Wed 3 March 2021

Duncan Lustig-Prean helped lift the ban on LGBTIQ people serving in the military – he tells Molly Greeves why he welcomes the move to return the medals of those who were made to leave the Armed Forces

The Government has announced that former members of the Armed Forces dismissed for being LGBTIQ+ can apply to reclaim their medals, in a move described by the Ministry of Defence as attempting to correct a “historic wrong”. 

Personnel who were forced out of the military on account of their sexuality had their medals removed – in at least one case forcibly cut from their uniforms with scissors. The Government’s announcement comes 21 years after the law banning LGBTIQ+ people from the military was repealed

While the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised male homosexuality, LGBTIQ+ people were banned from military service until 2000. The discriminatory law led to them being publicly humiliated, interrogated and even imprisoned. 

The medals can be reclaimed by those discharged after a court martial for ‘homosexual’ offences. In 1997 it was estimated that this had happened to up to 50 people, not all of whom would have received medals. These individuals will have suffered significant pension and terminal gratuity losses.

Robbie de Santos, associate director of communications and campaigns at LGBTIQ+ rights organisation Stonewall, told Byline Times that the Government’s announcement “will go a long way in righting the wrongs of the past and will mean a lot to so many LGBTIQ+ people who proudly served their country”.

A Culture of Shame

While the decision has been praised by LGBTIQ+ rights campaigners and the Royal British Legion, some former military personnel feel that it does not undo the damage the ban wreaked on their careers and lives. 

Anne*, an intersex-lesbian who joined the forces in 1985, told Byline Times that retrieving medals is not enough to make up for the “shame” that LGBTQ+ people had to endure. During her service, she witnessed first-hand the homophobia LGBTIQ+ people were subjected to while visiting a military correctional facility.

“The guards would always point out the ‘f****ts’ and make a point of being horrible to them” she said. “The shame was in the process of being caught as much as it was about losing your career.”

The 1980s, when Anne served, was the height of the AIDS crisis which had amplified public homophobia and antagonism towards gay people. “At this point in time there was a huge public fear of AIDs so you were being kicked out with no grace, no support, no job reference and into a world where everyone hated us,” she added.

After a medical emergency led to her learning that she was intersex, Anne felt that she had no choice but to leave the Armed Forces. She told Byline Times that she would choose not to reclaim a medal out of respect for those “who were discarded as ‘freaks’”. 

A Hostile Environment

Duncan Lustig-Prean has been a leading advocate for the restoring of medals to members of the LGBTIQ+ community who were forced out of the military.

Along with Jeanette Smith and Stonewall, Lustig-Prean was one of the architects of the law’s repeal. A high-ranking member of the military, he was a Naval Commander before being dismissed in 1994 after he was blackmailed over his sexuality. 

“In the paranoia that all gay people in the services felt at the time, I emptied my cabin of anything that might incriminate me,” he told Byline Times. This included letters from his boyfriend – written in a code to disguise his sexuality. “He’d never sign his name, it was always signed ‘Love M’. When I wrote to him, I would never say ‘I love you’, I’d say: ‘I’ll be on extension 143’.”

Despite the threats made against him, Lustig-Prean remained defiant. He told the blackmailer to “b****r off because, before you get anywhere near the military police, I will have told them myself”.

He had already made the decision that, if anyone within the military accused him of being gay, he would “hold my head up high and say ‘yes, I am. Now you look at my record and tell me if that has affected anything I’ve done?’”

Lustig-Prean went to the military police and explained the situation. Within months, he was dismissed. 

Shortly after, he received a call asking him to help a 17-year-old member of the Navy who was threatening to take his own life by jumping from a bridge. The young man had been interrogated by the police over his sexuality. 

“I sat there in the rain with him and talked him down,” he told Byline Times. “And I thought, if you are worth all that gold braid, if you are worth being called a leader, you have to do something for people like that because what’s happening to them is wrong, and you have to have the bollocks to stand up and say it’s wrong.”

With the support of Stonewall, Lustig-Prean and Jeanette Smith went to court to demand the repeal of the discriminatory law. They won their case and the Labour Government lifted the ban in 2000. 

The repeal formed part of a wider programme of liberalising laws that targeted the LGBTIQ+ community. In 2001, the age of consent for gay men was equalised, with gay couples legally allowed to adopt the following year. In 2003, the much-maligned Section 28, which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools, was repealed. 

A Bureaucratic Process

The decision to allow LGBTIQ+ people to reclaim their medals follows a 2020 case brought by former soldier Joe Ousalice, whose medals were cut from his uniform with scissors. He ended up homeless and destitute. 

Lustig-Prean supported Ousalice’s case and commends the Armed Forces’ “sterling work” in improving working conditions for LGBTIQ+ personnel.

However, he is concerned that those wishing to reclaim their medals are being forced to jump through hoops rather than have them automatically restored. While he understands the difficulties which the Ministry of Defence may encounter in reaching out to those affected by the law – such as the lack of a central database – he believes that more could be done. 

“We assumed, having set the precedent with Joe Ousalice, that people would automatically be able to get their medals back,” he said, adding that there needs to be “more proactive work by the Ministry of Defence to get in touch with those people”.

*Name changed to protect identity

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