As part of an illustrious military career that’s earned him an OBE, Mark Abrahams has helped formulate policy, build networks and inspire a whole generation of LGBTQIA people in the British Air Force, Navy and Army.
This week on OUTcast Podcast, we’re joined by a very inspiring guest – a highly decorated leader in the British military.
Wing Commander Mark Abrahams OBE is a strategic engagement and international relations specialist at the UK’s Ministry of Defence. He is responsible for formulating and advising on British Royal Air Force engagement strategy, policy and defence for the Americas, Canada, and the Asia-Pacific.
But he has also been responsible for a whole load of LGBTQ+ policy, building inclusive networks, and driving inspiring support initiatives within the military. He was formerly the president and chair of the Royal Air Force’s LGBT+ Freedom Network, which works to ensure that the LGBTQ+ community in the Royal Air Force is supported, valued and empowered. And he was instrumental in driving the right kind of change in the military’s earlier days of accepting diverse sexuality and gender identities.
Mark is now married, and it’s quite staggering to think that throughout his working life, it’s gone from it being illegal for him to gay, to him having to treat his sexuality with a reserved, “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and finally to celebrating his true identity and empowering others today.
It was illegal to be LGBTQ in the UK military until 2000
The context for Mark’s early involvement with what became the RAF LGBT+ Freedom Network is that homosexuality was actually banned in the military until the year 2000.
“During the 80s and 90s, being gay and being in the Air Force was illegal,” Mark concedes on Episode 6 of OUTcast. “It just wasn’t a compatible choice. Given that first and foremost I wanted to join the Air Force, I was driven further and further into the closet, and into denying exactly who I was or what I was,” he admits as he tells his coming out story.
Indeed, in the 70s and 80s the world was a very different place. British society was no way near as accepting, especially when it was in the grip of Margaret Thatcher and her particular brand of conservatism – a place Mark describes as somewhere “you would not have necessarily wanted to be gay.”
“I never realised the full me,” Mark poignantly admits to Rosie on OUTcast, “until much later in life.”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell”
It took a change of national administration and a new political party for things to change, both for LGBTQ+ people serving in the military and for society as a whole. Blair’s 1997 Labour government ushered in freshness and fairness, and finally some hope for more marginalised people, if you were to adopt an optimist’s view.
And things did start to change – but slowly.
“You can change the rules of an organisation overnight, but you don’t change the culture,” Wing Commander Abrahams says on OUTcast.
On 12 January 2000, the Labour government had immediately removed the British military’s ban on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer personnel serving in the forces, following a landmark EU ruling that personnel had been unfairly dismissed from the military on grounds of their sexuality.
LGBTQ+ people were protected by law, but the military powers that be needed to catch up.
“Whilst it was great for me knowing that, when the legislation changed, I was safe and I could no longer be discharged from the military,” Mark says, “my judgement was, at that stage, I didn’t feel safe to come out in that environment.”
He goes on to explain: “Just because the rules had changed, and I could no longer lose my job over admitting and being open about who I was, it would be another five years before I formally came out in the military.”
There was still homophobic language banding about, and attitudes that had simply not shifted.
Forming the LGBT Forum and the RAF LGBT+ Freedom Network
Mark was working in Bristol in 2002, and there he started to form quiet networks of LGBTQ+ colleagues across the Air Force, Navy and Army. People, although grateful, were concerned that the forces leadership now codifying formal decisions for LGBTQ+ military personnel were “doing it on a bit of a whim,” according to Mark.
“There was a growing view, certainly from where I sat, that the Air Force was formulating policy on a whim – with the best of intentions – but they were formulating policy that was effecting a part of their personnel and community without really talking to the people that it really affected,” he explains.
From the informal networks Mark and his colleagues were growing for support, and then for providing advice to policy makers, a more structured approach began to form – first in the shape of an ‘LGBT Forum’, which was a “sounding board, like a smart customer” for military policy makers.
“In 2006, we got Air Force Board endorsement of the forum, which then grew into the network, and it’s grown just exponentially from there,” Mark says. “I then ran the network for the next eleven years, before standing down as chairman, and then was president for another couple of years as well.”
The network now runs supportive social media pages, organises inspiring outreach events, and even exists alongside a Tri-Service LGBT+ Parenting Handbook.
What does the RAF LGBT+ Freedom Network do?
The RAF LGBT+ Freedom Network aims to inform, educate and empower all people in the service.
“It’s about informing the broader Air Force about what the LGBT+ community is all about; educating them and dispelling myths and popular misconceptions; and empowering the individuals of the LGBT community to ensure that they can reach their full potential within the organisations while also empowering the heterosexual community in terms of understanding it,” Mark enthuses.
The great thing about LGBT+ Freedom Network, and others like it in the UK military and other services around the world, is that it allows serving personnel to be their true selves in the workplace and bring their whole, authentic selves to work.
“They don’t have to hide anything of who they are or what they are,” Mark confirms. “They can perform to the best of their ability because they are able to be who they are, and that reaps benefits not only for them in terms of their personal development, but also for their employer, the Air Force.”
He adds: “The Air Force gets the best from their individuals, because it’s allowing them to be who they are. They will go on to be incredibly successful people and that really gives me hope. I’m coming to the end of my RAF career now, but I can leave feeling really quite satisfied that the LGBT+ community in the Air Force is in a pretty good place.”
“You have to be authentic in everything that you do”
What parting advice would Wing Commander Mark Abrahams OBE leave with any allies reading this?
“You have to be authentic in everything that you do, and it’s about following words with deeds,” he smiles. “Being an authentic ally, and an authentic organisation supporting a protected characteristic, is not just about having a statement or a vision, or a poster on a wall.”
For Mark, it’s about following up with real, hard evidence of how you support that community.
“And yes, you’ve got to have all of that legislature, and that policy framework in place to provide you with the governance process by which people work and live and exist within our organisation, but, at the same time, allies need to be vocal and visible in their support.”
Roger that, Sir.