OUTcast S1, Ep 6 • 01 Nov 2021 • 25:44
Rosie: Welcome to OUTcast, the podcast where we catch up with some of the most engaging, courageous and inspiring LGBTQ+ people from all over the world.
We ask our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer guests where their coming out journeys began, what they’ve gone through along the way – the joy and the pain, but we promise there will be more joy – and what gives them hope.
I’ll be interviewing people from all walks of life, from hardworking queer people behind the scenes, to more familiar faces you might have never known even had the coming out stories they’re about to share.
You can follow us on social media @OUTcastLGBT and you can find us online at outcastpod.com.
Rosie: Welcome to another episode of OUTcast. It’s Episode 6, I can hardly believe it. I remember just this summer when OUTcast was just a kind of dream in my mind; an imagination, so it’s incredible to be bringing you the sixth episode.
And for this episode we have a very inspiring guest – a leader from 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 Airforce engagement strategy, policy and defence for the Americas, Canada, and the Asia-Pacific.
He was formerly the president and chair of the RAF LGBT+ Freedom Network, which works to ensure that the LGBTQ+ community in the Royal Air Force is supported, valued and empowered.
The context for this is that homosexuality was actually banned in the military until 2000. Mark is married and has a fascinating story of being gay and working his way up the ranks of the British military over a time when homosexuality went from being banned, to being treated with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and finally to being celebrated today.
A small disclaimer for Mark’s interview as well. We had some technology issues between the two of us and I spoke to Mark via speakerphone, so you’ll notice that the quality is slightly lower than in other episodes of this podcast. The conversation is no less enlightening and fascinating, so do bear with us.
Also, in a rather fitting turn of events, there seemed to be little light planes flying over where I’m recording in my little home studio, so whilst I was speaking to an esteemed member of the RAF, there were planes flying over.
Rosie: Mark, welcome to OUTcast.
Mark: Thank you, first and foremost, Rosie, for having me. I’m delighted to be able to take part in the podcast.
Rosie: Your background is as a leader in the British military, and the Ministry of Defence, and you’re gay and you’re married. Let’s take you back – where does your coming out journey begin?
Mark: I guess, a very long time ago in many ways. I recognised that I always thought that I was probably slightly different, and I may potentially have been gay, from a very young age to be honest with you. But, you know, when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, the world was a very different place.
And the reason I pushed all these thoughts away from me is because I had always wanted to join the Air Force. My uncle had been in the Air Force in the Second World War and after the war, and always encouraged me to do it as a good career choice.
I was in the Air Cadets as a youngster as well, so I’m a sort of product of the Air Cadet system joining the Air Force afterwards.
Rosie: Am I right in thinking homosexuality was actually banned in the UK military until relatively recently, about January 2000?
Mark: During the 80s and 90s, being gay and being in the Air Force was illegal. It just wasn’t a compatible choice, so given that, first and foremost, I wanted to join the Air Force, I guess I was driven further and further into the closet into denying exactly who I was and what I was.
Whilst I was successful in achieving my career aims, I was less successful in, I guess, realising who I was and what I was, because I put my opportunity to join the Air Force first and foremost.
So I guess that’s where my journey really started. But I never realised the full me, if you like, until much later in life.
Rosie: You were focusing so much on your career you didn’t necessarily even think about your personal life, and go down that road really. So, I’m guessing you weren’t exploring it as a teenager or a young person at all to speak of?
Mark: I did experiment a little bit, very very rarely, whilst I was a teenager as well, which I guess further fuelled the idea that I was potentially gay as well. But I put that very much down to just one-offs, and part of life’s rich tapestry and experimentation.
And because I wanted to join the Air Force, I never saw that as being a choice for me, if you like: that I could accept who I was if I was going to accept being gay. I couldn’t be gay and be in the Air Force, and first and foremost I wanted to join the Air Force.
Rosie: Mm hmm.
Mark: Society was very different then as I say, in terms of it wasn’t as accepting, certainly in the 80s during the prime of the Thatcher years, it wasn’t a place where you would have necessarily have wanted to be gay.
