Gay woman speaks out about her ‘double life’ serving in the Royal Navy

Mandy McBain MBE Royal Navy

A retired lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy has spoken out about her experience as a gay woman in the British armed forces and said she had to live a “double life”.

Mandy McBain MBE joined the Royal Navy in 1986 and worked with the armed forces until 2012, before joining Stonewall as a client account manager for the defence and security sector.

She was made an MBE in the 2012 New Year Honours list for her work on equality and inclusion within the Royal Navy.

While being gay was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, the ban on gay people serving in the armed forces was only lifted in January 2000. 

McBain wrote in a piece for Metro: “When I realised I was gay, I became adept at leading a double life, talking in the third person, having fictitious boyfriends and travelling at weekends when other people had usually gone home to avoid being caught.

“The ban was the elephant in the room that everyone was aware of, and there were constant stories of witch hunts, home raids, arrests and people being dismissed.”

She said that in the lead up to the ban being lifted on gay people serving in the military, there was a lot of debate on how it would affect the armed forces.

A senior officer who she said “can only be described as a homophobic and misogynistic” told her: “Imagine how you would feel, having to live and sleep in a mess deck with a lot of lesbians.”

After 14 years of serving in the Royal Navy while closeted, when the ban was finally lifted in 2000 McBain said it felt as if “a huge weight had been lifted”, but she was not yet ready to come out.

She wrote: “While I really wasn’t ready to come out to the world, it did mean that I didn’t have to worry about losing the job I loved and my pension, or having to go through a dreadful investigation by the Special Investigation Branch.

“However, I was still hearing homophobic language; it certainly didn’t make me want to reveal anything.

“I also had the personal battle to wrestle with as I had lied for many years to the people I worked with, as well as to my friends and my family. How would they react to my coming out?”

She eventually did, and became chair of the first formal LGBT+ network for the Royal Navy. McBain married her wife, RAF squadron leader critical care nurse Sherry Conway, in 2016.

Going forward, she said she would like to see better data collection on LGBT+ people in the armed forces so that remaining discrimination can be tackled.

She added: “It’s a time for reflection on the progress that has been made, but also a time to remember those dismissed, retired and serving who have been proud to serve – and who can now do so with pride.”

This month, Navy veteran Joe Ousalice had his medals returned by the Ministry of Defence and was issued an apology after his military honours were stripped in 1993 because he was bisexual.

McBain said: “It’s a shame that it has taken so long for this injustice to be corrected – but I am delighted that it has finally happened.”