“Get up, get dressed, get downstairs – you’re under arrest!”
BY EMMA RILEY, GLOBAL PROGRAMME, GOVERNANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER AT RX
Emma Riley, Global Programme, Governance & Operations Manager at RX, shares her story of the discrimination she faced whilst serving in the Women’s Royal Navy, how she found accountability and the acceptance she has felt in her career since joining the RX team.
“Get up, get dressed, get downstairs – you’re under arrest!” Words that changed my life forever and which, 30 years later, put me at the centre of history.
I was born in 1972 to wonderful parents who took my brother and me sailing almost every weekend. School life, however, was another matter. At primary school, I remember a boy stabbing me in the shoulder with a pencil, and as a red-headed tomboy, it didn’t get much better. I had to move secondary schools due to bullying and though the new one was better, it continued.
As I started my A levels, I started questioning my sexuality. I’d had a couple of boyfriends but had crushes on girls and Anneka Rice!
I wanted a career where I could belong, be useful, and not face bullying. When I was about 13, there was a career fair at my school and the Army had a stand. While the idea of serving my country struck a chord with me, the Army wasn’t right. Instead, I chose the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
The first day you are briefed, you get your kit and settle into your shared room. They give you time to read through the contract before signing and it was then that I discovered that homosexuality was explicitly banned. I read that a few times, then decided that I didn’t know what I was and it was so strong in me to serve my country and find that camaraderie that I would sign and bury any thought of being anything other than in the Navy.
My journey in the Navy
My first draft was to HMS Cornwall. It had been converted to have women aboard and we were the first to sail on her, deployed for months out in the Caribbean, America and Canada – an incredible trip!
I’d like to be able to tell you that I had found belonging, but it wasn’t quite like that. I didn’t get accepted in the way that I had hoped. For example, they put together a ship-wide radio station. During one show, they played a pretend request for me – Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” the first line is “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.”
It had become stronger in me that I wasn’t straight and I had to test myself somehow to be sure. The ban meant I hadn’t anyone to talk it through with so instead I took myself off to London and had an evening “out” – I kissed a girl and I liked it!
My father had become unwell, and the worry and strain of hiding my secret meant I was in a fragile mental state. One evening I went for a few drinks with my roommate, someone I felt was my friend. I confessed that I thought I was gay.
“Get up, get dressed, get downstairs – you’re under arrest!”
My world fell apart. Far from being supportive, my roommate had reported me to the Military Police. Two officers interrogated me. Later, they took me back to search my room for evidence. They went through everything – every drawer and bag looking for evidence. They confiscated a Suede CD, the one with two androgynous people kissing on the front, and a Julian Clary video since everyone who watches him must be gay! They took letters I had written to a non-Navy pen pal, which I had mentioned I thought I was gay. They were looking for names – it was a real witch-hunt.
Then, they sent me home to tell my parents.
I had to tell my parents not only that I was likely to be thrown out, but that I was gay; a forced coming out. I am thankful my parents were completely supportive – I had a home to return to.
Weeks went by as the investigation ground slowly on. Eventually, I was brought to Captain’s Table and told my services were no longer required. I had to sign a paper to say I wouldn’t challenge the decision. I wrote that the only reason I wasn’t challenging it was because my father was so ill.
I spent weeks at home with no clue what to do and decided I had to find work. I started with basic temp work. Eventually, I found permanent work, settled and found a girlfriend. I needed to go back and challenge the decisions made, but where to start?
First was to take the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to court. It became clear that one of the journalists in attendance at the first public hearing had called the story in, as a camera was in my face the moment we left, the only time I’ve felt like a harassed celebrity. My barrister was excellent at protecting me from the press and the Daily Telegraph didn’t get the photo they wanted, though they ran a short piece anyway.
The case failed and there was only one option – take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and prove that dismissal on the grounds of sexuality was a human rights infringement. I agreed but decided that I would be anonymous to protect my family, the case went ahead as ‘R. vs. the United Kingdom’.