I grew up in quite a, dare I say it, homophobic household, in terms of my parents being very traditional. So it wasn’t a very conducive environment at home either. So, it wasn’t something that I could broach with my parents at that stage either.
Rosie: That makes sense. It sounds like it was a very difficult environment to be gay in. For context, for listeners of the podcast who might not have as much experience with the military, and the military apprpach to being gay, to being homosexual, or LGBTQ+ – what was the context once you were starting your military career?
Mark: There were stories all through the 80s and 90s of people being hounded out of the military, effectively, I mean it was a very corrosive atmosphere in the 80s and 90s. Things started to change with the change of government in the late 1990s. Clearly, they did a huge amount in terms of changing the public perception of the LGBTQ+ community, and they put the appropriate legislation in place as well.
And you’re right. The legislation prior to the 12th January 2000 was that, ultimately, you would have been discharged with dishonour, you would have lost all your pension rights, any financial remuneration that you would have left with having done a full service for, anything like that. It was just absolutely atrocious.
Attitudes started to change in the 90s as societal attitudes started to change. But it was still incompatible until there was a challenge through the European Court, and the legislation was changed in January 2000 and the LGBTQ people were able to serve with impunity in the British military.
Rosie: Am I right in thinking there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of feeling after that?
Mark: There was sort of, I guess. If you take my circumstances, yes the rules changed in January 2000, but you can change the rules of an organisation overnight, but you don’t change the culture.
And whilst it was great for me knowing that because I’d sensed I was beginning to challenge who I was and what I was even at that stage, when the legislation changed I knew that I was safe and I could no longer be discharged from the military.
So I could potentially begin that journey proper in terms of my coming out and being who I was. But I judged the culture wasn’t right in the organisation, because there were still a number of people around who were still overtly displaying homophobic phraseaology or language.
So, my view was, even then in 2000, that whilst I’d gone through a period of counselling by that stage, I was content with whom I was and what I was, that being a gay man in the military, but just because the rules had changed and I could no longer lose my job over admitting and being open with who I was and what I was, my judgement was, at that stage, I didn’t feel safe to come out in that environment.
And indeed it would be another five years, actually. It was 2005 when I formally came out in the military. So, whilst I’d come out to my nearest and dearest family, by that stage in 2000 around the change of legislation in the Air Force, I didn’t come out publicly in the Air Force for another five years.
Rosie: And how did your family react?
Mark: Again, interesting. I have got one sibling, an older sister, and we were always very close during growing up. Not the stereotypical sort of brother-sister relationship where you generally squabble a lot – we’d always been very very close and shared secrets with each other that even our parents don’t know to this day.
So, I’d planned my coming out, if you like, to the family that I would come out to my sister first, knowing full well that she would be supportive. And that would help me then go to my parents.
I was always considered to be a Mummy’s boy whilst I was growing up, and therefore I knew my mum would be most supportive as well, out of my parents. And the hard nut to crack, if you like, would have been my dad who was going to be the final one that I was going to have to go to. But I would go to him after having got the support of both my sister and my mother, so that there was safety in numbers if you like.
Mark: And that was principally because, Dad being a stereotypical alpha male in terms of being a sportsman, carpenter and joiner, and being in the building industry all his life and all that sort of thing.
It didn’t really happen that way. I ended up being in a social situation where my mum challenged me because she’d seen changes in my personality and the way I’d been behaving and there was clearly something on my mind.
She challenged me and I ended up coming out to her and telling her first, and at that stage she then said, “well you need to tell your father,” because we’re both here together, we were at a family function together.
And once I told my mother and my father, I then ended up telling my sister, so the person I thought I would tell first ended up being the last one to know.
In terms of their reaction, they didn’t disown me or anything like that, which I’m very grateful for clearly. And they were quite understanding. My mum had basically done some analysis on the situation, and she either thought that the change in my behaviour and personality was down to a number of things, and it was either that I’d got myself into some sort of financial conundrum that I couldn’t get myself out of. And both she and my sister had been talking about that, and realised that I’d always been pretty good with money and said, “well, it can’t be that because he’s always been good with money.”
