Tilla Brook was pressured to resign from the navy weeks after falling in love for the first time. Image: Supplied
Tilla Brook could not admit she was gay even to herself until she was 25. It was illegal to be gay in the armed forces. In 1985, six weeks after kissing a woman for the first time and falling in love, Brook was found out. In the week the government is set to receive the recommendations from an independent review into the impact of the ban, she shares her story.
My dad was in the navy during the Second World War and the comradeship attracted me. It was a romanticised and old-fashioned view, but I wanted to be part of something important.
I had a suspicion I was gay but I’d never done anything about it. When people talked about women being gay it was in ugly language, so I parked my sexuality and didn’t admit it to myself.
I kept it shut in a box in the back of my brain until a friend, a colleague, came out to me. My mouth opened and I went: “I feel the same.” It was a shock hearing that come out of my mouth, but it made sense. It was almost like I stepped across the line and went: “This is me.”
I knew what happened to women like me. A couple of years before, there’d been a purge and women were thrown out of the service. I knew one of them. She had run my basic training. That was heartbreaking because she was fantastic.
But I wasn’t careful because I was so blown away by having found out who I really was. I was 25. I was happy. I was falling in love. I had found my path.
I was found out less than six weeks after I kissed a woman for the first time. I came out of my flat and tucked underneath my windscreen wiper was a pull-out from a Readers’ Wives magazine with naked women on. And I thought: “Somebody knows.”
Later that morning, my boss came to find me and she said: “Third Officer Brook, please come to my office.” She never called me by my proper title. I can feel my heart thundering with the memory of it. My boss told me what she knew and I wasn’t going to lie.
I got sent up to the captain. He told me I had to resign or I would face a court martial. I had a strange conversation with the captain. He was unpleasant, we might say. I came away from it thinking: “These people think I have been abusing trainees.”
Those investigations were obscene because assumptions and prejudices were made that we were predatory, immoral and dirty. That took me a long time to heal from.
I was sat down with paper and a pen until I gave my resignation. We spent the day handing over our jobs to people who had no idea what was going on.
I was lucky. I’d bought myself a flat. Most people ended up homeless or living in a car, out on the street within hours of being found out.
My partner turned up on my doorstep with all her possessions because she had been thrown off base. It was a challenging start to a new relationship.
Two weeks later, I was called back to be interviewed by the naval police and psychiatrists. I was sent to another base for three months and given a fictitious job rewriting manuals.
I was living a weird, double life. The captain was wonderful. He kept trying to find out what was happening to me. One morning I walked into his office and he was ashen-faced. He said: “I don’t know how to say this Tilla, but you’re discharged from the service as of today.”
I signed on as unemployed. I didn’t qualify for income support, because I had just too much in savings, but that didn’t last long. I went on to work as a trainee staff manager for a big retail company. I was lucky I could start my life again.
I hid my identity for a couple of years, even though we lived together. It was pretty lonely. It wasn’t until I was in a local bookshop and I picked up a leaflet about an event about lesbians, I found a new community that I didn’t know existed.
I got involved in lots of women’s issues, volunteering and charity work. When the ban was lifted in 2000, it was a relief. I left the navy in early 1985 so I now had a new life, but it was a relief for all those other people still in the services. It was a sense of lightness that a long-standing wrong had begun to be put right.
I’d love to see a big, public apology from somebody, ideally King Charles, so it isn’t swept under the carpet. People lost their career, their home, friends and their sense of purpose. All that was stripped away.
I’m fully out and proud. I work as a leadership coach and I volunteer for a local LGBTQ+ group. There are people who are still deeply scarred by what happened to them and will never recover. Many people found themselves homeless for life. Alcohol is a real issue. People are suffering. I would love to see compensation.
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