Earlier this month, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that new recruits would be asked to declare their sexual orientation in order to encourage greater diversity within the British Armed Forces. These details will be kept anonymous and there is the option to opt out of disclosing the information in question. Be that as it may, this is the first time that the MoD will have access to records of this nature. The decision is seen as a positive move by leading lesbian, gay and bisexual charity, Stonewall. Commentators argue that it represents a significant development in both recognising and encouraging a greater sense of openness within the military.

Prior to the year 2000, gay and lesbian personnel were banned from openly serving in the Armed Forces. Up until the late 19th century, sodomy was a capital crime in England. From 1861, it became punishable by life imprisonment. Indecency laws passed in 1885 criminalised all male homosexual acts. While the 1967 Sexual Offences Act finally made homosexual acts legal for consenting men over the age of 21, the military remained exempt from this law. Up until 1994, gay service personnel could be criminally charged and court-martialed for this reason. While lesbianism was never illegal, female soldiers could be dismissed for reasons of conduct.[i] In 1994, section 146(4) of the Criminal Justice Act was finally revised so that it was no longer possible to prosecute military personnel through this channel. Having said that, the law still provided for administrative dismissal. Gay and lesbian personnel could be discharged as committing, “disgraceful conduct of an indecent kind,” or “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.”’[ii] Military police were permitted to direct investigations into the sexual orientation of serving personnel using intrusive tactics (e.g. nighttime raids of barracks, aggressive questioning etc.).  The ban on homosexuality was only lifted in the year 2000 after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The UK was one of the last remaining NATO countries with an outright ban on homosexuality.[iii]

Over the past century, many different arguments have been made for excluding gay and lesbian personnel from serving openly. During WWII, homosexuality was categorised as a psychiatric disorder by mental health professionals and incorporated into military screening procedures. Throughout the Cold War, gay and lesbian personnel were seen as more vulnerable to blackmail than their heterosexual counterparts and widely perceived as a security threat.[iv]

Most enduringly, authorities have argued that homosexuality interferes with operational efficiency and the cohesion of military units. As late as 1996, MoD guidelines stated, ‘Homosexuality…is considered incompatible with service in the armed forces,’ and a policy assessment team concluded that to lift the ban would be ‘an affront to Service people.’ The US Department of Defense has made similar arguments, claiming in 1982 that, ‘the presence of such members adversely affects the ability of the Armed Forces to maintain discipline, good order, and morale…[and] to facilitate assignment and worldwide deployment of members who frequently must live and work in close conditions affording minimal privacy.’[v] This is an old and oft repeated line of argumentation. As historian Arthur Gilbert has noted, military officials made similar points throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and punished offenders severely for transgressing the rules.[vi] However, these arguments have ultimately proven false. Studies of unit cohesion show that it is largely, ‘task oriented rather than socially motivated.’[vii] Group members are primarily concerned with achieving their goal rather than mutual regard. The integration of homosexual service personnel in countries like Canada, Australia and the Netherlands has also proven successful.

In addition to the MoD’s decision in regards to homosexual recruits this month Captain Hannah Winterbourne of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers has become the highest ranking transgender officer openly serving in the British Army. Both the military’s support of Winterbourne and the changes in MoD policy should be viewed as progress. However, these changes are but one piece of a much larger puzzle. Promoting diversity in the Armed Forces is and will continue to be a challenging process. Since the end of the Cold War, British service personnel have become more aware of their rights. The military is increasingly treated like any other employer with obligations to the workforce it employs. The introduction of the Military Covenant in 2000 has only served to underline this trend.

Having said that, the Armed Forces remain a unique social institution with a strict code of conduct designed to enforce discipline and certain ‘notions of comradeship.’[viii] Altering the organisational culture to accommodate new groups will require a concerted effort by both senior and junior officers. As leaders within a strict hierarchy, they set an example to those under their command and act as gatekeepers in determining what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. They play a pivotal role in establishing how soldiers treat one another and deciding whether difference is embraced or perceived as a threat to unit cohesion both at home and especially on active operations. Policy change is vital but the everyday actions of those in authority will remain the most important factor in encouraging lasting change.

Meghan Fitzpatrick is a recent graduate of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research interests include military health, welfare and defence policy. You can find her on twitter @kmegfitz

[i] Aaron Belkin and RL Evans, ‘The Effects of Including Gay and Lesbian Soldiers in the British Armed Forces: Appraising the Evidence,’ Centre for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, UC Santa Barbara (11-01-2000).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Anthony Forster, ‘Breaking the covenant: governance of the British army in the twenty-first century,’ International Affairs 82, No. 6 (2006), p. 1053.

[iv] G Dean Sinclair, ‘Homosexuality and the Military: A Review of the Literature,’ Journal of Homosexuality 56, No. 6 (2009), p. 706.

[v] MoD, ‘Report of the Homosexuality Policy Assessment Team’ (Feb. 1996).

[vi] Arthur N Gilbert, ‘Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,’ Journal of Social History 10, No. 1 (Autumn 1976), p. 87.

[vii] Sinclair, ‘Homosexuality and the Military, p. 706.

[viii] C Dandeker and D Mason, ‘Diversifying the Uniform: The participation of Minority Ethnic Personnel in the British Armed Services,’ Armed Forces and Society 29, No. 4 (2003), pp. 481-507.

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Meghan Fitzpatrick

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