'They deserve to be heard': Dame Kelly urges veterans to share how pre-2000 LGBT ban affected them
Dame Kelly Holmes tells ITV News reporter Sejal Karia about her own story of living in fear for decades
Words by ITV News Content Producer Elaine McCallig
Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes is urging other veterans to share how their lives were impacted by the pre-2000 LGBT ban in the armed forces. LGBT people who served in the army between 1967 and 2000 and their families are now being called forward to share their experience in an independent review chaired by Lord Etherton. Gay people and other members of the LGBTQ community were not allowed to serve in the military until a rule change in 2000. Dame Kelly, who came out as gay earlier this year, was just one of those who felt she had to hide her true self during her years in service.
The two-time gold medal winning Olympic champion said she realised she was gay at the age of 18 after kissing a fellow female soldier, and that her family and friends have known since 1997. Dame Kelly struggled with her mental health because of having to hide her sexuality, and that she had to keep several same-sex relationships she had during her time in the Women’s Royal Army Corps secret, for fear of being court marshalled.
Now, Dame Kelly, an Honorary Colonel with the Royal Armoured Corps Training Regiment, is using her platform to encourage others affected by the ban to come forward and share their story. "What this review is doing is trying to get as many veterans to come forward to give their voice so that we can establish the extent of the impact it’s had on people's lives,” Dame Kelly told ITV News. A damning judgment by the European Court of Human Rights in September 1999 said the policy was a “grave interference” in people’s private lives. Although the ban was lifted two decades ago, there are still people suffering from the ban’s effects to this day, she said.
Although she loved being in the military, Dame Kelly felt she had to hide who she was over fears of 'ruining your whole career'
"What we're hoping the review will achieve is that it will force the government to come back with some public recognition, in some places some compensation, more importantly that those veterans who have been absolutely terrified feel they have finally been heard," she told ITV News’ Sejal Karia. "I want as many veterans to come forward [as possible], I believe it's our right as people that have served the Crown, served the country, that are absolutely people that are normally celebrated as our forces, to come forward and say their piece." She added: "I don't want people to be scared anymore, I don't want people to live the life that I've lived. And I think they deserve to be heard."
The armed forces has come a long way since 2000, she said.
In the same year the ban was lifted, Dame Kelly won a bronze medal in the 800m race at the Sydney Olympics. But yet she lived in fear for 34 years that she could still get in “trouble” under the defunct law, she said. Living in fear for so long had a "massive impact" on Kelly's mental health, and led to her feeling frightened that she would never be able to be her true, authentic self. "When you can't be yourself, you feel isolated, so lonely, so locked into who you are that you use your sport and your exterior as your way of being," she said.
She told ITV News that at her lowest point, she had a "serious breakdown" during which she feared she was "going to do something really bad" to herself. "I've been a self harmer and I hadn't self harmed since my mum passed away in 2017 but that night, all I could visualise was me going down, getting a knife, and doing something pretty bad to myself and at that stage, I didn't want to be here." She continued: "But I knew I had more to give. I knew I don't want to die, I wanted just to live. I just knew that to free myself I just had to do something that allowed me to find that freedom and the first part of that was to call someone in the military to say 'what would happen to me?' "I've had this real complex journey with the military. I loved my career and everything it brought to me and everything I ever wanted. I've hated being in an institution that made me and others feel so rejected and so wrong - It's just being who you are."
She contacted a military leader in 2020 to find out if she could be sanctioned for breaking pre-2000 Army rules and was told she would not be. "That one conversation could've saved so much heartache but having that one conservation, like most people know, is sometimes the hardest thing in life, any conversation" she said. After making her documentary, she said she had to change the narrative in her head that it's "okay to be me". "It's new for me to feel free," she laughed. She added: "My personality, who I am in my private life has just come out. My flair, my willingness to try new things, be more adventurous, embrace any conversation and also to have a voice. To finally find my freedom." Dame Kelly set up a charity in 2008, created to support retired athletes to transition out of their sport, and to create mentoring programmes to inspire young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into sports. She also made a documentary about her experiences called Being Me, where she talks to LGBTQ+ soldiers about their lives in the military now.
To take part in the review or to learn more, visit the LGBT Veterans Independent Review's page on the government's website.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, please contact the following helplines:
Samaritans - 116 123
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – for men - 0800 58 58 58
Papyrus – for people under 35 - 0800 068 41 41
Childline – for children and young people -19 0800 1111
If you've seriously harmed yourself ring 999
Please click here to view a list of helplines if you would like to discuss sexuality and coming out.
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