Foreign Office apologises for ‘misguided’ historical ban on LGBT+ staff

‘Careers were ended, cut short, or stopped before they could even begin,’ says senior civil servant

Adam Forrest
Monday 05 July 2021 21:52
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The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has apologised for the historical ban on employing gay diplomats, with its senior civil servant admitting that it had deprived the UK of some of its “best talent”.

The ban on LGBT+ employees was imposed because of fears they could be more vulnerable to blackmail, potentially posing a security risk, but it was finally lifted in July 1991.

Sir Philip Barton, the head of the diplomatic service, issued an apology for the impact of the ban on LGBT+ staff who had been forced to hide their sexuality for decades, and admitted that some had had their careers “cut short” or “stopped before they could even begin”.

Security fears were fuelled by spy scandals such as the case of John Vassall, a clerk at the British embassy in Moscow who was gay and was blackmailed into passing secrets to the KGB. He was jailed for 18 years in 1962.

In his message to staff, Sir Philip said it was a “misguided view” to believe that LGBT+ diplomats were more susceptible to blackmail.

“The ban was in place because there was a perception that LGBT people were more susceptible than their straight counterparts to blackmail and, therefore, that they posed a security risk,” Sir Philip said.

“Because of this misguided view, people’s careers were ended, cut short, or stopped before they could even begin. And the diplomatic service undoubtedly deprived itself of some of the UK’s brightest and best talent.”

He said: “I want to apologise publicly for the ban and the impact it had on our LGBT staff and their loved ones, both here in the UK and abroad.”

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said he was “grateful” to the UK’s LGBT+ diplomats “who so brilliantly represent our country and promote our values around the world”.

“The UK champions LGBT rights because we believe freedom and tolerance are a source of strength in communities at home and abroad,” said Mr Raab.

The cabinet minister said that as co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition, the UK was working with 41 partner countries to tackle discriminatory laws and prejudice globally.

In 2018, the FCDO commemorated Graeme Watkins, the founder of its LGBT+ staff association Flagg (Foreign Office Lesbian and Gay Group), who died in 2000, by naming a room after him in the department.

Mr Watkins joined the Foreign Office in 1979, when openly gay people were still barred from working as diplomats – forcing him to hide his sexuality at work until the ban was lifted in 1991.

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