Comment: Our Armed Forces have made huge progress, but it’s time to deal with the demons of the past

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Stephen Doughty MP calls on the Armed Forces to address the historic persecution of LGBT people.

I am incredibly proud of the work which our Armed Forces do both at home and abroad. Their courage, bravery and determination in the face of harm and adversity is something which I admire day in and day out. I have witnessed this first hand on operations having visited our troops globally.

I am particularly proud of the incredible steps which our Armed Forces have taken in recent years when it comes to equality. Indeed, we often talk about the “Rainbow Revolution” in Whitehall which has seen the Ministry of Defence move from actively discriminating against LGBT people to becoming a role model department, recognised as among one of the best and most supportive places to work in the UK if you are gay. It was a privilege this year to witness the Army winning the Public Sector Equality Award at the 2016 PinkNews Awards.

Whilst many people in society take these freedoms for granted, it is important to take stock and to remember that the path to get here was a long, difficult and often arduous one. The ban on LGBT people serving openly in the Armed Forces was only scrapped in 2000 after a European Human Rights’ ruling. A decision that the then Shadow Defence Secretary Ian Duncan Smith remarked would ‘undermine the operational effectiveness of our armed forces.’ How wrong he was.

It is important for us as a society not to get complacent. We can and should always be doing more. Whist we now have full equality before the law, the statistics and evidence suggest that there is more work to do in tackling homophobia. This past year I was touched and deeply saddened by a letter which I received from one of my constituents.

My constituent was a member of the RAF and came from a large military family. In the late 1960s she was discharged from the RAF under the guise of ‘services no longer required’ due to the fact that she was a lesbian. She was subjected to a humiliating ‘witch hunt’, including searches of her quarters, not uncommon at that time and officially sanctioned by military commanders.

Whilst gay men often faced full criminal prosecution under court martial, homosexuality amongst women was not illegal in the UK and a court martial for LGBT Woman could not take place. Instead, lesbian woman in the armed forces were placed in the ‘undesirables’ category, along with those who were suspected of theft and petty crime, whose ‘Services were no longer required’ in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. This resulted in a discharge and prevented my constituent from applying for certain jobs, and placed her as she felt, in the same category as an untrustworthy common criminal. This injustice had a profound effect on her for the rest of her life.

When I raised her discharge with the Ministry of Defence I faced the stone wall of bureaucracy. I was told as per Departmental policy, personnel files are destroyed seven years after discharge and as her discharge was administered ‘correctly’ the MoD felt it would be ‘inappropriate’ to retrospectively amend this historical wrong.

Whilst an apology was offered for the distress caused, no further action was taken to relieve her suffering. In any instance, the evidence no longer exists to prove these historical injustices on an individual basis. This however does not detract from the fact that injustices were clearly committed. It is a sad state of affairs when we cannot redress these wrongs because we do not have the correct paperwork to do so.

Whilst the work of the Ministry of Defence on LGBT equality over the last ten years is something of which we can be deeply proud of, it is time too that the Department tackles the demons of its not too distant past.

In December 2013 wartime code breaker Alan Turing received a posthumous Royal Pardon clearing his name. This week the House of Commons will discuss amendments to the Police and Crime Bill which include Government plans to posthumously pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men convicted of abolished sexual offences.

I would be interested in hearing the stories of those LGBT men and women who were discharged from the Armed Forces for being LGBT. Please feel free to email me [email protected].

It seems only fair that LGBT men and women who were punished for being themselves, whilst serving bravely in our Armed Forces, should be accorded the same right to a pardon. Those who were affected by our state sponsored discrimination regime should be afforded a sense of closure on this difficult chapter in their lives.

I believe that a group pardon, may be one way for those discharged due to their sexuality, to right this wrong. It would be a fitting way for the MoD to enshrine its commitment to the LGBT community. After all, actions speak louder than words and sometimes an individual apology is not enough.

Stephen Doughty is the MP for Cardiff South and Penarth and Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Armed Forces