(Bloomberg) -- Gay British soldiers were subjected to electric shock treatment in an effort to “cure” them of their homosexuality, according to a damning investigation into historic homophobia in the UK armed forces.
Most Read from Bloomberg
Military personnel were still being referred to doctors for conversion therapy as recently as the 1990s, according to anonymous testimony in a government-commissioned review seen by Bloomberg and slated for publication next month. The study contains more than a thousand anonymous submissions detailing the use of electrodes, blackmail and sexual assault against gay personnel between 1967 and 2000.
“I was sent to see a psychiatrist at a hospital where they put these electrodes in my head and showed me pictures of men and gave me nice feelings and they then showed me pictures of women and gave me electric shocks,” one unnamed victim of the policy said. “I had some type of bruising/burn marks where they put the electrodes.”
The Ministry of Defence declined to comment on specific allegations included in the report, which they said had been submitted to ministers. “We are proud of our LGBT+ veterans and grateful for their service in defense of our nation,” a government spokesperson said.
The shocking revelations cast light on the damage inflicted on thousands of gay, lesbian and trans personnel over more than three decades by a ban on them serving in the military, despite homosexuality being legal since 1967. The report piles moral pressure on Sunak to publicly apologize for the historic policy, and to compensate those affected by it for loss of earnings, distress caused, and denial of their pension rights.
Read More: Sunak Told to Apologize for UK Treatment of Gay Veterans
Another veteran, who served in the Royal Air Force, testified that they were sent to a psychiatric ward to be interrogated about their sexuality while seated on a commode. Electrodes were attached to their head and used to take a reading of their brain while medical staff drank lager. They were told they had a “shadow” on their brain, which explained their sexuality.
Referrals of young male personnel for what was referred to as “the cure” were still taking place as recently as the mid-1990s, according to testimony from a civilian doctor who served at various military bases from 1993 to 2004. The medic recounted how a sergeant accompanied one of the men, who explained he’d told his superiors he was gay and had been told to book medical treatment. The doctor refused to provide such treatment and sent him on his way, but never knew what became of the young recruit.
The review was commissioned last year during Boris Johnson’s premiership, with a remit to take testimony from those affected by the blanket ban on gay people in the armed forces that ran until January 2000.
Terence Etherton, the cross-bench member of the House of Lords who led the probe, said in the report that military personnel were told if they consented to taking drugs and undergoing electro-compulsive treatment to convert them, they may be permitted to remain in the military.
It left many “severely traumatized” as a result, he said.
Though the government has promised to introduce a law banning conversion therapy, it’s yet to publish a draft bill. An Equality Hub spokesperson for the government said it remains “committed to protecting people at risk from conversion practices.”
The report into homophobia in the military follows a trend in recent years of the UK unpicking its often uncomfortable history spanning recent years and past centuries. The legacy includes slavery and colonialism as well as misogyny and racism and touches on some of the nation’s most famous institutions.
In March, the owner of the Guardian newspaper issued an apology for the role played by the newspaper’s founders in transatlantic slavery and announced a decade-long program of restorative justice. In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement sparked calls to remove the presence of statues of figures from the Britain’s imperial past, resulting in the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol being pulled down, triggering a row over the country’s colonial legacy.
Also in March, an investigation found that London’s Metropolitan Police is a breeding ground for racism, sexism and homophobia, while this year the country’s biggest business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry has been engulfed in a scandal that includes allegations of rape and sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have voiced concerns about racism in the Royal Family, while the Koh-i-Noor diamond that’s featured in previous coronations but is now widely seen as a symbol of the UK’s colonial past was excluded from King Charles III’s coronation earlier this month.
It’s an issue that divides politicians even within Sunak’s own Cabinet. Home Secretary Suella Braverman last week criticized those who favor “decolonizing the curriculum, demanding reparations, denigrating our heroes, tearing down statues,” in a speech widely seen as a pitch to be the next Conservative Party leader.
The latest report includes a core recommendation that Sunak should make a public apology in Parliament for the historic ban on gay and trans military personnel.
Some of the testimony details the after-effects on veterans of their treatment by the military. One woman who joined the navy at 17 in 1991 said she was discharged in 1997 after disclosing she was gay. It led to alcohol-dependency and gravely affected her mental health.
Another female veteran said she was assaulted by two senior male colleagues, and was placed into a psychiatric ward and later dismissed after she complained. Another said that when her superior tried to assault her, he told her he would have her kicked out of the Army because he knew she was gay.
Other veterans said they were followed by military detectives, even while off-duty. One recounted how in 1995, on a visit to their hometown to see friends at a local gay pub, military police officers showed up, seemingly looking for gay soldiers. Another veteran described being interviewed by the Special Investigation Branch for eight hours and wasn’t allowed to access the toilet or get water until she admitted she was gay.
The accounts “paint a vivid picture of overt homophobia at all levels of the armed forces...and of the bullying that inevitability reflected it,” according to Etherton.
A spokesperson for the government said it will “carefully consider the findings and respond in due course.” They didn’t say whether the prime minister would accept the recommendation to apologize.
Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.