Four test cases were put forward by Rank Outsiders who had been campaigning against the ban and the damage it had done. My case supported those, lending weight to the call for a change in the law. In September 1999, the ECHR ruled that the ban on gay people serving in the military infringed on the right to a private life. The Government and MOD put money into teams to prove that serving personnel didn’t want gay and lesbian service personnel amongst them, but in January 2000, the Labour Government was forced to lift the ban.
It took a further two years to complete my case. The Royal Navy, unsurprisingly, had lost or deliberately deleted the tapes and transcripts of my interrogation. They argued and squirmed over every point but in 2002, everything was complete; I was vindicated and the law changed. I packed the letters away and didn’t speak of it.
Healing and community
I found being part of a women’s chorus healing. I became more comfortable and took on leadership roles in the chorus, not hiding that I was gay. People accepted me for my strengths. At the end of 2014, Vocal Dimension Chorus represented the UK in an international competition. But behind the scenes, events precipitated a breakdown for me and my relationship, but these were also the tentative beginnings of really starting to become myself.
At the beginning of 2015, I started counselling and, later, I divorced and I began a relationship with the person I credit with waking me from a self-imposed stupor. Fran made me feel safe and supported in a way no one had before. She gave me the confidence and the strength to start to heal.
Also in 2015, Professor Paul Johnson, a law professor at Leeds University, contacted me. He was collating oral histories for a book about sex, gender and sexual orientation cases that had been taken to the ECHR. He had come across my case but it was anonymous. He had seen my real name in solicitor correspondence and desperately wanted to include my case in his book, but I’d chosen anonymity.
That was the first time I had gone back to those memories. He recorded me telling the story, treating me with great compassion. The recording was transcribed and included in the book Going To Strasbourg.
Many things started to happen. My Chorus was asked to take part in a tri-service, multi-faith and LGBTQIA music project called Path To Peace. After over two decades, I suddenly came face to face with a man who had joined the RAF in 2002 and had enjoyed a career as an openly gay person, something I found difficult to wrap my head around.
Fran and I volunteered at Brighton Pride and found the Royal Navy had a recruitment stand. We met Chief Wren who blithely said that she and her female partner were living in married quarters. A marine overheard me speaking to her, followed as we left and stopped me – he thanked me for taking the UK to court to change the law as it had allowed him to serve. I sobbed to hear that.
I decided never to hide my sexuality at work again.
In 2018, 25 years after I had been thrown out of the Royal Navy for being gay, I marched in London Pride with my company, RX (part of RELX). After the march, we gathered at our Parent’s HQ on the Strand and I gave an impromptu speech marking how incredible it was to me to have LBGTQIA identities celebrated.
I started finding out about other LBGTQIA veterans. As one of the first Royal British Legion LBGTQIA and Allies branch members, I was part of a small number of people invited to attend an evening at the Houses of Parliament to hear the Veterans MP, Johnny Mercer, mark the 20th anniversary of the lifting of the ban by apologising on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.
While I was on BBC Breakfast to speak about the lifting of the ban, I met Craig Jones, the CEO of Fighting with Pride (FWP). This was a new military charity specifically focused on LGBTQIA veterans. They curated and published the book Fighting With Pride, and have been instrumental in driving public awareness and governmental change. Speaking in the green room before the interview we discovered that we had served on the same ship together!
The Royal Navy Compass LGBT Network asked me to speak at their Navy Pride conference. It was the first time in 27 years I had set foot on a Royal Navy base. Then, in March 2022, I was contacted by a documentary producer. She had seen some of the interviews I had given in the past and wanted my participation. This turned out to be Kelly Holmes: Being Me. Her story could so easily have ended the same way mine had. She was lucky not to be ‘caught’. The damage the ban did to her was huge, she spent all that time living in fear that if it became known she was gay, the Army would prosecute her.
The LBGT Veterans Independent Review asked for testimonials to understand how we were treated, the impact of the ban at the time and later in our lives, and how being dismissed affected us, our careers and our families, among other issues. Fighting with Pride, Dame Kelly, the RBL LGBTQ+ and Allies branch and others vigorously promoted the review to reach as many affected veterans as possible. In my evidence, I wrote, “I am a damaged person”.
