When the history of queer rights in the UK is updated, there’ll be at least once chapter on Duncan Lustig-Prean, who has just become Chair of Brighton Fringe.
To tell the full story, we need to go back to the era of the so-called Cold War, post 1945, when many of Britain’s top spies were gay. But the situation generated the thought that if you were gay and in such a role you could be blackmailed – especially by a foreign adversary, due to your lack of integrity. When homosexuality was part-decriminalised in 1967, those serving in the armed forces were excluded. Cruel instructions were codified on the unacceptability of LGBTQ+ people serving in the forces.
Duncan told me: “The system was incredibly intrusive – in one instance the customers of a gay bar were put under surveillance from a benefit office opposite”. The aim of the authorities was to find as many queers as they could and they created an upswing in dismissals. But the policy was totally cynical – when the Gulf War came along and recruits were needed, queer soldiers were no longer dismissed for being who they were.
The argument that queers were susceptible to blackmail was not accepted by the judiciary. There were other specious arguments: being queer was prejudicial to morale, and made straight soldiers uncomfortable, especially in the shower!
“Some were jailed, and some subjected to electric shock therapy; others were thrown out of their military accommodation and also their parental home,” Duncan said. “There was a further argument that the offence was your state of mind, not what you did – celibacy was not a defence.”
Duncan relates his personal experience as a senior naval officer in the closet: “The worst thing was having to be secretive and lie – even to friends and colleagues”. His first commanding officer was a woman, and ironically she asked Duncan to look at equal opportunities for women in the service, using his recruitment and public relations role.
On his first ship he opened a letter about a 17-year-old onboard, who had become the subject of investigation because he had outed himself to another sailor, who had reported it. ‘“It was my first revelation of how dreadful the policy was. My partner used to wave me off to sea, but in secret and not with the other families on the quayside. No-one asked me if I was gay – they were more interested in whether I was a spy as I was Austro/German”.
Duncan had been offered a job as a senior adviser to Prime Minister John Major, when he was approached by a blackmailer who actually worked as an investigator for the Crown Prosecution Service, but who tried to extort money for his silence.
When Duncan reported the incident, he was immediately interviewed, under the full force of the policy. It was 1994. He was told that as a Lieutenant Commander, he couldn’t be trusted any more. And then another dramatic turn. In October 1994, he was phoned by the police: a young sailor who had been under investigation for being gay had climbed the Tamar Bridge, presumably in suicidal mood. “I talked him down. I decided I had to stand up for men and women like him. The Guardian picked up my story and I was put on gardening leave. I became an activist with Rank Outsiders”.
Duncan’s was one of four test cases that went eventually to the European Court of Human Rights. In the meantime the UK policy had become “quietly more humane”, Duncan tells me, with all pending cases being suspended. And of course the ban on queers in the armed forces was lifted as a direct result. “It gives me enormous pleasure to look at the military today,” he adds.
And now he awaits the outcome of an independent inquiry by former senior judge Lord Etherton, who is looking at the policy and further compensation for those affected. “I have high hopes of its outcome”.
And Duncan has other strings to his bow. He was the first Chief Officer of the still-developing Ledward Centre, the Brighton-based LGBTQ+ community centre named after Scene founder James Ledward. “I was involved in the design of the centre and its facilities. It’s thrilling now to see the place buzzing,” he tells me as we sit in its cafe. “I’m glad for instance that it’s become a safe space for the trans community. Our needs will change and the centre will change with it. It’s a great achievement”.
But now his thoughts turn to Brighton Fringe, where this week he’s been announced as its new Chair. “It was almost killed off by Covid, but now we have a new Board, with a wide range of expertise, and we have to move out of crisis mode. We will retain its ethos but look at further commercial opportunities.”
One new venture this year is the creation of Caravanserai – to replace The Warren spaces. It’s made of re-purposed fairground rides and booths – highly appropriate for Brighton’s seaside heritage. It can be stored out of season and hopefully hired to other festivals. There’s also a move to look at a membership/subscription scheme and a reduction in fees to participants.
Whatever happens, this rank outsider is definitely in from the cold.
Full details of Ledward Centre activities and Fringe shows at ledcen.org and brightonfringe.org
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