Ending the UK Civil Service promotion ban



Press Association | 14278

For many years the UK Civil Service would not knowingly employ gay men and lesbians. Gay men in particular were seen as a security risk, because they could be entrapped, exposed, blackmailed, or pressurised into passing restricted, confidential or embarrassing information to others. The 1970s file on “Guidance to Departments About the Employment of Homosexuals in the Public Service” was released by the National Archives in 2012.

The officials first met in 1974, which was seven years after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. The committee began by looking at the rules on promoting “practising homosexuals” to senior civil service posts. Anyone found to be gay was “unlikely” to pass the vetting process to become an under secretary in a Government department. “It was possible that public opinion had not caught up with the law and that problems would still be encountered where staff were aware that their under secretary was a practicing homosexual. Opinion at the grass roots had not changed sufficiently for it to be possible to rule out the risk of pressure of, or actual, blackmail, and that an overt homosexual would not be able to command the necessary respect from his staff or colleagues.”

The managers agreed there was a “clearly a continuing sense of unease” about the question and promoting gay civil servants was “beset with difficulties”.

Gay Activists of the time put forward reasoned proposals for lifting the blanket ban as early as 1972. A letter sent by the Civil Service Department to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in November 1972 says: “No-one is barred from entering the home civil service because of characteristics which need not prevent him or her from carrying out all aspects of the job effectively. This applies to persons with other traits as well as to homosexuals. In considering members of the service for any particular post, many factors affecting their suitability are borne in mind. Aspects of their personality or personal characteristics (of which homosexuality would be only one among many) on some occasions mean that someone else is better suited to the job. One example of this is in posts in the area of national security.”

A few years later, however, and possibly with a different set of managers looking at the subject, attitudes had considerably changed. They considered: there should be no blanket ban on promoting gay civil servants; departments should decide on each case individually. One official noted: “If the officer concerned was very discreet about his relationship and it was itself a stable one, and there was no hint of scandalous behaviour, then I personally could see no bar in principle to the officer concerned being cleared for security purposes. If however he associated with seedy sections of the homosexual world, or if he flaunted himself in such a way as to cause legitimate offence, then there might be reason to fear blackmail.”

In October 1974 a permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Thomas Brimelow, said posting gay diplomats to some countries would pose a major risk because of the danger of blackmail. “We do not at present promote known practising homosexuals to senior posts in the diplomatic service, nor should we be willing to do so.”

Sir Michael Cary of the Ministry of Defence suggested that gay civil servants could be found “niche” jobs in policy rather than areas relating to management or security. “Such individuals are still blackmailable even if their homosexuality is known to the department. I recall a case, some time ago, where the blackmailer had threatened to reveal the official’s homosexuality (which we knew about) to his mother.”

In May 1978 a letter from the Civil Service Department was leaked to newspapers which said gay civil servants could pose a security risk and described homosexuality as a “character defect”. An official noted: “It is perhaps unfortunate that the term ‘character defect’ was used. It is not meant to imply that the government regards homosexuality as a character defect.”

The Civil Service Rainbow Alliance was founded in 2000.



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