Royal British Legion apologies for past homophobic discrimination

LGBT+ wreaths at Cenotaph condemned as “insult to war dead”

London, UK – 19 April 2022


The Royal British Legion (RBL), has apologised for past “discrimination” against the LGBT+ community and LGBT+ war veterans, winning “praise and thanks” for its decision and its new commitment to LGBT+ inclusion.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell wrote to the RBL criticising its past disparagement of LGBT+ veterans and of LGBT+ remembrance ceremonies and wreath layings at the Cenotaph during the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and as recently as just over a decade ago.

The RBL had for many years denounced LGBT+ wreaths at the Cenotaph as “disgusting” and “an insult to the war dead.” It allegedly ordered the wreaths to be removed and destroyed. Mr Tatchell deplored RBL’s past refusal to even reply to letters of concern written by the LGBT+ group OutRage! He urged the Legion to apologise.

The Royal British Legion’s Director General, Charles Byrne, has now written to Mr Tatchell stating:

“I am deeply saddened by your previous experience with the charity, and I can only apologise on RBL’s behalf for not responding and the discrimination shown at the time. RBL has very much changed as an organisation since your original correspondence with us…The behaviour you outline of the RBL of the past is not tolerated in today’s organisation. The corrective action of more recent years has led to an organisation where differences are celebrated…RBL has formed a positive relationship with Fighting with Pride, including the provision of a helpline to LGBT+ veterans, serving personal and their families…and support to LGBT+ veterans who were unfairly discharged and stripped of their medals prior to the ban being lifted in January 2000.”

Peter Tatchell responded by saying:

“Our praise and thanks to the Legion for turning away from its homophobic past with this forthright and fulsome apology. We are delighted by its commitment to support LGBT+ veterans and work with the LGBT+ community. This draws a line under the pain of the RBL’s previous prejudice and discrimination. LGBT+ people can now confidently collaborate with the RBL, knowing that they are on our side.”

Mr Tatchell had written to the RBL late last year stating:

“I would like to respectfully request that the Royal British Legion make a public apology to LGBT+ veterans and the wider LGBT+ community for its actions in the past:

  1. Refusing to acknowledge that LGBT+ people served in the armed forces and their sacrifice
  2. Condemning LGBT+ wreath-laying at the Cenotaph
  3. Opposition to LGBT+ veterans marching in the Remembrance Sunday parade
  4. Using disparaging language about attempts to commemorate LGBT+ veterans, including the words and phrases: ‘bad taste’ and ‘making political capital’
  5. Not responding to letters from myself and others when we wrote to the RBL express these concerns

“For example, I raised some of these issues with the RBL in a letter dated 24 December 2007, for which no reply was received. Copy below.

“In the years prior to me writing that letter, the RBL described the laying of LGBT+ wreaths at the Cenotaph as ‘disgusting’ and an ‘insult to the war dead.’

“Until 1985, for two decades from the early 1970s, all LGBT+ wreaths were removed from the Cenotaph and destroyed. I was told at the time that this was at the request of the Royal British Legion.

“I know and appreciate that the RBL has changed and moved on but I nevertheless hope that some form of apology can be made so we can draw a final and complete line under the past.”

Sample letter to the RBL, dated 24 December 2007

Dear British Legion,

You accuse OutRage! of “making political capital” out of Remembrance Sunday because we laid a pink triangle wreath at the Cenotaph to commemorate the lesbian and gay people who died on the battlefield fighting Nazism and in the concentration camps.

Our observance of Queer Remembrance Day was, you say, in “bad taste”.

Who does the British Legion think it is?

 It is sheer arrogance for you to criticise and demean our act of remembrance. The gay community has as much right to honour its members who fought for freedom as the Black and Jewish communities, both of which pay respect to their war dead without being vilified by the British Legion.

Why is the charge of “making political capital” thrown at queer organisations that want to commemorate the gay servicemen and women who gave their lives to defeat fascism, but never at other organisations who parade at the Cenotaph, such as the Salvation Army?

If the British Legion had the decency to acknowledge the contribution of queer soldiers, sailors and aircrews to the Allied victory over Hitlerism our commemoration would be unnecessary. It is precisely your shameful silence which forces us to honour the lives of otherwise forgotten, unsung gay heroes and heroines.

An estimated 500,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual people served in the British armed forces during World War II, accounting for about ten per cent of enlisted strength. Their contribution made an important difference.

 Yet the British Legion refuses to officially admit that any homosexuals fought in the last war, let alone that some of them acquitted themselves with distinction. It’s time you showed some respect instead of belittling the respect shown by the gay community.

 Yours, Peter Tatchell

OutRage! – the LGBT+ direct action and human rights movement