But I’d also been very supportive of a very great colleague of mine, Caroline Paige, who’s the first transgender female to serve openly in the British military. I’d worked with Caroline before she transitioned, so when this broke in The Sun newspaper, I’d been very vocal in my support. And I guess that sowed a seed in terms of my mother’s mind, and she said to my sister, “I think it’s either money, or it’s his sexual orientation.”
And then when I obviously did the whole coming out thing with her, she said, “well, I probably knew to be honest with you,” given what had been going on the previous six months in terms of some of the things I’d been saying.
But, you know, they were supportive initially. I think they found it quite difficult to come to terms with, because of the generational understanding. My parents were both born in the 1940s, they had the time of their lives in the 60s and all that kind of thing – sexual liberation, blah, blah blah – but, their backgrounds and their upbringings were very heteronormative.
Rosie: So, you had this reckoning period with your family, and the military was going through its own reckoning really, with sexuality and with LGBTQ+ issues. You were the former chair and president of the Royal Air Force’s LGBT+ Freedom Network. Could you tell us a bit about the network, and your involvement with it?
Mark: Yeah, sure. I was working in Bristol, and as I say, this dates back to 2002, so by this stage the Air Force had been finding its feet, I suppose, in terms of the LGBT+ community and formulating policy, and writing regulations, and all sorts of things for two years by this stage, following the change of legislation in 2000.
I was working in Bristol and I had already started networking amongst the military community, not just in the Air Force, but across the Navy and the Army as well, and knew that there were other people out there who were looking for support, more than anything else.
And 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 affecting a part of their personnel and community without really talking to the people that it really affected.
And this was charting new territory, to be honest with you, because gays had not served in the military openly prior to this, legally anyway.
So, I approached the policy staff with a view to trying to assist them with formulating this policy. So rather than just writing it through a heteronormative lens, the “pale male stale” view, that they would actually consult with the community they were writing rules and regulations for, so that they would be understanding of that community more than just applying arbitrary rules and regulations.
So, that’s where it all started, way back in 2002. We started these very discreet conversations, and those conversations went on for about four years until the network, which started with a bunch of… well, not a bunch really – it was just three people who started the dialogue with the policy staff initially. And as word got out, it was three gay guys that started the initial conversation, so obviously we then wanted to try and encompass a broader perspective and more elements of the LGBT+ community.
So, a number of people then started showing an interest and wanted to get involved with the things that were going on, and from that initially we grew what was called the LGBT Forum, which was effectively a small group of people, half a dozen of us, who would be used as a sounding board, like a smart customer for the policy staff. So when they were starting to look at LGBTQ policies, they would use us as a sounding board.
But in 2006, we got Air Force Board endorsement of the network, or the forum, which then grew into the network, and it’s grown just exponentially from there to be honest with you. And I then effectively ran the network for the next eleven years, before standing down as chairman, and then was president for another couple of years as well.
And it’s all been really, to be honest with you Rosie, about informing, educating and empowering. And those are the three key words I would probably use. Informing the broader Air Force about what the LGBT+ community is all about; educating them and dispelling myths more than anything else, and popular misconceptions; also about empowering the individuals of the LGBT community to ensure that they can reach their full potential within the organisation; but also about empowering the heterosexual community in terms of understanding it, as much as anything else.
Rosie: I love that it’s got that element of allyship and educating people within the community, and supporting people within the community, but educating outside it too. It’s really inspiring. Have you got any pieces of advice that you would give allies, or members of the heteronormative community, to support LGBTQ+ people?
Mark: You have to be authentic in everything that you do, and it’s about following words with deeds. Because 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.
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.
So it’s not just about having a poster on a wall saying the good word, it’s about being leaders as much as allies in terms of providing support for the community. That works right from the very top levels of any organisation, be it the management board level, to the most junior ally that you can have on the shop floor or wherever in the organisation.
Rosie: And what do you think the biggest challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community today are?
