a 'Don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue' policy: gays and lesbians can remain in the forces if they keep quiet. Two weeks ago a midshipman won a significant victory when an appeals court overturned the decision of an American naval academy to dismiss him because he was gay.

Brett consulted solicitors last Wednesday, and is seeking a judicial review of his case. He may take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 'I don't want to be standing up shouting with banners, but I'm still angry at the waste of it all. The Navy has lost someone who really wanted to serve. All it takes is a few very senior men in the Navy to stand up, and tell Whitehall that the law ought to be changed, but I don't know if anyone of high rank will have the guts.'

Brett revealed his homosexuality to his parents only six weeks ago. 'My mother asked when I'd be home next, and I said 'In two weeks.' She said, 'For how long?' I said 'For ever.' I told them everything, and I was shocked at how well they took it.

'My mum was a bit concerned about what the local people would think, but the thing that really upset her was the thought of my career ending. She couldn't understand why the Navy was doing this.'

'Cutting Edge: Navy Blues', about naval discipline, is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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