‘Sacking gay sailors would have scuppered fleet’

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The Royal Navy ordered a review of disciplinary punishments for homosexuals in the late 1960s after estimating that more than half of its seamen had gay experiences.

The Admiralty realised that if every sailor shown to have performed homosexual acts was discharged from service, there would not be enough men left to run the fleet.

Instead the Navy investigated downgrading homosexuality from an offence that warranted automatic discharge, because that left sailors open to blackmail.

The investigation was triggered by the discovery that more than 400 men had been visiting a “male brothel” in Bermuda and concern that many more regularly slept with young transvestites known as “catamites” in Singapore.

Documents released by the Public Record Office today show that some senior officers believed the Navy’s rules were counter-productive and increasingly outdated in the “permissive society” of the 1960s. Others railed against a “perversion” that they believed was flourishing because of the “anarchic liberalism” prevalent at the time.

But the documents demonstrate that, 30 years before homosexuality was removed as a disciplinary offence in January 2000, the naval hierarchy realised the need for change.

The review was ordered in 1968 by the Second Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Frank Twiss. It was run by the head of naval law, G Jamieson, who suggested it was then possible to imagine a time when homosexuality in the Navy might be acceptable because of the “astonishingly rapid changes in sexual morality”.

Mr Jamieson said senior naval officers had told him that at least 50 per cent of the fleet had “sinned homosexually” during their career. He suggested punishing public acts while being tolerant of discreet homosexuality.

A report by Captain Donald MacIntyre showed that 45 men were discharged for homosexuality in 1966, 42 in 1967 and 14 in the first four months of 1968. The numbers were likely to rise because of the “Bermuda incident”. Further reports look specifically at the activities of sailors in Singapore, where they visited Bugis Street, which had grown notorious for its “catamites”. A 1969 memo from the director general of a naval personnel services said they were capable of fooling “intelligent men even when sober”.

The Navy decided to improve education of recruits on homosexuality, but the start of the move towards liberalism infuriated some. In August 1969 the Navy’s medical director general complained that lifting restraints on heterosexuality after the Second World War had ensured that its “perversion” was flourishing.

Concern over promiscuity and the Pill

Naval authorities feared they would encourage promiscuity among women recruits if they allowed service doctors to prescribe the contraceptive pill.

The director of the Women’s Royal Naval Service wrote in a 1967 guidance note:”Many of the Wrens are just 17 when they join. They are immature and are still forming their own moral standards. If the Pill were freely available from service sources this would tend to make them feel that the authorities expected and condoned promiscuous behaviour.”

The Navy decided that doctors could prescribe the Pill “on social grounds”, but if the Wren was single the doctor was expected to check that she was getting married soon. If this was not the case, the doctor was advised to use “very great discretion”. The note added: “There can be no question of appearing to condone promiscuity or approve lax behaviour.”

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