The QT

Saturday 15 June 2024

LGBT+ veterans still fighting for justice after 50 years

Northumberland LGBT+ veteran Vito Ward tells Sara Jane March why being dismissed from the military for being gay in the 1970s has been traumatic as concerns are raised that time is running out for compensation to be paid
  • Between 2,000 and 5,000 LGBT veterans are owed compensation for being banned from their military roles because of their sexual orientation
  • Independent review made 49 recommendations, including restoring medals to those dismissed from the military for being gay
  • Calls for the Government to finally act to recompense all affected LGBT+ veterans, with many sick, old and impoverished
Vito Ward says she has waited for 54 years for an apology for being discharged from the Wrens for being gay

An 80-year-old naval veteran from Prudhoe is continuing to fight for compensation following the findings of a review into the banning of homosexuality in the armed forces from 1967 to 2000.

Vito Ward is one of thousands affected by a ban on LGBT+ military personnel — a policy described by the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, as an “appalling failure”.

Compensation was promised following the LGBT Veterans Independent Review, otherwise known as the Etherton report, after being led by Britain’s first openly gay judge, Lord Etherton KC, from 2022.

Vito said: “I have waited 54 years for an apology and at almost 81 years old, I now have a few health problems. I have limited income and have had no option other than to take equity release to survive and enjoy what life I have left to live.”

Vito Ward (third from left)

Vito had an exemplary military record and had risen to the rank of Petty Officer before being discharged from the Wrens for being gay. In 1970, she was just 29 and was due to be promoted to Chief Officer. Her service record had always been rated as excellent but she found her performance scores reduced from an average of 85 to 90% to as low as 65% on her discharge date.

Vito describes her dismissal from her military role for being gay as a “trauma”.

“Fortunately, I had friends who supported me, but a witch-hunt developed with military officials trying to find out who my associates were,” recalled Vito. “So, I kept myself to myself and that increased my level of despair.

“I felt ill-equipped for civilian life and would never have chosen to leave my military career. I was kicked out after years of service without any support either emotionally or financially. I felt ashamed to explain to my parents in Prudhoe what had happened, and besides, I had not come out to them.”

Like so many other LGBT+ veterans also dismissed for their homosexuality, Vito found herself with nowhere to go and ended up moving to London.

“Two of my ex-Wren friends who were civilians by then were my saviours and helped me find a cheap bedsit in Earls Court,” she said. “It was a big come down to what I was accustomed to in the petty officers’ mess. Eventually, I secured a live-in job as a hotel housekeeper, but I had to doctor my discharge papers and ask a friendly gay officer to give me a reference.

“For years I was too busy trying to survive to think much about the injustice of it all but, a few years later, with rank outsiders there was a solicitor who tried to get our pensions reinstated without success. I also wrote to the pension authority hoping to reclaim my pension, again without success. The view was, I had to complete 12 years service to qualify, which of course I would have done had I not been discharged for my sexual orientation.”

Vito when she was in the Wrens

Vito had no choice but to leave her trauma behind in order to survive and forge a very different career from the one she had known. In 1982, her past came back to haunt her when her mother died and Vito had a nervous breakdown. Psychotherapy sessions helped Vito realise the loss of her mother had triggered the earlier trauma in her life relating to her unfair military dismissal.

In the 1990s, Vito contacted Stonewall, the largest LGBT+ rights organisation in Europe. The charity connected her with a Royal Navy Commander, Craig Jones. On the day the military’s ban on homosexuality was lifted in 2000, Craig came out as homosexual and led pioneering work to make the armed forces a welcoming place for LGBT+ people to work. He went on to set up an charitable organisation called Fighting with Pride.

The Wren magazine had initially refused to publish an article Vito had written about her experiences and about other lesbians who had served in the Wrens, but she hoped Craig would be able to help get her story told.

“After being helped by Craig, the article did finally get published and I received some sad and grateful stories in response,” said Vito. “Craig recontacted me when he set up Fighting with Pride and his charity has helped me to heal some of my old wounds.”

Vito said being kicked out of the military was a “trauma” for her but has been helped by the Fighting with Pride charity

The octogenarian veteran is visibly troubled by her life-changing dismissal and stressed: “Nothing can justify this behaviour from the armed forces. I was thrown out of the military when the first London Gay Pride took place and many after me continued to lose their careers and in some cases their lives.”

Vito hopes her military pension will be backdated into a lump sum but added: “With our current government and a queue of people such as the Post Office workers caught up in the Horizon scandal and the Windrush generation, I am not confident this will actually happen. The Government promised back in April 2023 compensation to all those dismissed from the military because of being gay and that is almost a year ago now.”

A Government spokesperson said they are working “at pace” to deliver Lord Etherton’s 49 recommendations for reparations, including an “appropriate financial reward” capped at £50m overall.

Craig Jones said: “Time is running out’ for LGBT+ veterans such as Vito.

“Many of those affected are sick, old and impoverished. Fighting with Pride made detailed proposals for a financial compensation scheme in 2020 and we provided further advice in August 2023 but the Government seems no closer to entering into meaningful discussions.

“Ben Wallace was Secretary of Defence last year and he promised the Government would keep working with Fighting with Pride and the opposition to create an ‘elegant’ scheme to put money in dismissed LGBT+ veteran’s pockets. Seven months later we have no knowledge of the Government’s timeline intentions. Ministers must act now and move quickly to deliver proper recompense to all those affected by this hateful policy.”

Craig Jones set up Fighting with Pride. Credit: Steven Davidson

Lord Etherton’s inquiry heard from more than 1,100 veterans affected by the military’s ban on homosexuality between 1967 and 2000, and it is estimated there could be up to 5,000 LGBT+ veterans affected in total.

The Etherton report described an “incomprehensible policy of homophobic bigotry” and the inquiry uncovered “disgraceful” medical examinations and conversion therapy.

The Government has also been recommended to restore medals to all who had to hand them back on dismissal or discharge, including Vito, and has been advised to clarify dismissed LGBT+ veterans’ rights and present each one with a special veteran’s badge.

A parliamentary debate was also promised by the Government in July 2023 and although it was pushed back to this year, a date is still yet to be announced.

Vito said: “I have been so grateful for Craig’s charity, Fighting with Pride. It has been so important to connect with so many others who have this shared experience.That said, it has been painful at times to relive such traumatic memories.”

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