BOOK REVIEW: This Queer Angel by Elaine Chambers

The author today

The author today

This Queer Angel – One woman’s battle against the country she served – by Elaine Chambers.

Can you imagine a time when you would be dismissed from your job and could be sent to prison, not for doing anything at all, but just for being lesbian or gay?

What if you were sent to a psychiatrist to treat your homosexuality or your Doctor was required to conduct an intimate examination to prove whether or not you were lesbian or gay?

How would you feel after three or more days of interrogation by the police; your property searched, diaries, mobiles, computers and photographs seized and your friends, work colleagues, even your family interviewed?

Private Chambers, May 1982

Private Chambers, 1982

Now place yourself in that interview room. You are a woman on your own. You have done nothing illegal. Two police officers are questioning you, are asking the most detailed and intimate questions about your sex life, the sort of questions police might ask someone suspected of rape.

And now imagine that the lead interrogator is male.

This wasn’t two centuries past. It wasn’t even during the period of Alan Turing. This was occurring just two decades ago in the United Kingdom.

Yet even at this darkest hour, Elaine Chambers finds humour in the cruel situation in which she found herself.

Outside Ministry of Defence in 1994

Outside Ministry of Defence in 1994

Servicemen and women who served their country with distinction lost their careers, their homes, their pensions and even their liberty, not for any offence but just for being homosexual. Elaine was one of them. Yet the cruelty of her ejection from the Army, where Lieutenant Chambers was a talented nursing sister, the loss of her career and the betrayal of friends is not met with self-pity, bitterness or anger. Instead Elaine shows humour, self-awareness and a great deal of perception and understanding. She gives us an autobiography which is also an important and personal account of history.

Between 70 and 100 LGBT+ people were discharged from our Armed Forces in this way each year. Often they were dismissed in disgrace after distinguished careers. The civilian world into which they were plunged was a difficult one to enter, not least because of the embarrassing questions about why they had suddenly left the Forces. Many never found their feet and took their own lives.

On exercises, Ash Ranges, November 1986

In this hostile military world, one minority within the LGTB+ communities faired far worse. Women in those days represented just 10 percent of the Armed Forces. Already subject to the hostility of an often misogynistic majority, investigations by the Forces Police disproportionately hounded lesbians. Friends were set against friends. Loyalties were tested to the extreme.

The headlines of those days paint a vivid picture of this. “Her Majesty’s Dyke Yard Dryad” screamed one notorious newspaper after the Special Investigation Branch of the naval police had uncovered a lesbian ring in one naval establishment.

Sister Chambers QATC, November 1986

Sister Chambers QATC, 1986

The campaign to the lift the ban was largely dominated by male (and frequently Royal Naval officer) voices. Indeed three of the four of us who took the United Kingdom to the European Court of Human Rights were men. The voice of our lesbian comrades remained largely unheard, drowned out by testosterone.

In Elaine Chambers’ book This Queer Angel, that voice is at last heard in the most clear, poignant and human way. Elaine has not penned a dry history of those dark times and of the battle to change the discriminatory policy. Her honest account is of a girl growing up and discovering her sexuality, of being outed; a story which will resonate with every LGBT+ reader. It is a story of a career she loved and excelled at and how it all ends. Yet it is a triumph of hope and a history of achievement of rights for all in the workplace.

Elaine describes in painful detail how Military Police investigated and interrogated her, but still she finds humour in her own cruel investigation. It is an honest book and painfully funny.

You will shudder to think of the talent lost by this cruel and wasteful policy. Absent from this gripping read is any self-pity or anger. Elaine leaves those feelings to the reader who cannot fail to be moved at the great injustice she experienced.

Elaine ends her book looking at the campaign to change the law, understating the momentous impact she had in starting the ball rolling by co-founding Rank Outsiders, the LGBT+ military welfare and campaign group.

Elaine never blows her own trumpet and thus I must do so for her. I have met many women and men who Elaine has helped through the trauma of dismissal from the Forces. Some of those she helped were suicidal and Elaine saved their lives just as effectively as she saved lives as a nursing sister.

Personally, as leader of the campaign and one of the four who took the successful action ending in the European Court of Human Rights, Elaine was a steady, calm, mature and wise counsel for those of us in the front line of the battle. She was there for me always and has been a friend ever since. Along with many people I owe much to this remarkable woman.

Well-written, full of self-effacing humour, This Queer Angel is a riveting read. Poignant, funny and honest, this personal and historic account is a must read for those interested in LGBT+ history. It is also very timely as protecting LGBT+ rights is vital in the hostile headwinds our communities faces globally.

This Queer Angel by Elaine Chambers is available from bookshops and priced £10.99 and an eBook is available at £3.99 from Unbound where further details are available.

This review has been written by Duncan Lustig-Prean, a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy dismissed for being gay in 1995. He led the campaign to lift the ban on LGBT+ people in the Armed Forces and to establish employment protection for all LGBT+ people in the workplace. He was lead test case in the European Court of Human Rights and achieved the change of law in 2000. He remains active in LGBT+ rights.

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