‘My partner died of Aids and no one knew because it was illegal to be gay in the armed forces’
Patrick Lyster-Todd shares his story of grief, homelessness and a mental-health crisis when it was illegal to be gay in the armed forces. He calls for justice and compensation for the people who lost so much
Patrick Lyster-Todd as a young man in the navy. Image: Supplied
Patrick Lyster-Todd was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy between 1972 and 1992. He resigned to look after his partner who was dying of Aids. He was central to the successful campaign to lift the ban on being gay in the military in 2000, but homelessness and an attempt to take his own life followed. In the week the government is set to receive recommendations from an independent review into the impact of the ban, Lyster-Todd shares his story.
Homosexuality was invisible in the navy. I was living a Jekyll and Hyde existence. I evolved some rules when I was 19. No boyfriends. No gay friends. No sex with service personnel. I kept that up through my 20s and early 30s. I had a sex life, very cautiously, but it was always tinged with sadness.
In ’88, I went through the rigmarole again with a guy I’d met in a gay sauna in Rottingdean, just east of Brighton. In a thunderstorm in the car park, we exchanged Post-it notes and leaped into our cars. I planned to rip it up and throw it through the car window. A little bit of me always died when I did, but those were the rules.
It was a torturous journey back from Brighton to Portsmouth in the storm and I forgot about the note. I found it five weeks later and thought: “Oh, come on. He was so nice. Give him a call.” We met that weekend and he became my first partner.
I adored him. He was very amusing. He introduced me to my first gay friends. He wasn’t in the military. He worked in medical repatriation. But I had to be careful. When we went for meals in Portsmouth, I sat facing the door in case another officer came in.
In our second year together, I was rummaging through Dennis’s drawers for a pair of socks when I found pills. I drew each of them, curiosity getting the better of me, and went to Portsmouth Central Library to scout out an official list of drugs in the UK. It made no sense.
But as I was returning the book, a supplement fell out listing new drugs. There it was. Exactly the same as my drawing. ‘An experimental drug currently being trialled for use by those living with HIV.’
We knew what would happen. Dennis would become ill and die, because that’s what happened in those days. I kept envisioning a situation where I was on a ship across the world and got a telegram saying I was needed back home, the ship would be diverted to Fiji, an aircraft would be held and they’d say: “We’ll get you back as soon as we can, Patrick.”
But in reality I would have been arrested on the spot. So I resigned in 1991 and everyone thought I was mad. I was required to give a year’s notice and he died two days before my last day.
I was deeply in grief. I had lost my partner and job, the two only things that mattered apart from my family. But I was trained to be the last person coping in the thick of it. So I did cope.
I got involved in voluntary work, predominantly around HIV and Aids. Then in 1994 I became the chair of Rank Outsiders, an LGBT+ military support group, and we decided the best support we could bring was to campaign for this ridiculous ban to be lifted.
I was invited to the House of Commons in 2000 to sit in the gallery alongside the chief executive of Stonewall and a few others. The defence secretary looked up at us and said: “As of this moment in time, there is no ban.”
I was relieved of course, but mostly I felt tired. My mind drifted to a time when Dennis and I were up a mountain in the Canaries and he was leaning against me. We knew these moments were special because he wouldn’t always be able to lean against me. I would have to live much of my life without him.
I lost the ability to cope in 2001 and tried to kill myself at Kennington tube station on a hot day. I came around in an ambulance outside. I had fainted and luckily I’d fallen the right way. I got some very good support from the NHS and close friends.
I had lost my job that week as a marketing director at a television branding company. I wasn’t earning and eventually the money ran out. I lost my house. I was going to move out to squat, where I’d been invited to go in East London, before I was offered a home by Haig Housing, which supports veterans.
It was a lovely two-bedroom apartment in Morden and it helped me stand on my feet. I still live in Morden now, with my husband who I met 12 years ago. He’s Slovakian and a physiotherapist. We have a good life. Others haven’t been so lucky. Some will never get over the hurt, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get recompense.
It can never be enough to replace all that was lost. But there needs to be closure, so people can feel that a terrible wrong has been righted as much as can be expected in this day and age. And they can then move on knowing that they are part of that broader military family and can wear their uniform alongside other veterans.
Fighting with Pride supports the health and wellbeing of LGBT+ veterans, service personnel and their families. If you are struggling with your mental health, you don’t have to go through this alone. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email email@example.com or visit the website.
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