‘Admirals would say: we don’t want to serve with these people’ – Craig Jones, the sailor who came out and changed the navy


Show caption Craig Jones: ‘The fact that I had come out didn’t just go around my ship quickly, it went around the whole damned fleet.’ Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian The outspoken ‘Admirals would say: we don’t want to serve with these people’ – Craig Jones, the sailor who came out and changed the navy The ban on gay people serving in the military meant the lieutenant commander spent a decade fearing imprisonment. As soon as it was lifted he insisted on speaking out – whatever the cost Simon Hattenstone Wed 12 Jan 2022 10.00 GMT Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share via Email

It was towards the end of his interview for a place at the prestigious Britannia Royal Naval College that Craig Jones was asked if he had ever had contact with homosexuals. No, he said, he had never knowingly met a homosexual in his life. Then, for good measure, “I said something like: ‘If I saw anybody who was gay, I’d walk in the opposite direction.’” He looks ashamed. “I was only young,” he says. Back in 1987, there was a ban on gay, bisexual and trans people joining Britain’s armed forces.

Jones, then 20, was telling the naval officers what they wanted to hear. But he was also telling the truth. He had no sexual experience, had never been in a relationship and was an unworldly, small-town Yorkshire lad. About to finish a degree in economics at Portsmouth polytechnic, he had only one ambition: to join the navy as an officer. Jones impressed the interview board and won a place on an elite fast-tracking course, which he deferred for a year.

Then, a few weeks after the interview, he passed a newsagent and a magazine caught his eye. He went in and bought the Radio Times, which featured the singer Michael Ball on its cover. He took the magazine home, looked hard at the picture and panicked. “I thought: ‘Fuck, I bought that because I fancy him, and therefore I’m gay.’ That was a massive complication when I was about to join the navy. I walked through the gates of Britannia Royal Naval College at 15.45pm on 12 September 1989 and left part of me behind. The bit of me that was acceptable to them carried on up the hill.” Jones, who is speaking via Zoom from his home in Brighton, recalls times and dates with military precision.

Craig Jones in 2008. Photograph: Steven Davidson/Courtesy of Craig Jones

Despite rising to the rank of lieutenant commander, he was forced to live a secret life. He went on to have a successful career in the Royal Navy – but not as successful as it could have been. Over the past 21 years, since the ban on gay personnel was repealed, he has campaigned vociferously for gay rights in the armed forces – damaging his own advancement in the process.

Last week, the home secretary, Priti Patel, announced that all convictions for consensual homosexual activity will be wiped from the records. A further announcement is expected in the next few days about people criminalised or forced out of the military because of their sexuality. Some were stripped of pensions and medals, some ended up homeless and impoverished, and some were imprisoned for a variety of offences, including breaching the Sexual Offences Act. As Jones is quick to point out, he could have easily gone the same way.

“In the 80s and 90s, admirals and generals would repeatedly say: ‘We don’t want to serve with these people. These people have standards that are different to those we have in the armed forces. They would damage operational effectiveness, they would cause discord at the frontline, they would make us less competent as a nation at war fighting.’” He pauses. “A bit crazy, but that was what the thought was.”

Jones, a youthful 53-year-old, has the bearing of an ex-naval officer – a polished smartness, and hair swept immaculately to the side. He was born in Bingley, five miles from Bradford, to a dinner-lady mother and a father who was a storeman at Bradford University. His uncle had served in the navy as a radio operator in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and was revered in the family. Jones wanted to follow suit from a young age.

At 21, he joined the navy as a sub-lieutenant and was subsequently promoted to lieutenant and lieutenant commander. He was involved in interdiction operations to disrupt the cocaine trade from South America to North America, and retrained as a helicopter fast-rope incursions officer (which involved surprising targets by landing on them with an armed team). He was deployed to the northern Gulf in 1993, after the Gulf war, to check vessels for bombs, guns and contraband. For Jones, it was an exhilarating and purposeful life.