Mark: I think the biggest challenge is so much change has gone on in the last thirty years, with regard to LGBT legislation, and it’s not all a bed of roses out there, I absolutely get that, but in terms of where we were when you look back to the 1980s, the late 1980s, the final tenure of the Conservative government and Clause 28 and all that sort of vile period that we went through, there has been a huge softening and there has been a huge amount of progress. So there is an awful lot to be thankful for.
And I think the biggest challenge now is, now that there is so much that is equal, if you like – there’s been such a long fight for equality – it is ensuring that we remain relevant within society as much as anything else.
And when I say, “relevant”, it’s maintaining a profile within the broader community, because there are still issues out there where there is homophobia going on, there is still inequality, but we tread a very fine line these days because there is so much equality that people perceive that it is all now yesterday’s news. So it is a very fine balancing act that we have to tread. There is still work to be done, but we need to be very careful about how we take that forward as a community I think, to ensure that it remains credible in society.
Rosie: Absolutely. I mean, it’s so true, I think [about] starting this podcast, and also just situations in my life, the number of times people have sort of said, “you’re gay, get over it.” Which I think is both positive and negative: positive only because it shows that there is that perception of how much equality we have, and how far we’ve come. It’s negative because it cancels out the nuanced issues within the community now. And I think you’re right, I think there’s so much equality, I think especially for being gay and for being cis gendered. The next frontier is looking into this current backlash and transphobia that’s happening now that trans and gender rights and equality are more under the spotlight.
Rosie: What gives you hope today, and for the future?
Mark: I think there’s a new found confidence in the generation of people that are following behind me, which really pleases me. And the evidence of that is the fact that those people, those members of the LGBT+ community that I have seen joining the Air Force and getting involved with the network, are following their career aspirations and they’re progressing through their own careers. Be that in a number of ways, just in terms of their own personal growth and their own self-confidence, but they’re also being rewarded professionally with promotions, and other career opportunities.
So, they are being their true selves in the workplace, and they’re bringing their authentic selves to the workplace. They don’t have to hide anything of who they are or what they are. They can perform to the best of their ability, because they are able to be who they are, and be their authentic self in the workplace. And that reaps benefits not only for them in terms of their personal development, but also for their employer, the Air Force. The Air Force gets the best from its individuals, because it’s allowing them to be who they are.
And, as I say, the remuneration that the Air Force is giving those individuals for performing well, being great professionals, and delivering both in terms of service at home and on operations overseas, around the world, is that they’re getting promoted and they’re carving their own career paths as much as anything else. And they will go on to be incredibly successful people. And that really does give me hope, in terms of, you know, 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.
Rosie: Absolutely. And I think what struck me then as you were speaking as well is, that as well as the military side and the defence side, there’s also this wonderful ‘soft power’ being communicated: the soft power of Western countries to have all colours of the rainbow in its people and these incredibly strong, successful, inspiring people.
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. We are ambassadors not just for our service, but for our country when we go overseas. I’ve served all round the globe, much like anybody else who’s in the British military to be honest with you. And, yes. I mean, I guess you can be candid in some areas, but you have to be less candid in others, in certain circumstances.
But at the same time, you can be an ambassador for your service and your country, and when you are in those situations where, perhaps one of the countries that you’re working with in a certain operation is not necessarily so forward leaning in terms of its outlook with regards to LGBT+ community policies and serving in the military, or just in general, then you can be an advocate and an ambassador for the service and your country in that sense.
Rosie: Absolutely. And even it’s just bringing that extra level of empathy as a service man or service woman. It’s fantastic.
Rosie: Mark, thanks so much for giving us your time today and sharing your story. I know it’ll resonate with so many listeners with military backgrounds, or partners with military backgrounds.
I’m just feeling incredibly grateful that we’ve managed to make this work in spite of our technology woes!
Mark: Yes! We got there in the end.
Rosie: Thank you for listening to OUTcast, a podcast with interviews and coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people.
I’m your host, Rosie Pentreath. I hope you can join us again next week.