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Homosexuality in the Royal Navy: A Brief History

The Wolfenden Report

Almost 300 years after the 1555 Buggery Act made homosexuality punishable by death, James Pratt and John Smith became the last men to be executed for sodomy in 1835.

But an investigation into the criminality of homosexuality did not take place until 1954. Known as the Wolfenden Report, the controversial document was quickly rejected.

Decriminalisation

It took a further ten years for homosexuality to be partially decriminalised; men had to be over the age of 21, and any intimacy had to be behind locked doors with nobody else in the building.

As Britain struggled to get to grips with this change in law, the armed forces remained steadfast in their commitment to keeping homosexuals from openly serving.

A security panic had gripped the Royal Navy that same decade when the discovery of an address book in a Bermudian male brothel almost led to the dismissal of 300 men. The book was found to contain explicit images, names of naval ratings and their ships. The admiralty decided to weed out homosexuality from the force under the pretence that they were a danger to security.

Everyone in the Royal Navy was actively encouraged to report suspected homosexuals. Some even went as far as to visit gay bars – some of the only safe spaces for closeted members of the Royal Navy – where they posed as patrons.

HMS Swallow ship’s badge loaned from The Swallow, a gay pub in Plymouth

When questioned over their sexuality, a colleague was forced to “admit or deny” the allegations. Admittance led to immediate dismissal; denial could draw out a process on a decision already made that was both painful and humiliating for the accused.

Court Martial Records 1974 – 1984, National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection

But in 1999, an investigation into the dismissal of several members of the forces on the basis of sexual orientation made it to the European Court of Human Rights. The unanimous verdict found it a breach of privacy and on 12 January 2000, the ban on homosexuality in the forces was lifted.

The Royal Navy's Progress

The Royal Navy is not unique in its treatment of sexuality or gender identity. Despite the partial decriminalisation of 1967, institutions, schools, companies and individuals found it difficult to adapt and found ways of exploiting the loop holes in the new Act.

However, in the twenty one years since the ban was lifted, the Royal Navy has steamed ahead. In 2006 the Royal Navy marched in its first Pride event. By 2010, the Royal Navy had made it onto Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Program and in 2014 trans people were able to openly serve across all forces. In 2018 the Royal Marines joined the Royal Navy in their first Pride march. 

Today the Royal Navy actively recruits in gay magazines and has hosted a number of civil ceremonies on-board its vessels. The institution acknowledges there is still much to do and continues to learn from its history in order to enable LGBTQ+ personnel to be proud of serving.

Cdr Samantha Kinsey-Briggs, Pride 2019. Crown Copyright and Open Government Licence

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