Trevor Skingle and His Battle for Freedom
© Photograph by Trevor Skingle
After years of covering up his sexual identity, Mr Skingle shares his experience as an ex-veteran, gay man.
Trevor Skingle was only 17 when he joined the Army in 1974. Despite the fact that the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised private homosexual encounters, people suspected of being LGBTQ+ at the time were subject to dishonourable charges by the military. Furthermore, the laws against homosexuality stipulated that anyone under the age of 21 engaging in "unnatural acts" with an individual of the same sex could still be found guilty of sodomy. It wasn't until 1994 that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act lowered the age of consent for gay men from 21 to 18, and from 18 to 16 in 2001.
Why did you join the Army?
My great grandfather served in South Africa during the Boer War and was subsequently killed in a German bombing raid in Belgium after he re-enlisted and served there during WWI. One grandfather served in the Army’s Bomb Disposal in London during WWII (and was a part of the Bomb Disposal Squad which removed bombs from the grounds of Buckingham Palace) and another grandfather served in India in the period between WWI and WWII and subsequently became a Bagpiper in the Reserve during WWII. Two uncles served in the Navy, another two in the Army, and one in the RAF. So I was born into and surrounded by a family with a history of service in the Military.
I was also working in our family green grocery business and though pressured by family to stay on there I wasn’t keen on being a greengrocer for the rest of my working life; my education and natural intelligence made me want something more, something that would challenge me intellectually so though when I joined up I was initially attracted to the glamour of perhaps being what was then referred to as a ‘Mounted Duty Man’ in the Guards (ceremonial duties on horseback) I was persuaded to go into the Royal Signals where I could make better use of my intelligence.
Were you aware of your sexual orientation when you joined the Army at 17? How did this make you feel about joining?
I was aware of my sexual orientation when I joined the Army. I had a strong attraction to other guys at Grammar School which intensified when I reached puberty. However, my school friends and mates in general around that time were homophobic which was a pretty standard attitude for most blokes around that time, and if the truth were to be known as a teenager I also expressed some homophobia to disguise my own sexual orientation. I also had a quite intense heterosexual relationship with a local teenage girl and could quite readily get off on what sexual activities we got up to. At the family business, I was attracted to one or two of the owner, my uncle’s mates and felt quite flattered when I got quite a lot of attention from some of the male customers.
I was, however, quite conflicted. Though I was attracted to men at that time I couldn’t see any ‘masculine’ role models amongst those who presented themselves as gay. They all seemed ‘effeminate’ and that definitely wasn’t me. I was attracted to a bloke because he was a bloke with all the ‘masculine’ characteristics that that entails. I don’t apologise if this offends today’s sensibilities. It was just the way it was for me at that time, and if I’m honest I’m still attracted to ‘masculine’ gay men. And I suppose this might have also affected my choice to join the Military. Wanting to be around other blokes, almost exclusively.
© Photograph by Trevor Skingle
How was your experience in the Army?
Tough, as basic training is meant to be. Along with the rest of the trainees, or sprogs, as we knew, I didn’t have time to do anything other than concentrate and give my all to completing basic training successfully. Do you know I can’t even recall having the time or space to even masturbate. My mates were my mates and our bond was through sharing a tough experience and I had no sexual longings for any of them. It just wasn’t on the agenda. Then, after basic training, I moved to trade training and though it was less intense than basic training it was still full-on and again I had no time really to consider my predicament. I did however form a relationship with a woman who was in the Women’s Royal Army Corps which was very tender and very loving. If the relationship had persisted I may have tried to live a heterosexual life but I went home on leave one Christmas after I finished trade training and before I got my working unit posting and called her home. I was told by her mum that she had left me for someone else and was going to get married. It’s the only time I ever cried over a broken relationship with a woman. I suppose, in the absence of a meaningful relationship with another bloke, I was in love with her.