In 1994, back in Britain, he found himself working as a patrol officer in South Down, Northern Ireland, performing armed boarding operations on vessels suspected of smuggling fertiliser bombs to mainland Britain. One day, he had an epiphany. On patrol with a police sergeant, they spotted what appeared to be an unmanned fishing boat in the middle of the sea. “We got on board and it was silent. I said to the sergeant: ‘This isn’t right, I’m not comfortable.’ So we drew our pistols and he very bravely said: ‘You look down the hatch, boss, and I’ll cover you.’ So I looked down the hatch and saw two older teenage lads lying on a mattress in each other’s arms. At the time, the age of consent in Northern Ireland was 21, so it was an illegal act.” Jones discreetly gave the young men time to dress, beckoned them to come to the top of the hatch, and told the sergeant there was nothing suspicious below deck. “It was the first time I had any notion that I was part of anything bigger – a gay community – and it was instinctive to protect them.”

On HMS Bristol in 1990.

A few weeks later, he returned to England. “That night, I walked into my first gay bar and sat next to the man who would become my husband and partner of the past 27 years.” He laughs. “I think I bring remarkable military efficiency to dating!” Jones was 26; Adam was 19 and working as a coffee shop assistant at Tesco.

This brought another set of problems. Now he didn’t just have to hide his sexuality, he had to hide his partner and their lifestyle. “When we met in 1995, if we’d been caught, I’d have been arrested and sent to prison for six months for the criminal offence of homosexuality.”

The year before, Jones had been appointed navigator on HMS Sheffield – a dream job for him. But, 48 hours before he was due to sail from Plymouth, Adam’s father died suddenly. Jones knew he had to be with Adam, but he was unable to leave the ship. He ended up having a breakdown on board that resulted in 10 weeks’ leave. He couldn’t tell his seniors what had happened, so he said he had suffered a crisis of confidence in navigating. Not surprisingly, this proved to be a professional setback.

Throughout his career, Jones expected a tap on the shoulder. Every time he came ashore, he feared the military police would be waiting to arrest him. “You didn’t know if somebody had seen you with your boyfriend or just made a false accusation. It was a toxic environment and people were actively encouraged to report those who might be gay.” On one occasion, when a colleague visited, he had to “de-gay” their home. “I had a signed Shirley Bassey poster in the hall, and I thought: ‘Jesus, get that down.’ I had a picture of a warship somewhere so I shoved that up on the wall instead.” He created aliases for friends in his address book. “On one page is George and Joan. Well, George and Joan are actually George and John. My whole address book was adjusted like that, in case anyone found anything.”

Craig and Adam at a gay bar in Key West, Florida, in 1995.

Some people confessed to being gay under duress, he says. “They had been interrogated for days [by Royal Military Police]. Some had been spat at and pushed around, and then somebody said: ‘You can go on leave for a week if you sign this form,’ and they signed confessions.” Today, Jones is in touch with three of 17 former lifeguards who were sacked for being gay in a single day, in the 1970s. “One of them is gay, two are straight. What a sad waste of brilliant careers.”

By 1999, he’d had enough. He applied for a job as principal warfare officer on HMS Fearless, a role that involved working with special intelligence. The job required high-level security clearance: he knew he would be vigorously vetted and his relationship with Adam would be detected – they shared bank accounts, had a joint mortgage and were on the electoral register at the same address. Astonishingly, he got the job. “The lieutenant colonel interviewing me leaned forward and said: ‘Just before you go, I haven’t spoken to you about homosexuality but, based on the answers you’ve given me, I don’t believe it’s something I need to worry about, is it?’ And I thought: ‘You don’t need to worry about it. I’m quite a happy homosexual,’ so I said: ‘No sir, I don’t think so,’ and he shook my hand and I left.”

