MI6 boss apologises for past ban on LGBT staff

Richard Moore says spy agency’s policy up to 1991 was ‘wrong, unjust and discriminatory’

The new head of MI6 has apologised publicly to officers who were thrown out of the spy agency before 1991 when it operated a “wrong, unjust and discriminatory” ban on LGBT staff in its ranks.

Richard Moore, also known as C, released a short video statement acknowledging that “committed, talented, public-spirited people had their careers and lives blighted” because they were told gay people could not serve.

Problems continued after 1991, Moore acknowledged. LGBT staff who were employed when the ban ended were treated badly for not previously disclosing their sexuality, he said, and others who joined after 1991 were made to feel unwelcome.

During the cold war it was believed that same-sex relationships were a risk to national security, partly because of the prejudices of the time and partly because it was thought the information could be used as a tool for blackmail.

The ban persisted for nearly a quarter a century after homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. MI6 said it was unable to say how many people had been kicked out or prevented from joining for security reasons.

The practice of dismissing openly homosexual agents ran across Britain’s three spy agencies, most notably in the case of Alan Turing. The mathematician and codebreaker was forced out of GCHQ in 1952 after he was convicted for having a gay relationship. He was subjected to chemical castration and subsequently killed himself.

“Because of this policy, other loyal and patriotic people had their dreams of serving their country in MI6 shattered. This was wrong, unjust and discriminatory,” Moore said in a rare video message timed to coincide with LGBT+ history month.

“Today I apologise on behalf of MI6 for the way our LGBT+ colleagues and fellow citizens were treated and express my regret to those whose lives were affected. Being LGBT+ did not make these people a national security threat. Of course not.”

A rainbow flag outside the MI6 building
A rainbow flag outside the MI6 building in London on International Day Against Homophobia in 2016. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The agency is keen to shed James Bond or Oxbridge images of its agents in the belief it badly needs people who can operate effectively around the world as it focuses on Russia, China and the Middle East. On occasions in recent years it has lit up its Vauxhall headquarters in the rainbow colours of the pride flag.

“We still have more to do to become a fully inclusive employer, and my goal for MI6 is to make it a workplace where you can always bring your true self to work,” Moore said. “Diversity makes us more effective; inclusion makes us stronger.”

Prejudice against gay men in the secret service may have been heightened in part by a series of cold war spy scandals. The Cambridge Spy Ring, a group of agents and diplomats who passed information to the Soviet Union during the second world war, included two gay men, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. A third, Donald MacLean, was bisexual.

It was routinely suggested that homosexual men in the secret service could not be trusted, a prejudice solidified by the case of the gay civil servant John Vassall, who was caught in a ‘honey trap’ sprung by the Soviet secret service in 1962. He was blackmailed into passing secrets to the Soviet Union and as a result sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment for espionage.

The Ministry of Defence said earlier this week that it would allow former serving personnel to reclaim any medals taken from them when they were kicked out of the armed forces for being homosexual. The military’s bar on LGBT people serving ran until 2000.

The MoD action was criticised for not going far enough because it did not address issues such as criminal convictions, lost ranks and pension rights or compensation. Nor did Moore’s apology on behalf of MI6 refer to any form of redress.

Moore said he decided to act after his first meeting with MI6’s LGBT+ staff group when he took over in the autumn. “They said, look, this is outstanding, in our view. We’ve never had an apology for the hurt and distress caused to so many people.” He added: “That resonated very strongly with me.”

The spy chief was speaking in a short video discussion with the actor and gay rights campaigner Sir Ian McKellen. The actor said he believed it was worthwhile for MI6 to make an apology even if “some people will see it as late in the day”, arguing that “symbols do matter”.


Dan Sabbagh and Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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