Social Justice

People were sacked and imprisoned for being gay in the armed forces. Now they are fighting for justice

LGBT+ veterans affected by the ban on homosexuality in the armed forces share their harrowing stories with The Big Issue. The government's set to receive recommendations from an independent review into the ban next week - but can compensation ever be enough after all the hurt it caused?

gay ban military

Craig Jones as a young man in the navy. He is now the executive chair of Fighting with Pride, which is campaigning for justice for LGBT+ veterans

Patrick Lyster-Todd hid his fear when Dennis, his first love, was dying of Aids. He made the painful decision to sacrifice his career as a high-ranking officer in the Royal Navy to look after Dennis in his final days. But no one knew he was gay. No one knew he was so afraid.

There was a ban on homosexuality in the armed forces, so Lyster-Todd kept his relationship hidden. It was a year’s notice before he could leave the navy. Dennis died two days before his last day. No one knew.

Lyster-Todd faced homelessness and attempted to take his own life in the years that followed. Everything that mattered was gone. Three decades on, the 68-year-old is happily married and the ban has long been lifted, but scars remain for him and thousands of LGBT+ veterans.

Patrick Lyster-Todd as a sub-lieutenant in 1976. Image: Supplied.

An independent review into the lives of those who served between 1967 and 2000 has been carried out, and the government is set to receive its recommendations on 8 June. It will likely mean compensation and an official apology. But it will never bring back those who lost their lives, homes and final precious days with loved ones.

Lyster-Todd joined the Royal Navy as a teenager in 1972, and he later went on to serve as a principal warfare officer. “Homosexuality was invisible,” he says. “I was living a Jekyll and Hyde existence.” He devised rules for himself: no boyfriends, no gay friends, and no sex with service personnel.

Then he met Dennis. They exchanged numbers on Post-it notes in a thunderstorm outside a gay sauna in Rottingdean near Brighton. He planned to rip it up, but he found the note in his wallet five weeks later. They met up that weekend and Dennis became his first partner.

They adored each other and built a circle of gay friends. Dennis wasn’t in the military, but they were careful. When they went for meals in Portsmouth, Lyster-Todd sat where he could see the door in case another officer came in.

Lyster-Todd during a ‘French’ evening in the Wardoom of HMS Sirius in 1986. He is second from the right, with a Gaulloise drooping from his mouth. Image: Supplied

In their second year together, Lyster-Todd discovered Dennis had HIV. “We knew what would happen,” he says softly now. “At some time, he would become ill and he would die, because that’s what happened in those days.”

He resigned in 1991. “Everyone thought I was mad. I was required to give a year’s notice. And he died two days before my last day.”

Craig Jones as a young man in the navy. Image: Supplied

While Lyster-Todd was struggling through so much grief, his colleagues remained oblivious. Craig Jones was a young lieutenant serving under him, who was also gay and hiding his identity. The two men were unaware that their lives would later entwine.

The young man had to forget about his sexuality when he joined the navy. He served as a patrol officer during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But towards the end of his time there, he walked into his first gay bar in Exeter where he met Adam, his future husband.

“It was incredible. It was like I’d lived life in monochrome and suddenly somebody turned all the colours on,” Jones says. But it was frightening too.

“It wasn’t simply the fear of being caught. It was also the fear that I had a family to protect. I had Adam. My parents would have been at risk as well because they relied on my income. If I was arrested and sent to prison that would have been catastrophic.”

In the spring of 1996, Adam’s father died and Jones couldn’t return to be with him. It all got too much and Jones plummeted into a mental-health crisis. He was never found out, but thousands were forced to leave the forces and shamed for being gay.

Craig Jones and Adam, his future husband, together in the early days of their relationship. Image: Supplied

In 1985, Tilla Brook was dismissed from the navy six weeks after she kissed a woman for the first time. “I was really happy,” she says. “I was falling in love. I had found my path. I was in a job I loved. It was that sense of being me and having a home.”

But someone discovered her secret relationship with a colleague, and she was taken into the captain’s office to hand in her resignation. “I can feel my heart thundering just thinking about it,” Brook says. “A lot of those investigations were obscene because the assumption was that we were predatory, immoral and dirty. That took me the longest to heal from.”

Tilla Brook, who was dismissed from the navy in 1985 after her sexuality was discovered. Image: Supplied

She was later told she had been dismissed and could never wear her uniform again. “You were removed from the base with all your possessions,” she says. “Most people ended up homeless or living in a car – if they owned a car. And that was it. You were out on the street within a few hours of being found out.”

Brook owned a flat, but her partner was homeless. She turned up at Brook’s door and they were suddenly living together. It was a challenging start to a new relationship, and she continued to hide her sexuality for two years.

She is now out and proud, working as a leadership coach and volunteering for a local LGBT+ group. But she realises she is one of the lucky ones. “There are people who are still deeply scarred by what happened to them and will never recover. Many people in the discharge found themselves homeless for life.”

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Lyster-Todd faced homelessness a decade after leaving the navy. In his grief, he had dedicated his life to charity work and the LGBT+ community. He became the chair of a new organisation, Rank Outsiders, in 1994, which successfully campaigned to end the ban (it was finally lifted in 2000).

“I was trained to be the last person still coping in the thick of it,” Lyster-Todd says. “So I did cope. But I lost the ability to cope in 2001 and tried to kill myself at Kennington tube station on a hot day.”

He came around in an ambulance. He had fainted on the platform. He had good support from the NHS, and close friends rallied around him.

Chief executive of Fighting with Pride Caroline Page with Craig Jones and Patrick Lyster-Todd at the launch of the book Fighting with Pride (left to right). Image: Supplied

But the television branding company he was working for fell apart, he wasn’t earning and eventually the money ran out. He lost his house and planned on moving to a squat in East London. During the week he was set to move, Haig Housing, which supports veterans, managed to find him a two-bedroom home in Morden, South London.

Lyster-Todd still lives in Morden today and he is very happy with his husband and their life together. Jones too is living a happy life. He came out to his colleagues on the day the ban was lifted, and he is incredibly grateful for remarkable veterans like Lyster-Todd who fought for his freedom.

Jones founded the charity Fighting with Pride on the 20th anniversary of the ban’s end. It supports veterans’ mental health, educates organisations to support gay veterans and campaigns for reparations for those who lost so much.

“Nobody had gone back to look after this group of veterans who were not just treated unfairly,” Jones says. “They were sent to prison. The hurt has never gone away. These people have not recovered. They spend every day thinking about being in prison and about being ashamed of who they are.”

Lord Etherton, who led the review, will deliver his recommendations to the government on 8 June, during Pride month. He read the testimonies of more than 1,000 veterans.

“Whatever the reparations are, this offers an opportunity for people who have been stuck in time for decades to begin their recovery and be welcomed back into the military family,” Jones says. “There will be those for whom that’s not right. But we hope that for many, the military family will once again become complete.”

Fighting with Pride supports the health and wellbeing of LGBT+ veterans, service personnel and their families. If you are struggling with your mental health, you don’t have to go through this alone. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit the website.

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