As It Happens

This British veteran, kicked out of the RAF for being gay, can proudly sport his medal again

The British military is allowing former service members who were stripped of medals because of their sexual orientation to apply to have them restored — more than two decades after Britain lifted its ban on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service personnel.

U.K. says it will return medals to veterans discharged because of their sexual orientation

Carl Austin-Behan is a Royal Air Force veteran who was awarded a bravery medal as well as a commendation from the Queen, but was suspended from duty in 1997 for being gay. (Submitted by Carl Austin-Behan)

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More than two decades ago, Carl Austin-Behan was kicked out of the military for being gay. But today, he can proudly sport his bronze medal of bravery again. 

That's because the British military is allowing former service personnel who were stripped of medals because of their sexual orientation to apply to have them restored.

"I'm really excited," Austin-Behan told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It's been a long time coming, but I'm really pleased that I now have the opportunity to wear it when possible."

The U.K.'s Ministry of Defence announced the new policy on Tuesday, more than two decades after Britain lifted its ban on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service personnel in 2000.

"LGBT personnel have and continue to make significant contributions to the armed forces," Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer said. "Today's announcement addresses a historic injustice and demonstrates that the military is a positive place to work for all who choose to serve." 

'Do you have homosexual tendencies?'

Austin-Behan still viscerally remembers the day his military career was taken from him. It was April 15, 1997, and his commanding officer called him into a meeting with the Royal Air Force police.

"They just asked me, 'SAC Austin, do you have homosexual tendencies?'" he said. 

He froze, he says, unsure what to say or do.

"They asked again, and I just burst into tears because it made me realize that I had to be true to myself," he said. "I was 24 years old. I'd been living a double-life for the last six years, and I just felt that I had to be me."

Austin-Behan joined the Royal Air Force when was 19 and was kicked out when he was 24. (Submitted by Carl Austin-Behan)

He was suspended for six months pending an investigation, then suspended from duty permanently. He was told he could have been sent to prison, but would be spared because of his exemplary record.

Getting kicked out was a shock to the system, he said. He'd been with the RAF since he was 19 years old, and was well on his way to becoming a corporal and signing on for another 22 years of service. The year earlier, he'd been mentioned in the Queen's birthday honours list and received a commander-in-chief's commendation. 

"I realized that my whole career now was just ended. My life changed completely. I lost all my friends. I didn't know how my family would react. I'd lost my job," he said. "Everything just changed that one day." 

LGBTQ soldiers had medals 'ripped off their chests'

Hundreds of military personnel experienced the same as Austin-Behan and worse. Those found guilty at a court martial could be sent to prison for several months and stripped of their military decorations.

"Some people literally had it ripped off their chests," Austin-Behan said.

The last serviceman jailed for being gay was David Bonney in 1993, reports the Guardian.He told ITV news he will be applying to get his medals back.

 "I have to go to my bully, which is the RAF, and ask them to forgive me and give me my medals back," he said. 

Austin-Behan says he was lucky because his bronze medal didn't come from the military, but rather from the Royal Humane Society. He was allowed to keep it — but was told by the RAF never to wear it again.

It never made much sense to him, he said. He knows that being gay didn't change what he'd done to earn that medal. 

Austin-Behan received the Royal Humane Society’s bronze medal award for rescuing a pilot from a burning Hawk aircraft. (Submitted by Carl Austin-Behan)

In 1992, when a Royal Air Force Hawk aircraft crashed on the runway, Austin-Behan was in the fire rescue vehicle responding to the scene, he said. 

One pilot managed to eject from the plane, but the other one was trapped in flaming wreckage.

"I straddled the aircraft, pulled the detonator for the canopy, and even though the aircraft was like a firebomb, I still managed to get in there," he said.

"I remember vividly the pilot's face, the burned teeth ... and the mask around him."

Austin-Behan managed to free the pilot and get him to safety, but he died 11 days later from his injuries.

Still, he says he won that award because he risked his own life to help his comrade. 

"I could never get my head around why you would have your medal taken from you when you've achieved that medal. You've worked hard for that medal, and it's been given to you," he said. "You'd earned that medal."

Joe Ousalice earned his medals too. And it was his fight to get them back that led to Wednesday's announcement.

Ousalice, 70, is an 18-year bisexual navy veteran who served in the Falklands War, the Middle East and six tours of duty in Northern Ireland. 

He was discharged and stripped of his medals in 1993 on the grounds that his conduct was "prejudicial to good order and naval discipline," even though he had sought to keep his sexual orientation a secret.

Ousalice fought to have his medals returned, but was unsuccessful until he took legal action against the Ministry of Defence in May 2019.

Joe Ousalice is a bisexual veteran whose fight to have his medals restored led to Tuesday's announcement. (Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation)

The ministry settled the case in December of that year, apologizing to Ousalice and promising to return the medals of other veterans in similar situations.

He told Reuters it should not have taken another year for the ministry to announce what would happen to the awards granted to other gay and bisexual veterans.

 "It's just so frustrating," he said, adding that he would continue to campaign to get his full pension and for other sacked veterans.

Austin-Behan went on to have a career in activism and politics. He currently serves as the LGBT adviser to the mayor of Greater Manchester. 

He says he, too, will keep fighting. 

"It's a great step forward. But still, this is just the start of where we need to go with fighting for LGBT veterans. You know, lots of them lost out on education, on training. You know, they spent time in prison," he said.

"There's much that needs to be done still now. And hopefully this is the start of things to come."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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