Mike Sansom was just 16 when he signed up for the Royal Air Force. “I had these visions of travelling the world and doing a 22-year service like the rest of my family,” he says. Mike hoped to find fulfilment, a purpose and maybe some excitement. But that was not what happened.  

After serving his country for five years, the military police came looking for him. Mike was still grappling with his sexuality when the special investigators – whose job was to eradicate gay people from the military – arrested him, interrogated him, and subjected him to a highly-invasive medical examination from which he has never recovered.  

“I look upon what they did to me as a sexual assault, almost to the point of torture,” he says now. That torture, which comprised a series of brutal and degrading punishments, continued for 60 days. 

Mike has waived his anonymity to speak out about what the investigators and other senior officers did to him, so the public understands the true extent of what was inflicted upon service personnel like him – and how much of that was sanctioned by the Ministry of Defence. The British Government didn’t just know what was happening to gay servicemen and women; they gave the instructions.  

Mike isn’t the only person from that time to come forward today. One of the officers involved in the Special Investigation Branch (SIB), Caroline Meagher, reveals the full array of covert and co-coercive procedures that she and her colleagues were required to carry out – and how, in the end, she became investigated herself.  

LGBT people were being fired from the Army, Royal Navy, and the RAF right up until 2000, when the ban was lifted. It followed a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights in late 1999 that it was unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. For decades, men and women lost their jobs, pensions, medals, and reputations for an offence that had been decriminalised for the rest of the population in 1967. 

Currently, campaigners are waiting for the Government to publish a review undertaken by Lord Etherton into the scale and depth of the mistreatment, including his recommendations for restitution. Victims are calling for justice. Mike, who took part in the review, wants – finally – to be heard. 

As he relives the events of 1992, his eyes flicker down, sometimes shutting for several seconds, trying to block out what still intrudes. His voice is low and soft, with a south-east accent, but at times it falters, almost stutters, as the memories surge and grip him: the raid on his room, the evidence they found – photographs, a love letter – and the arrest itself. 

A recording of his interrogation still exists. In crackling audio, the voice of a senior officer can be heard on the tape demanding to know the most intimate details of his sex life, asking over and over again for the specifics – for a protracted confession.  

“During a search of your accommodation we found a video. What does it contain?” the officer asks.  

“It’s a pornographic video,” Mike replies. 

“When you say pornographic, what sort of material does it contain?” 

“Homosexual.” 

“Can you tell me why you’ve got it?” 

“I think it’s just a phase I’m going through,” Mike replies.  

(Mike says now that he was hoping this might prevent him being deemed definitely gay and therefore protect him from being sacked. The investigator began asking him what kinds of sex he has had with men, so Mike admitted he had had oral sex, because by then he just wanted to escape the situation.) 

“What do you mean ‘oral sex’?” the officer continues. 

“Using the mouth.” 

“Using the mouth for what?” On the tape you can hear Mike reply, describing, but this still wasn’t enough. 

“Did he ejaculate?” the officer asks.  

With each confession, the officer continued onto another sexual act, another encounter.  

“They kept making me go over and over and over everything, intimately,” Mike says. “I felt it was to make me feel dirty, shameful. Almost as if they were getting a kick out of it.” 

Mike started to crumble psychologically. But when the interrogation was over, he thought that would be the end of his torment, because he had already confessed. But it was only the beginning. Mike was sent to the medical officer who informed him he would have to perform an examination to check for anal penetration. Since the order was coming from a senior officer, and any subordination would itself be punished, Mike felt he had no choice but to comply. 

“[It involved] being made to drop your trousers and undergo an examination of your backside,” he explained.  

The officer didn’t just use his hands to do this, but a medical instrument. “A speculum,” says Mike.  

As he takes himself back to that room, his words start to splinter. “I shut it out…closed off…[I thought] just get it over with.” 

If the intention was to psychologically harm Mike, it succeeded. “I tried to commit suicide after my questioning,” he says. “I had a complete mental breakdown.” 

At the time, he thought he was alone in his experiences. Only recently has he learned the truth, that this wasn’t only standard procedure, but policy, with an official Ministry of Defence document outlining how it should be done. “Instructions for the Guidance of Medical Officers in Dealing with Suspected or Self-Confessed Cases of Unnatural Vice,” the document is titled. Its secrecy was clear from two words at the top: “IN CONFIDENCE”.  