So I joined my working unit in Germany shortly afterwards and was immediately sucked into a life of seriously hard work, interspersed with periods of intense boredom and some serious partying which essentially meant, for most of us, getting absolutely hammered on booze whenever the opportunity arose. For me, this was a slippery slope as I used this as a coping mechanism for my loneliness. Once again I ended up in a relationship with a local German woman which again was sexually fulfilling. However, I was also getting occasionally explicit sexual signals from some of the guys in my unit, including one married guy who I had a serious sexual longing for. We did manage to get it on but very briefly and in a way that didn’t arouse suspicions (I’m not going to go into details). Also, when we visited the brothels in Germany some of the guys would hint that they would look favourably on a threesome with a female prostitute. I strongly suspect it was their way of getting off with another bloke but it was acceptable because a woman would be involved... and of course, there was always a game of ‘grab arse’, as the Yanks called it, and sneaky fumblings in the back of a car when we were very drunk with the excuse that “I was so drunk last night I can’t remember a thing!”
So things didn’t really improve and my drinking got really bad. Then I attempted suicide. I remember my hair turned white for a while when I was in the hospital recovering. When I’d recovered I was interviewed by an Army psychologist who started asking me questions about my sexual relationships. At the time I could’ve been drummed out of the Army or imprisoned or both if they had found out I was gay. At the time being gay in the Armed Forces was given the equivalent of a spy seeking nuclear bomb secrets! So I told them what they wanted to know, that I was in a sexually fulfilling relationship with a local German woman.
When I returned to my unit I was moved away from the troop that I had been with and my working trade and was assigned to work in the gym as an Assistant Physical Training Instructor, known in Army slang as an Akai. I absolutely loved it! I thrived like I never had before, even without a romantic relationship with anyone, either male or female. I got heavily into learning and eventually coaching Judo and Boxing, but concentrated mostly on Judo and helped to set up a Judo Club at the unit. Eventually, I was awarded my Regimental Judo Colours from the Commanding Officer of the Regiment and was eventually posted to another unit in Blandford in Dorset as an Akai. And again I got into a very brief heterosexual relationship. One of the married guys from Germany with whom I had managed to get off with was also posted to the same unit and hints were again dropped but we never got it on while I was there.
© Photograph by Trevor Skingle
Why did you leave the Army?
Though I was thriving at Blandford I was getting increasingly lonely and pining for a relationship with a guy. I became disillusioned and was returned to my unit at my request from a course that might have seen me progress to becoming a senior PT Instructor. I’m not sure the senior staff at the gym knew what to do with me and I felt increasingly at odds with the military life I was leading so I applied to buy myself out and it was granted.
Have you met other people with the same experience?
Not anyone else who was a PT Instructor but there were plenty of others who I met when I became a civvie and a reservist. I became increasingly against serving every year as a reservist because of the continued ban on being gay in the Military so I asked a friend of mine, a well-renowned psychiatrist, to write a letter confirming that I was ‘a well-adjusted homosexual’ which I sent to the Ministry of Defence. I will never forget their single sentence replay. ‘Your service has been terminated the date of this letter. ‘Fuck you’ I thought. Then I got to meet some other equally pissed off people from the Military and we formed a group called Rank Outsiders to lobby for a change to the law to make it legal, initially, for lesbians and gays to serve openly as such in the Military. At the time the additional categories of bisexual and transgender weren’t really in on the radar so to speak. I appeared on Channel 4’s ‘Comment’ in 1991 to speak to the issues as I saw them. Not long after some of my friends started getting ill and eventually died so I committed myself to help to support people with HIV instead and lost touch with the Rank Outsiders people.
Do you think that since then the Government has taken enough measures to be inclusive?
The Government have moved forward since the lifting of the ban in a way that has been surprising and impactful in ways that I had not imagined they would commit to. Everyone still serving that I have listened to or chatted to are so so very positive about the way they are treated and the way their lives have become so much more fulfilled as a result of the lifting of the ban. Much more so than for those of us who had served and left before 2000. For me, the positive progress culminated in the apology made by Johnny Mercer MP (then Minister for Defence People and Veterans) at the gathering at the House of Commons in 2020 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the lifting of the ban! Those who suffered prior to 2000 need to be helped to make their lives complete and get the closure they might never have otherwise had.
Given the more inclusive world we’re living in, do you think other veterans will be inspired to talk about their own experience?
I think that, prior to the first pandemic lockdown, many veterans had been talking about their experiences and others had started to. Covid seems to have put an awful lot of that on the back burner for now but hopefully, when this pandemic is over they can start to talk about their experiences again, and hopefully how the changes have helped them to move forward positively… …and perhaps they will be able to, at some point tell about how they have been helped to get some satisfactory closure.