OPINION: Is the military finally changing its attitude to sexual orientation?

by Hannah Swarbrick | Bolt Burdon Kemp
Thursday, 16 December 2021 11:57 GMT

Military services personnel attend a Remembrance Day service at the War Memorial outside St. Mary's Bletchley, in Milton Keynes, Britain, November 14, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

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The announcement that people living with HIV will be allowed to serve in the British military from next year could help promote diversity in the armed forces

By Hannah Swarbrick

Hannah Swarbrick is an Associate in the Military Claims Team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.

The recent announcement that a HIV diagnosis will no longer be a barrier to military service in the United Kingdom is a very welcome change in the MoD’s policy. Until now, people living with HIV were unable to join the military, and those diagnosed with the condition while serving found themselves held back in their careers, with limits placed on the jobs they were allowed to do.

Under the new policy, the use of the daily HIV prevention pill (PrEP) by potential recruits, who are HIV negative, will also no longer be a barrier to entry to the forces. These changes are a recognition that the virus can be easily managed and that someone who is HIV positive should not have restrictions placed on their career unnecessarily.

So, does this suggest the military is coming up to speed with concepts of equality?

It’s certainly been a slow burner – the ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving was only lifted in the year 2000 and for transgender people in 2014. Steps such as allowing those living with HIV to join the military show the armed forces are self-aware enough to recognise that they have been behind the curve when it comes to promoting inclusivity.

There has been a conscious effort in recent years to overhaul diversity and inclusion training, and recruitment efforts have been targeted to attract more people from a variety of different backgrounds. Earlier this year thousands of LGBT+ veterans had their service medals restored and military records amended as a sign of respect. The British Army and Royal Air Force both featured in a list of top employers published by LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall in 2020.

However, more still needs to be done to stamp out homophobia in the military – we know this because our firm is still receiving complaints about it. But where to start?

We must first draw our attention to education. Britain’s Ministry of Defence needs to give clear and digestible guidance on what discrimination is and why it is completely unacceptable in any form. This starts at the top. If junior service personnel see their superiors acting in a particular way, they will think it is OK for them to follow suit. Training needs to take place and be reinforced at all levels.

The military also needs to overhaul its service complaints system, so that victims of discrimination feel confident in speaking up. While in theory the process is an avenue for people to raise their issues, with the hope of having them investigated and resolved, the reality can be quite different. This is an imperfect process: because it’s an internal investigation, those overseeing it may not want to cast a spotlight on systemic issues such as homophobia.

The process is something that the armed forces is working on – it is evolving and recommendation for improvements are being made. But if people aren’t having their voices heard in the system, discrimination will not be called out and will continue being swept under the carpet.

Those who have faced discrimination in the military and been put at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to do their job, should assess their options for compensation. Under UK employment law, discrimination is illegal when someone is treated unfairly or differently due to a personal characteristic such as race, gender or sexual orientation.

The 2010 Equality Act legally protects people from workplace discrimination and anyone in any line of work has protection under that act when it comes to discrimination. People who face discrimination in the armed forces have the option to bring financial claims through either an employment tribunal or a civil claims process. It is important that legal advice is sought as early as possible.

Hopefully, the recent announcement is a sign of an institution that is learning to move with current times and is committed to making all necessary changes to bring down barriers.