The examination, it reads, should search for physical evidence of the “appearance of bruising or inflammation…tears, lacerations, fissures and piles” or “any other physical sign”. It did not seem to occur to the Ministry of Defence that not all gay men even have penetrative sex, let alone passively, nor that it usually won’t leave any marks. But these inspections had been carried out for at least 40 years.  

Mike was found guilty of “indecent and unnatural conduct”. His commanding officer sentenced him to 60 days in detention and sent him to RAF Innsworth in Gloucestershire, one of the many detention centres housed within RAF bases. “I was put in a cell at the back of the guard room,” he says – on his own. He and the other inmates were separated from the rest of RAF personnel at the base, and were made to perform basic or meaningless tasks such as cleaning or carrying telegraph poles on their shoulders. But Mike, imprisoned for being gay, was singled out for extra punishments. His bed was confiscated so he had to sleep on the floor, but that was the least of it. 

“There was one officer there who had really got it in for me. And whenever he was on duty, I was terrified of what was going to happen,” he says. “There were instances where I was made to clean the toilet with my toothbrush, and then forced to clean my teeth. I had my head held down the loo with the toilet then flushed. It wasn’t a sanctioned punishment. It was his own punishment.” 

It seemed to Mike that the intention was to break him in order to rebuild him. “But as we were going to be thrown out at the end of it, you think, well, what’s the bloody point?”  

There was one final insult. “They offered me ECT [electro-convulsive therapy]. I recall signing some document saying I’d refused all medical interventions to ‘cure’ my ‘condition’.” This, he wants to remind people, was the 90s.  

After 60 days, Mike was thrown out of the air force. He had nowhere to go and no job, so he slept on the streets for a few days and eventually ended up in a bedsit in London, where he began working as a security guard. But the impact of what they did to him rippled out over many years. In the first decade, he tried to self-destruct. “I was ashamed, embarrassed, hated myself. I did everything to try and shut it out. I was drinking heavily, I was out partying every night, sleeping around. It left an ongoing psychological issue — depression,” he says. “It took a long time to really accept who I was, and to understand that there was nothing shameful about being gay.” 

Two things saved him. “Had I not met my partner in ’99 I think now I would be dead,” he says. The other was the support group Rank Outsiders, which had sprung up to help LGBT service personnel who’d been forced out. They would become instrumental in fighting to get the ban overturned, but they also established a helpline that became inundated with calls from those affected by it.  

But victims of the ban weren’t the only people who would use the helpline. Investigating officers would ring up pretending to be gay servicemen in order to hunt more down. “We used to get these messages that were left [on the answer machine]: ‘Oh, hi. Yeah, I’m gay. Can you put me in touch with somebody?’” So you knew damn well it was the Special Investigations Branch. They were conducting a witch hunt, so all the time they wanted names.” During his own interview, he kept secret the identity of the man in the air force with whom he’d been having a relationship – to protect him.  

Caroline Meagher, now 63, saw first-hand the extent of the witch-hunt. Through the 80s, after joining the military police in her late teens, she spent years training to become part of the Special Investigations Branch.  

“People think they know the story – that gays were banned from the military,” she tells i. “What they don’t know is the lengths the military went to police that: lurking in cars following people, intercepting their mail, bugging phones, surveillance, watching people from a distance, going undercover in bars.” Some within the SIB were solely devoted to investigating homosexuality.  

While she was training, Caroline’s experiences began relatively gently. She visited the central criminal records office in London. Everything was card indexed, including what was called The Lesbian Index – a drawer full of cards, colour-coded, and cross-referenced to link women between each other. She was sent to the forces shop to examine the mail-order records of onyx rings. “Apparently that was a sign that they were a lesbian – they were wearing these rings on the little finger. So I had to go and look to see who was buying them - to get leads.” 

These leads could then trigger raids by the SIB, in which 10 to 20 investigators would pile into a 4-tonne trucked and descend on the barracks. 

“They used to get done really early in the morning – 3 or 4am. They’d come tumbling out of the truck, banging on doors and going in. It was the noise and the brutality and the element of shock to it: yelling at people, ‘Stand by your beds’, drawers being turned out, things being swept out onto the floor. The room would be pretty much trashed.” They read private letters, searching for evidence of same-sex affairs, and even examined books and record collections. Any LGBT artists such as Dusty Springfield or The Communards could trigger further investigations. Even books by Virago, the women’s publisher, could be deemed suspicious, as it could denote feminism. “Because [the thinking was] if they’re a feminist they must be a lesbian.” 

