Members of the British Army’s LGBT+ community have opened up about life in the military, as part of former soldier and double Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes’s documentary about her life and coming out as a gay woman, during Pride Month.
In ‘Dame Kelly Holmes: Being me’, Dame Kelly, who is Honorary Colonel of the Royal Armoured Corps Training Regiment, talks candidly about her military and sporting life and how being gay during the ban on LGB members serving in the Armed Forces still had an effect on her decades later.
Life in the Army today is almost unrecognisable for members of the LGBT+ community from that which she experienced in her service. Brigadier Clare Phillips CBE
The ban was lifted in January 2000 after four servicemen and women, who were sacked for being gay, won a case in the European Court of Human Rights. Until then lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the military were sent to prison and then discharged if their sexuality was discovered.
Following the broadcast on ITV1 on Sunday, the Army asked one of its longest-serving LGBT+ officers and the person Dame Kelly confided in about coming out, how the Army has changed since the ban was lifted.
Brigadier Clare Phillips CBE
Joining the Army was always a childhood aspiration for Brigadier Clare Phillips CBE, of the Corps of Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (REME). She wanted to do something that was very active and challenging, and the Army always seemed like the natural place to have an exciting career and travel the world.
Clare, who is Chair of the Army LGBT+ Network, joined the Army in 1995, during the same era as Dame Kelly Holmes, when it was illegal for LGB people to serve in the military. Clare and Dame Kelly both share very similar experiences of those pre-ban days.
“When I joined the Army, I hadn’t understood either that I was gay or that the Army had a policy on being gay, but as I matured in the Army it became obvious that I was a gay woman and that the Army had a policy in place that meant living my whole authentic life would be a problem,” said Clare.
“I had a picture of a fake boyfriend on my wall as I was going through officer training, and I remember as a junior officer having to be very careful about what I spoke about in work, the people I spent time with and the places that I’d been, and that always felt like living half a life.
“It struck me as particularly peculiar that I was part of an organisation where I had signed up to fight and die alongside my colleagues, yet I was having to lie to them on a daily basis. So it was a really uncomfortable experience and really limiting in terms of how you could live your life and be your whole self.”
Whilst society itself was changing and creating new laws and policies to improve the lives of LGBT+ people, the Army took time to catch-up with policies that reflected the laws and ideals of the day.
Clare, who features in the documentary with other members of the Army LGBT+ Network, some of whom didn’t know it used to be illegal to serve if you were gay, explains how different things are now. “It’s important we remember that the Army, to an extent, was reflecting the society of the day, albeit probably 20 years behind, Not to excuse how it was, but perhaps to explain or to understand,” she said.
“Today, it is inconceivable to believe that 22 years ago that policy was in place. 22 years is the blink of an eye yet that’s how it was, and I reflect on the phenomenal progress that has been made in the Army in terms of behaviours and attitudes, acceptance and inclusion for our LGBT+ community over those 22 years.”
Army’s first female Corps Colonel
As well as being a member of the serving LGBT+ community, Clare is also one of a small number of female Brigadiers in the British Army and is currently the Deputy Military Secretary and 2IC (second in command) of the Army Personnel Centre (APC). Reflecting on her chosen career, Clare explains why she wanted to become an officer in the REME.
“As a child I always enjoyed taking things apart and putting things back together,” she said. “But I’d always have a bit left over. So the opportunity to work in an engineering field always appealed to me and I’m really proud of my cap badge and the way we are an inclusive and accepting organisation.
“Whilst the Army and Defence may have had those policies back in 2000, it’s genuine to say that the Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers has always respected me for everything I am. In 2016, I became the Army’s first female Corps Colonel, so I was the representational head of the Corps for two years and was fully me. That’s what they wanted and that’s what they got.
“The things I love about being in the Army are the people I serve with, the variety that every day brings and the opportunity to be part of an organisation that does something good for the world.”
A remarkable journey
It was Clare who Dame Kelly reached out to when she feared that revealing her sexuality would prompt disciplinary action against her, despite having left the Army so long ago. And Clare was able to reassure Dame Kelly that it wasn’t the case, and that the Army of today is almost unrecognisable from the Army of the ‘90s.
“Dame Kelly wanted to talk to someone senior in the Army because she had a question,” said Clare. “I had a phone call with her last year, and she was understandably nervous about that phone call and wanted to know if somebody who had previously been in the army, and if they were gay, could they still be in trouble.
“I was very humbled that she would trust me with that conversation but also devastated that she could possibly believe that the Army could in any way affect her life today. I was really concerned to reassure her that firstly no, of course there’s no disciplinary action that could follow her from her previous service, but more importantly reassure her that life in the Army today is almost unrecognisable for members of the LGBT+ community from that which she experienced in her service.”
During the call Dame Kelly asked Clare if the Network would be able to support the documentary that she was making, and it was a great opportunity for current serving members of the LGBT+ community to talk about what the Army is like today, compared to how it was when Clare joined and Dame Kelly was serving.
Clare said: “It was really interesting listening to Kelly’s description of how life had been for her in her service, and it was quite emotional to recall how it felt when I first joined the Army until the ban lifted, and all of those feelings of fear, of living half a life, of having to be really careful what I said and who I said it to.
“That was an unusual journey to go back to feeling that way, but then to reflect on where we are today, where our members of the Army LGBT+ community are valued for everything they bring to the workplace, are welcomed for the individuals they are, and we provide the freedom for people to live their whole lives and the opportunity for them to contribute to the Army in whichever way they are best suited.
“It feels like such a remarkable journey the Army has been on. And I think I would always want to emphasise that of course there will be some people in any part of society, in any employment, in any organisation where things don’t go well, and that means there is always more for us to do to protect all members of the Army for everything they are and continue to make progress for serving members of the LGBT+ community.”
Clare’s words of advice for potential recruits
“Any organisation may have myths and rumours about the nature of that organisation and that’s as true for the Army as it is for anywhere else, and the only way that you’ll know for certain is to find out for yourself. There are any number of ways you can do that, you can go to the Army website, you can visit a cadet unit, you can go to an Army reserve unit, you can find out more about the Army by talking to people who are serving and there are events all around the country to help people to do that.
“I’d then say to that young person, that I have entire confidence that the Army has a place for everybody and everybody has a place in the Army, and if that individual was looking for a life that was a little bit different, where you could make a difference in the world, for good, and where you can grow as an individual in terms of your confidence, in terms of your skills, then have a look at the Army because I’ve had the most incredible 27 years of service.”
This Saturday, 2 July, the Army LGBT+ Network will be marching at London Pride alongside members of the Navy, RAF and Defence civilians.
Watch Dame Kelly Holmes: Being Me on ITV
Find out more about the Army LGBT+ network on Defence Connect.
Key dates for the LGBT+ community
- 2000: Ban on homosexuals serving in the Armed Forces lifted.
- 2008: The MOD permitted uniformed Army personnel to march in that year’s Pride celebrations
- 2008 General Sir Richard Dannatt, then head of the Army, gave a speech at the fourth Joint Conference on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual Matters, in which he said respect for gays, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual officers and soldiers was a command responsibility and vital for operational effectiveness
- 2014: The British Military recognised civil partnerships and granted married gay couples the same rights to allowances and housing as straight couples.
- 2016: UK Government agreed to amend the Armed Forces Bill 2015-2016 (Armed Forces Act 2016 — UK Parliament) to repeal words in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 that stated a "homosexual act" constituted grounds for discharging a member of Her Majesty's armed forces.
- 2016: Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is lit up with the rainbow colours in support of Pride Month.
- 2020: Government minister apologises to LGB community for ban
- 2021: Restoration of medals announcement