Amport is something of a hidden gem in Test Valley, with its thatched cottages and village green tucked away from the main roads.

But despite its unassuming nature, Amport played a big part in changing the UK’s armed forces into a force fit for the modern world. It played host to a conference in 2004 which would bring greater equality for LGBT+ personnel, and prove a catalyst for further change which still have impacts to this day.

While today, the UK’s armed forces are recognised as a bastion of equality for LGBT+ people, it was very different in the 1990s. Though homosexuality had been decriminalised in the UK in 1967, it remained an offence under UK military law, and was grounds for dismissal. Those found guilty could be interrogated by the Royal Military Police, be stripped of their medals and pensions, and be imprisoned for a period of several months.

As a result, LGBT+ people serving in the armed forces had to hide their sexuality from their comrades and commanding officers. One such individual was Craig Jones, who joined the Royal Navy in 1989. His career took in a number of hotspots around the world, including Northern Ireland during the Troubles and service in the Gulf. He says that there was “a huge amount of pressure” on LGBT+ personnel to maintain this secrecy.

“Anybody who served in the 70s, 80s and 90s was aware of the fact that the consequences of being caught were extremely severe, and I think that put a huge amount of pressure on people’s soldiers.

“For some people, it was too much and they resigned and left. But for others, like me, we carried on in the hope that one day the ban would be lifted.”

In the late 1990s, while serving as deputy navigator of the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, there began to be whispers of change. In particular, two personnel who had been dismissed for homosexuality, Jeanette Smith and Graeme Grady, took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in 1999, following a number of years of legal battles in UK courts.

“It was a beacon of hope,” said Craig. “I was always nervous about reading anything about it in a newspaper or putting it on the radio in my cabin so I had to find out through other methods.”

In September of that year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the ban on LGBT+ personnel in the armed forces was a breach of the right to family life, and that the way the legal battle had been fought was also a breach of the right to an effective legal remedy.

“A part of me was massively relieved,” said Craig, “but also it wasn’t clear that the UK would comply at that time and there was a worrying period of months where everything went quiet and we wondered whether it would lift. In those months, I applied for a job as a baggage handling supervisor with BA as I decided that if the UK wasn’t going to comply I would go.”

However, in December, rumours the ban would be lifted began to circulate. On January 10, 2000, Craig, as a communications officer, was tasked with decoding a communique, which announced that the ban would be lifted.

He said: “I took that to my commanding officer and he read it, and he told me how disappointed he was that the officials of Whitehall had let him down. I explained to him that as officers we had a duty to now support all the men and women in our command, and I was one of the people who he could now support.

“It set us up for a very difficult relationship but it was a massive relief for me. I had no problem with being myself but I couldn’t be the other person that the armed forces wanted me to be.”

Despite the lifting of the ban, he says it was still a “toxic environment” for LGBT+ people in the Armed forces, and that he “came out into a firestorm”. For four years, Craig campaigned for the policy of inclusion to be “properly supported,” but that nothing happened until a chance meeting at Trooping the Colour, where he met the father of a woman he had trained in the navy. That man, Lord Armstrong, was a peer in the House of Lords.

He said: “I chatted through some of the challenges that we’d faced in the armed forces and he was incredibly sympathetic and said he thought that he could help.”

This subsequently led to a meeting with the First Sea Lord, Lord West of Spithead, at Leeds Castle. Over a weekend of discussions, one outcome was an LGBT+ conference for serving personnel was to be held. Given the sensitivities at the time, the venue was required to be as private as possible, and so the then-Military Chaplaincy at Amport House was chosen.

Messages were sent to every unit advising them of the event, with all LGBT+ personnel welcome. Despite the secrecy in place, rumours persisted that a national newspaper was planning to stake out the gate at the house. But this didn’t come to pass, and instead brought the armed forces LGBT+ community together.

Craig said: “To bring that community together after such a tough couple of decades was amazing. Most of us had not been in the room with more than one or two other gay servicepeople. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in a room with 50 of us.

“It was incredibly moving. People were visibly upset to suddenly see so many people who had struggled through those very difficult years. It was an amazing event.”

The Friday saw a keynote speech by the executive director of Stonewall, followed by an evening dinner, while the Saturday saw a series of discussions to understand where personnel thought the armed forces could go so “they could feel included and valued.”

“It was the catalyst of a great deal of change,” said Craig. “After that, the armed forces employee network groups were created, which became instrumental in providing forums within the single services in which they could map out a different future.”

This included the armed forces attending Pride events for the first time, with the Royal Navy the first armed force in the world which marched in ceremonial uniform at a Pride event. They also began recruiting at Pride events, and putting adverts in LGBT+ magazines. However, this didn’t always go to plan.

Craig said: “The recruitment team once took out an advert with Gay Times who gave them a two for one, though they didn’t know it, with Boys Magazine, which is a bit more racy.

“I opened it once to see a picture of a Royal Navy recruiting ad on one page and on the other page there was an advert for a load of different types of lubricant. I had to phone them and tell them to be careful where they advertise!”

In 2006, he was recognised for his work with an MBE for equality and diversity in the armed forces. In 2008, at the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, Craig retired from the military, and has since become the joint chief executive of Fighting With Pride, which campaigns on behalf of LGBT+ veterans.

He said: “What we’re concerned about in Fighting With Pride is that nothing has been done for our LGBT+ veterans who live with the consequences of an illegal ban and they need remedy and reparations.

“What we want to see in future is royal pardons for everybody who has the historic offence of being gay, because in modern society that cannot be an offence. We want to see people’s commissions and warrants restored; we want to see officers restored to the retired list; and we want to see education and training and resettlement for all of the people who didn’t get that opportunity.

“Above all other things, it’s really important that there is compensation for a group of veterans who lived in an impoverished state. They have health issues, they have housing issues, they have employment issues and the majority of them don’t have a military pension.

“These people stepped forward for the privilege of military service, not for anything else, and we quite literally cut them down.”

He welcomed the recent announcement that LGBT+ personnel who had their medals taken away would be able to apply for them to be returned, but said “it must be the beginning of a journey to bring back our LGBT+ veterans to the military family”.

To learn more about Fighting With Pride, please click here.