Human Rights Stories No. 8: using the Human Rights Act to get my medals – and my dignity – back

27th Jun 2022
‘The Human Rights Act gave me back my dignity.’

I joined the Navy at 26-years-old. It was all I’d ever wanted – I had great colleagues and friends, an impeccable service record and the medals to show for it too. I spent more than 18 years serving my country as a naval operator all over the world. The Falklands, six tours of Northern Ireland, Syria, Hong Kong, Egypt – wherever I was, I loved it. Until I was kicked out.

You see as blessed as I felt to have found a home in the Navy, there was one thing I always had to keep hidden. In 1976 when I joined up, being gay or, like me, bisexual, was strictly forbidden.

I don’t know how they found out, but eventually the Special Investigations Branch of the Royal Navy Police came for me. Eventually they had me discharged for the service offence of “conduct prejudicial to good order and naval discipline” – like so many others, this was the catch-all service offence that they would use to throw people out because of their sexuality. At the same time, my Long Service & Good Conduct medal was taken from me – it was physically cut from my uniform.

With no income, I lost my house and at one point was homeless, forced to steal food from farmers’ fields to get by. I slowly rebuilt my life, eventually working for the campaign group Rank Outsiders, to campaign to change the law for LGBT service personnel and to end the Gay Ban. Many people still can’t believe it when I tell them what I went through in the 1990s, or the fact that until the year 2000, gay men and lesbian women were banned from serving in the British military. So many people like me lost their medals, their livelihoods and the lives they loved and worked so hard for.

Thanks to the work of Rank Outsiders and others, the Gay Ban was eventually lifted in 2000. I started asking for my medal back.

For years I was stonewalled. Then, in 2018, I took the Ministry of Defence to court, relying on Article 8 (the right to private and family life) and Article 1 of Protocol 1 (the right to property). Just a few weeks before the case was due to be heard in court, the MoD settled and agreed to return what they had taken from me all those years before. The MoD also agreed to change the policy so that all LGBT+ veterans can now have their medals restored.

If you had told me when I was growing up in Liverpool that I would end up campaigning for human rights I would never have believed you. But if it wasn’t for the Human Rights Act, I would never have been able to get justice. The Human Rights Act gave me back my dignity.

Human rights feel a bit abstract to most of us. Until you need them, you don’t really give them much thought. But I was so glad they were there for me. That’s why it worries me so much to hear the Government’s plans today to get rid of the Human Rights Act. Anything which makes it harder for people like me to get justice is bad news.

Joe Ousalice is a veteran of the Royal Navy.

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