A year later, a signals telegram came in with a security classification. It stated that the gay ban was to be lifted because it had been found to be unlawful by the European court of human rights. After the captain had announced to the ship’s company that the ban would be revoked, Jones went to his office and said his bit. “I told the captain that this was a day when, finally, our values would match those which we defend. He said very little.” In some ways, Jones says, it was comic. There was disquiet when he said Adam would be his plus one at the navy’s Burns Night party a few days later. “I think they thought he might come in a feather boa.”

Did anyone else come out at the same time? “No. Did they hell. The fact that the ops officer – me – had come out didn’t just go around my ship quickly, it went around the whole damned fleet. For the first four years after the ban was lifted, very few people came out – and if they did, it was done quietly.”

From then on, Jones fought ceaselessly for gay rights. He wrote a paper in 2000 suggesting the Royal Navy joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme (the employers’ programme for ensuring all LGBTQ+ staff are free to be themselves in the workplace), that they marched and recruited at Pride, and that education programmes were introduced to ameliorate the impact of the former ban. “It went to the Royal Navy’s head of personnel and I got a reply saying: ‘Homosexuality is a private matter for the individual and not something for the service to be involved with.’”

Jones kept writing to admirals and ministers saying it was not enough to revoke the ban; LGBTQ+ people had to be welcomed in the military. “I got letters back from admirals saying: ‘Please stop doing this.’” On one occasion, he gatecrashed a senior conference on inclusion to announce to all present, including the second sea lord (the head of personnel in the navy), that the failure to embrace LGBTQ+ personnel was “a catastrophic breach of the armed forces covenant”. He smiles at the memory. “The second sea lord had a face like thunder.”

Jones receiving his MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2006. With him are (from left) Adam, Craig’s mum, Kathleen, and dad, Douglas.

Did he ever feel he should have spoken up earlier, when the ban was still in place? “So many things were fundamentally wrong, but I couldn’t do anything about it except wreck my career. I’m pleased I didn’t leave because, if I had, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enable changes that have made our armed forces the best in the world at LGBTQ+ inclusion, which is amazing.”

In 2005, the Royal Navy became the first armed service to sign up to the Diversity Champions programme and, a year later, became the first armed service to march at Pride.

Was life better for Jones, professionally, once he came out? Anything but, he says. “I felt there was a spotlight on everything I did. There was nobody else who was trying to be out and proud. So it was really tough. Whenever I went into an officer’s mess that wasn’t mine, eyes would follow me round the table. I’d stop conversations at lunch – people would put their knives and forks down as I walked past. There weren’t many friends who would stand next to me at the bar. If you were a career person, I wasn’t someone to stand next to.”

In 2006, he won an OBE for services to equality and human rights in the armed forces, and two years later, he quit the navy. Why did he leave? “My career had been damaged by the campaign to achieve change. I was a lone wolf, a very vocal protagonist of change, and it had an enduring impact on my career. And my work was done. Sometimes, the person who kicks the door down isn’t the person who sits at the table and I’m fine with that. I’d achieved what I was passionate about.”

Jones went on to become head of equality and diversity for Barclays, then set up an organisation with Adam (now a psychologist) dedicated to moving people with severe mental health problems from low secure units back into the community. But he felt that victims of the ban still hadn’t seen justice and, last year (20 years after the ban was lifted), he founded the charity Fighting With Pride to campaign for those who had been hounded out of the military and criminalised for being LGBTQ+ (or for others thinking they were). “There are thousands of people who are financially impoverished, with health and wellbeing issues, broken careers and criminal records,” he says.

Jones is now confident that the armed forces are ready to acknowledge the harm that was done, and to compensate victims fittingly. What has delighted him is that, after many years, the veterans community has now offered its support. “The people who I speak to every week are really struggling. I speak to people who are not living the lives our veterans should live. And this is an unremedied disgrace.”

How important has the fight for justice been to him? “It’s in my DNA,” he says. “I’ll be here till it’s done.”