The Government needed us to pick at those wounds to gain an understanding of the terrible damage done and begin reparations. At events run by FWP and when I met veterans later, it was clear that my story, hard as it was for me to tell, was one of the milder experiences. Everything from imprisonment and beating to electric shock therapy and sexual abuse and rape – all things we experienced as we were discarded. For many, these calls were the first time they had spoken about what had happened. Many have struggled with mental health, housing and financial issues. It was harrowing to listen to but it made me more determined to support where I could.
It also made me incredibly thankful I work for RX and the RELX Group. They have been welcoming and supportive. I have never felt excluded or judged because of my sexuality, quite the opposite, and never more so than this year when the LBGTQ+ Veterans Independent Review was published and its first actions taken.
The final report was submitted to the Government at the end of May 2023 but we had to wait two months for it to be published. Finally, I got a text to say that FWP expected it to be announced on the last day of Parliament before the Summer Recess and could I make it to London. My manager and RX were incredible in allowing me to be part of that day.
We met at the cabinet office with Lord Etherton, the Rt Hon Dr Andrew Murrison and the Rt Hon Johnny Mercer. Report in hand, we listened to these three people offer words of personal apology and acknowledgement and finally, it began to feel like maybe the right thing was going to happen.
PM Rishi Sunak readied himself for Prime Minister’s Question Time. There he made a statement: “The ban on LGBT people serving in our military until the year 2000 was an appalling failure of the British State, decades behind the law of this land. As today’s report makes clear, in that period many endured the most horrific sexual abuse and violence, homophobic bullying and harassment all while bravely serving this country. Today, on behalf of the British State, I apologise.”
Sir Kier Starmer echoed this, saying Labour was “proud to lift the ban against LGBT+ people serving in our armed forces and today we strongly welcome this apology from the Prime Minister”.
After 23 years, we had our apology
I didn’t throw tomatoes, shout or cry. I sat stony-faced as the apologies were read. The PM was unemotional and the opposition leader tried to place Labour as the hero lifting the ban which was laughable when all parties vociferously fought to keep it in place and it was only because we took our cases to the European Court that forced the change.
We watched the Rt Hon Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, read his statement, and the rest of the veterans sat in the opposite gallery. This is when the emotion hit. The report’s 49 recommendations were accepted in principle and he committed the Government to action all of them, though acknowledged some may “be delivered by different means”.
Crucially, his statement included an apology from his perspective as an Army officer enforcing the ban. He acknowledged that the ban was written into military law the year after the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised same-sex sexual acts in private between consenting adults. He described his journey from voting against gay marriage to meeting and getting to know people from the LGBTQIA community, becoming friends with the Rt Hon Crispin Blunt, who came out in 2010. An Army veteran, Crispin spoke emotionally as part of this debate.
The PM’s apology was an immense step forward for all LBGTQ+ veterans, particularly since this Government’s record for apologies is dire to say the least! For some, this was their primary need: acknowledging that we were wronged by the state. We could not have accepted any less as the first reparation.
Reflections on a 23-year journey
For me, it felt like a PR spin exercise, shoehorned in before the Summer Recess to get good press and avoid the harder questions of how and when. Ben Wallace’s speech, given from the position of being a veteran and his change of stance on gay people, held far more emotional and meaningful content.
Reflecting on these events, speaking to other veterans about their lives and the conversations I have had with people after I have spoken at an event, makes me so thankful for my RX workplace. In the 23 years since I joined the RELX group, I have never felt I had to hide who I was or who I loved. I was allowed time and flexibility to take part in this historic moment and arrived back at my desk to a flood of emails from people across the company saying how proud they were of me, including our global CEO.
I am resilient, determined, and a little stubborn, but my strength comes from my wife, family, friends, work colleagues and company. With their support, I will do everything to hold the Government accountable.
The day after the PM’s apology, one of my fellow veterans hit the nail on the head when they said, “To quote Churchill – ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’”
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