United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The British government followed a 1999 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights and ended its ban on gays and lesbians in the military. Great Britain joined other European nations that have changed their policies against gay and lesbian service personnel, leaving the United States and Turkey as the only members of NATO with the ban intact.

Summary of Event

Until the year 2000, the United Kingdom had a longstanding policy of subjecting gays and lesbians in its military branches to intrusive investigations and dishonorable discharges. The policy had continued after the 1967 repeal of the Labouchere Amendment, []Labouchere Amendment, United Kingdom which had criminalized all sexual contact among civilian men in Britain. Homosexual acts by servicemen remained criminal acts in civil law until 1994, when the acts were covered as offenses under military law punishable by immediate dismissal. [kw]United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military (Jan. 12, 2000) [kw]Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military, United Kingdom Lifts (Jan. 12, 2000) [kw]Gays and Lesbians in the Military, United Kingdom Lifts Ban on (Jan. 12, 2000) [kw]Lesbians in the Military, United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and (Jan. 12, 2000) [kw]Military, United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the (Jan. 12, 2000) Military, British;and service ban[service ban] Homosexuality;and British military[British military] Legal reform;United Kingdom Civil rights;United Kingdom [c]Military;Jan. 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military[2550] [c]Civil rights;Jan. 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military[2550] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military[2550] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military[2550] Beckett, John Grady, Graeme Lustig-Prean, Duncan Smith, Jeanette

While other Western European nations abandoned bans on gays and lesbians in their armed forces, Britain continued to expel homosexual military personnel. Between 1989 and 1998, Britain discharged thirty-three officers and more than five hundred enlisted service members for homosexuality. Many of those discharged had good service records and had caused no disruption to their colleagues. The Ministry of Defence defended these discharges on the grounds that the presence of out gay troops would hurt morale and discipline—an argument used by the U.S. armed forces as well—among the 210,000 British uniformed personnel. Defence argued that surveys indicated that 95 percent of the troops were reluctant to serve with gays and lesbians. Opponents of the ban pointed out that because military policy was typically not decided on democratic grounds, the opinion of the troops should not hold any weight on the matter. Additionally, since most other North Atlantic Treaty Organization Military service, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and (NATO) countries had a lenient attitude toward gay and lesbian service personnel, British soldiers on multinational peacekeeping operations worked without problems alongside gays (and, sometimes, lesbians) in such places as Kosovo.

On June 7, 1995, Britain’s High Court found that the no-gays rule was unjustified and inhumane but stopped short of changing it. On September 27, 1999, the European Court of Human Rights European Court of Human Rights, and military service in Strasbourg, France, ruled in favor of four gay military personnel who had been dismissed from the British military in the mid-1990’s because of their homosexuality. The plaintiffs were John Beckett and Duncan Lustig-Prean, formerly of the Royal Navy; and Jeanette Smith and Graeme Grady, formerly of the Royal Air Force. After unsuccessful judicial review proceedings in British courts, in which they invoked English administrative law and European Union gender-discrimination law, the four applicants took their cases to the court of human rights. The court held that the dismissals violated European human rights treaties, specifically the right of the plaintiffs to privacy as stated by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights. European Union;and military service[military service] With its decision, the court became the first final appellate court in the world to invalidate a ban on lesbian, gay, and bisexual military personnel under a human rights treaty or constitution.

The verdict could not force Britain to change its laws. However, Britain was a signatory to the 1950 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. As such, it obliged itself to abide by the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Accordingly, the Ministry of Defence immediately suspended discharges of homosexuals despite protests from senior officers.

On January 12, 2000, the British government announced that sexual orientation would no longer be relevant in military recruitment, assignment, promotion, and disciplinary decisions. The Ministry of Defence replaced the ban on gays and lesbians with a code of conduct that applies to all service members, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Military personnel experts had decided that it would be impractical to try to write specific rules on various types of sexual conduct. Instead, the military implemented a more general service test that makes no reference to sexuality. The new guidelines permitted commanders to respond to inappropriate conduct such as sexual relations between commanders and subordinates or overt displays of affection that might offend others. The code gives commanders the right and the obligation to intervene in the personal lives of subordinates if there is an overriding operational need to do so to sustain team cohesion and maintain trust. Also, military authorities reinstated personnel discharged under the previous policy barring gays and lesbians.

Most observers regarded the end of the ban as inevitable. The Labour Party government of Prime Minister Tony Blair Blair, Tony had fostered a socially progressive climate conducive to change. Blair had scheduled a vote in Parliament on the question of gays and lesbians in the military as part of the review of the Armed Services Bill. In a nation increasingly tolerant of homosexuality, it was no longer deemed socially or politically acceptable to denigrate or dismiss gays and lesbians. Many of the conservative military officials who had backed the ban had retired. The new leaders were unwilling to copy the U.S. government’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell] policy because they believed that it had failed. The government, the public, and the military were ready for a change in policy.

When the British government ended the ban, the announcement attracted relatively little news coverage. Many citizens appeared indifferent. Most of the attention came from organizations such as Rank Outsiders, Rank Outsiders a group for gays and lesbians who were serving or had served in the British military. Gay organizations expected that gays would now be able to serve with dignity and respect, but gay and lesbian service members were concerned a backlash could result if gays and lesbians came out of the closet. In subsequent years, no backlash has been evident.


The change in British policy leaves the U.S. military nearly alone among Western nations in its official policy of discrimination against lesbians and gays. The United States and Turkey are the only members of the NATO defense coalition that ban gays and lesbians from military service. The Netherlands became the first nation to end its ban on gays in the military in 1972, and nearly every other Western nation followed the lead of the Dutch.

The continued resistance of the U.S. military to ending its discriminatory policy is based on the argument that out gays and lesbians negatively affect unit cohesion and discipline, and the British continue to debate the effect of the change in policy on attitudes among soldiers. Some commanders still fear that heterosexual soldiers will have difficulty existing in close proximity with people who are gay and that violence will result. However, there have been no publically reported episodes of antigay violence within the British military since the policy change in 2000. Military, British;and service ban[service ban] Homosexuality;and British military[British military] Legal reform;United Kingdom Civil rights;United Kingdom

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belkin, Aaron, and R. L. Evans. “The Effects of Including Gay and Lesbian Soldiers in the British Armed Forces: Appraising the Evidence.” November, 2000. Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, University of California, Santa Barbara. http://www.gaymilitary.ucsb .edu/.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, University of California, Santa Barbara. http://www.gaymilitary.ucsb.edu/.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elwood, Nick. All the Queen’s Men. London: Gay Men’s Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGhee, Derek. Homosexuality, Law, and Resistance. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, T. R. “Britain Ends Its Curbs on Gays in Military.” Washington Post, January 13, 2000, p. A13.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, A. H. Human Rights in Europe. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1977.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Segal, David R., et al. “Gender and Sexual Orientation Diversity in Modern Military Forces: Cross-National Patterns.” In Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discrimination in Military Culture, edited by Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Judith Reppy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tatchell, Peter. Europe in the Pink: Lesbian and Gay Equality in the New Europe. London: Gay Men’s Press, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. We Don’t Want to March Straight: Masculinity, Queers, and the Military. New York: Cassell, 1995.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wintemute, Robert. “European Court of Human Rights Strikes Down British Ban on Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals in the Armed Forces.” Lesbian/Gay Law Notes, October, 1999, 1-5.

March 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1976-1990: Army Reservist Ben-Shalom Sues for Reinstatement

May-August, 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch Hunt

May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier

1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans

August 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams

October, 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians

November 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented

Categories: History