LGBTQ+ History Month in Defence: then and now

This year marks 20 years since lesbian, gay and bisexual people were allowed to openly serve, and 21 years since the first serving transgender personnel. This LGBTQ+ History Month is an opportunity to celebrate LGBTQ+ members of the Armed Forces.

It’s 4pm on a wet January afternoon in a Thameside Pavilion in the House of Commons. 200 people are taking off their rain-soaked coats and greeting old friends. The room is full of service and ex-service personnel, representatives from Stonewall and the Royal British Legion, and members of the Defence civil service.

Two ministers and a General are waiting to give speeches on the 20th anniversary of the historic ban lifting. Tonight, Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, will personally apologise for the hurt caused to the LGBTQ+ community before the ban was lifted.

Meet some of the LGBTQ+ participants standing in the crowd.

Who is at the House of Commons?

Commander Peter Gracey joined the Navy in 1983 as a submarine weapon engineering officer. From joining the service with only A Levels and qualifying as a submariner, to achieving his goal of being a warfare officer, Peter looks back upon a long and successful career in the Forces. In 2002 he became a Reservist, beginning a second career as a railway signal engineer.

Among many highlights in his 37 year career, competing in the Navy ski championships, and meeting his partner of 10 years in the Royal Navy Reserves, are some of the best. Married two months ago, the couple have recently gone on honeymoon to Cape Verde, a destination Peter has wanted to visit ever since he was posted off the coast in a ship that didn’t go ashore.

Sergeant Guy Lowe-Barrow MBE grew up in St Vincent and was part of the first cohort of individuals to be recruited to the British Army directly from the islands. He has recently been awarded an MBE and a National Diversity Award for his work for the BAME and LGBTQ+ communities, helping to found the Army BAME Network. The only Vincentian to be awarded an MBE in 2020, Guy is also a qualified chef in the military.

Squadron Leader Sherry McBain and Mandy McBain MBE married in 2016. Although they met when they were both serving, their relationship took off when Mandy was working for Stonewall and contacted Sherry for a media interview. In their words, the rest is history.

Sherry, with a masters in Neuroscience Nursing, is a Senior Nursing Officer and Staff Officer in charge of Governance. Mandy is a retired lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy, who now works closely with the military as part of her role in Stonewall, an LGBTQ+ rights charity. Both have memories of pre-ban restrictions on LGBTQ+ relationships. Sherry remembers hiding in the boot of her girlfriend’s car to sneak onto her own base without drawing suspicion. They both mention how far the military has come in the past 20 years, and Sherry says one of her proudest moments was leading the RAF contingent at London Pride. She is now training for the Invictus Games in the Hague this year, and the couple have a young son named Harrison.

Squadron Leader Catherine Lawson joined in 1995, inspired by the opportunity to work on cutting edge technology. She works as an aircraft electrician, with tours on Chinook, Hercules and in Electronic Warfare, including operational tours on Operation Herrick in Afghanistan.

In 1999 when the first transgender officer was welcomed in the RAF, Catherine didn’t know if she herself would ever transition — although she had known she was trans from the age of 5. Five years ago she was able to fulfil that wish and has felt fully supported throughout the journey. She has since become the trans lead in the RAF LGBTQ+ network and then co-chair, and hopes to make life better for the next generation of LGBTQ+ people joining the military.

Lieutenant Johnny Brooks has been in the Army for two years. Having just returned from the Falklands, his main drive is not to be stuck behind a desk. His job allows him to spend quality time looking after the troops, many of whom help out by taking his resident dog, Archie, for walks. His ambition is to break stereotypes by doing a conventionally masculine job while still being a fabulous gay man.

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