Craig Jones as a young man in the navy. Image: Supplied
Craig Jones came out to his colleagues on the day the ban on gay people in the armed forces was lifted. He has spent recent years fighting for compensation for the veterans who lost their lives, homes and loved ones. In the week the government is set to receive the recommendations from an independent review into the impact of the ban, he shares his story.
I can’t remember wanting to do anything other than join the navy, but I hadn’t known I was gay. Six weeks before I joined, I went into a local newsagents and bought a copy of Radio Times. I realised I’d bought it because it had a picture of Michael Ball on the cover.
That was frightening. I’d worked all my life to walk through the gates of Britannia [at the Royal Naval College]. That would have ended it. In 1989, it could have resulted in a six-month prison sentence, so I left my sexuality behind.
I went to Northern Ireland during the Troubles as a patrol officer and learned about the damage done by prejudice, division and unfairness.
Towards the end of my time there, I was on patrol with an immediate unit commander when we saw an unmanned fishing boat. We hailed them. No one responded. We went on board and heard some scurrying.
I looked down the hatch door for bombs and guns or contraband. There were two teenage guys in each other’s arms. This was before the age of consent was reduced from 21, so this was illegal.
The boys were questioned. They were frightened. The commander, a bit of a rottweiler, asked me later: “Were they shagging?” I said no and he seemed to believe me, but I’m not sure. I felt ashamed. Something changed.
A few weeks later, I walked into my first gay bar in Exeter. On that day, I met my future husband Adam. It was incredible. It was like I’d lived life in monochrome and suddenly somebody turned all the colours on.
I was having my first relationship aged 26. It was chaotic at times. He drove me to Bristol Airport so that I could be in Northern Ireland for five days. And we had to pull over in a lay-by because we were both bawling our eyes out.
Fear started then. It wasn’t simply the fear of being caught. I had a family to protect. I had Adam. My parents would have been at risk because we needed an income between us. If I was sent to prison, that would have been catastrophic.
My mum and dad had a picture in their mind that I would marry an admiral’s daughter. I had to tell them that I had a 6ft 3in boyfriend working at Tesco coffee shop. But Adam and my parents soon became inseparable.
In the spring of 1996, Adam’s father dropped dead. The armed forces are amazing in times of personal crisis, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I went into mental health crisis. I was taken by helicopter to a mental health unit in Dover.
A captain psychiatrist saw me and he was barking mad, his diagnosis something like: “Your underpants are too tight.” But he sent me on leave for two weeks and that’s what I needed. We buried his dad.
In 1999, I applied for a job as a principal warfare officer on HMS Fearless. It was with special intelligence, so there was a rigorous vetting process. I sat down with this retired army colonel with tweed boots, regimental tie and half-moon glasses, and he spoke to me about women, prostitution, drinking and my family background.
And after an hour and a half, he put down his pen and said: “I don’t feel as though I need to ask you about homosexuality, do I?” It was an incredible moment. We shook hands and he left.
But he knew. He would have looked at my bank account, which I shared with Adam. Incredibly, I got the job and that kept me safe.
I came out the day I discovered the ban had been lifted in 2000. It was like standing under the brightest spotlight in the world. I felt uniquely isolated.
But I felt an overwhelming sense of duty to these remarkable veterans who had fought against the ban – a selfless act of courage because that campaign was not about compensation.
There was unfinished business. Nobody had gone back to look after this group of veterans. This is a hurt that has never gone away. These people have not recovered. They still spend every day thinking about being in prison and about being ashamed of who they are, being outed to their families and friends and losing their homes.
No other minority group were dismissed from the armed forces and sent to prison. It is a catastrophic breach of the armed forces covenant.
On the 20th anniversary of the ban being lifted, we formed Fighting with Pride. We befriended veterans and worked with organisations to support them. And we started a campaign for reparation.
This review is an opportunity to right those wrongs. Lord Etherton personally read the testimony of 1,155 people. He read every single document, some of them 40 or 50 pages long. He sat in front of scores of veterans and listened to them weep. And at the end of this process he put together his recommendations.
This offers an opportunity for people who have been stuck in time for decades to begin their recovery and for those who are able to be welcomed back into the military family. There will be those for whom that’s not right. But we hope that for many, the military family will once again become complete.
Fighting with Pride supports the health and wellbeing of LGBT+ veterans, service personnel and their families.nIf you are struggling with your mental health, you don’t have to go through this alone. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website.
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