Lee Buss Blair, a Director of Riverside Housing, talks about his own personal experience of being gay in the military and how this can lead to veterans facing homelessness. He encourages members and their clients to respond to a new government inquiry.
I joined the army in 1986 and left initially in 1992, just after fighting in the First Gulf War, without disclosing my sexuality for fear of prosecution. However, I was called up as a reservist in 1996 to undertake a tour of Bosnia during the conflict there. To cut a long story short, my Commanding Officer threatened to charge me on something trivial, so, in a fit of pique, I suggested he charge me for something worthwhile and told him I was gay.
Until 2000, there was a blanket ban on homosexuality in the UK Armed Forces. Those serving who were, or were perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or trans could face intrusive investigations and ultimately be dismissed or otherwise forced to leave the service. I loved my time in the service, but it came with the very real fear of not only losing a job I loved because of my sexuality, but potentially going to prison for it as well.
The Government has accepted that this historic policy was wrong and committed to work to understand, acknowledge, and, where appropriate, address the impact it has had on veterans today, in particular in relation to members of the LGBT community.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for Defence have jointly asked The Lord Etherton PC Kt QC to provide the Government with an independent account of the service and experiences of LGBT veterans who served between 1967, the year ‘homosexuality’ ceased to be a civilian criminal offence, and 2000. This Review will enable the Government to better recognise the impact of the historic policies, as well as acknowledge the lived experience of service for those veterans, to better understand their support needs today, potentially opening more routes out of homelessness.
The question was posed to me on how best to engage with as wide a range of LGBT veterans as possible, but specifically LGBT veterans experiencing homelessness. This caused me to reflect on my own journey.
My sexuality and my identity as a veteran are equally important parts of who I am. They are complimentary, not contradictory, But it does make finding a sense of belonging that little bit more difficult. It took me decades to come to peace with this perceived duality, having been ‘too gay’ to be a solider, I found I was also too much of a solider to feel at home within the LGBT community.
The Independent Review are already engaging with a wide range of military and LGBTQI+ charities. But considering the mistrust of the military that LGBT veterans potentially could have because of their experience, and my own experience of falling between both groups and not identifying with either the veteran or LGBT communities for a long time, we need to consider additional ways to encourage and support LGBT veterans experiencing homelessness to engage in the Independent Review.
We know that trauma, and ‘falling between the gaps’ of society, can be a predetermining factor in someone going on to experiencing homelessness. A common effect of trauma, and an understandable response to being criminalised for your sexuality, is difficulty in forming trusting relationships. It strikes me that raising awareness among groups that may already have trusting relationships with LGBT veterans would be a good way to not only make the cohort of people aware of the review, but hopefully also support them to contribute.
That’s why I’d encourage services who are working with people who may have been affected by the military’s past policies towards homosexuality to encourage/support them to respond to the Review. The Review team is looking for hear from LGBT veterans who served during the ban, other veterans who were involved in the ban and friends, family and representatives of LGBT veterans who cannot tell their story.
Learning from the impact of past policies will be key to improving the wellbeing of people like me in the future.