After her first raid, Caroline began questioning her superiors about the aggressive methods used. “I was told I was naïve, because it hadn’t happened to me, but to ‘imagine if there was a clique of lesbians – they could put pressure on me to be a lesbian.’” The accusation was that to be lesbian meant to be predatory. 

Soon, Caroline was invited to attend the interrogations. She remembers one in particular.  

“My boss took me to one side and said, ‘We really need the ‘cough’ [the confession] — she’s very close, but she’s holding back. Just let her know that it will go easier on her if she confesses. So I had a word with her.” The woman confessed. “But they didn’t stop. They then went into wanting detail about the sexual act – who was on top, did she use toys, dildos, fingers, and how many fingers? It was really, really over the top. She was looking at me in absolute horror and I felt awful, like I’d betrayed her. But I had no idea that would happen. I’d been duped. I was furious. Afterwards, I said, ‘What the f**k was that about? Why do you need to know the details?’ They said, ‘Well, anyone can say they’re a lesbian and that’s a really easy out of the army as an administrative discharge, so they need to prove they’re a lesbian.” People had to prove they were gay only to then be punished for it.  

On that occasion, Caroline is clear about what the manipulation of the suspect amounted to: a forced confession. “There’s many ways to coerce. There were hard and unrelenting interrogations: people leaning in, pointing, thumping the table, loud voices, it was hectoring and it was bullying.” 

She describes the effect – people sobbing and breaking down. “You’d see them totally wrecked as people. Totally broken. They’d not only been punished and lost their jobs but made to feel less than human – as deviant and unnatural.” 

It was during this time that Caroline began to realise she was having feelings for a female sergeant. “I was doing the very thing that people were being investigated for. I was constantly walking on eggshells, looking over my shoulder, while also feeling like a hypocrite. It was just so wrong on so many levels.”  

Caroline would confide in the woman she was becoming involved with. “She would say, ‘but what are you doing to do? Because if you come out, you’ve got no job. You just have to suck it up.’ But I couldn’t. I felt so awful. It wasn’t right.” During one raid, Caroline found a stack of love letters in a biscuit, and just stuffed them back in to protect the woman. 

Eventually, despite completing her training, Caroline declined to become a fully-fledged SIB officer and moved into a different division. But later, her own mail was intercepted. She narrowly escaped being court-martialled by refusing to comment, and was sent on overseas orders instead. In the end, she was thrown out for claiming travel expenses to visit her female partner, when you could only claim for opposite sex relationships.  

She struggled to find work afterwards and was beset by shame. “However naïve I was, however much I was duped, I was still a part of it,” she said. It took many years to find a new life, to find love, and a new career in health and social care.  

Caroline and Mike want a light to be shone now on all the dark practices. “The horrendous intrusive events have to be documented so future generations can see what we went through,” says Mike. As well as talking to i they are also taking part in a documentary to be shown next week on Sky. “It’s there for history,” he says. And it’s important from a personal point of view, for [the Government] to formally acknowledge that what they did was wrong.” 

He wants the Prime Minister to make a personal apology to all those affected by the ban. “It has to come from the top – and a meaningful one as well.” The Government also needs to examine the impact on individuals, he says “and make amends”. But on the issue of compensation, Mike doesn’t believe they will see justice. Although leaked reports of the Etherton review reveal a “culture of homophobia” in the British military, with routine electric shock treatment and medical examinations – and a recommendation from Etherton of an apology and compensation – an MoD spokesperson has so far only said the Government will “carefully consider the findings and respond in due course.” 

The fear among campaigners is that they might only receive an apology; that the money they lost in salary and pension, let alone the decades of mental ill health, will never be reimbursed let alone rectified. 

“It’s trauma that inhabits you,” says Caroline. “Even talking about it now just brings back the shame, the guilt, and the horror.” She stops to consider the depth of her regret for what she did in her twenties when she was still coming to terms with her own sexuality.  

“If anyone is reading this, and recognises my face or my name, and I was a part of the bad thing that happened to them…” she begins before pausing once again. “From my heart: I’m sorry.” 

Forced Out is on Sky Documentaries and NOW from 8 June 8 

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