Lee Buss, Director of Operations Care & Support, talks about his experience as a gay man in the military
How old were you when you first realised you were L/G/B or T?
That’s actually a very difficult question to answer. I think long before I was aware of the concept of sexuality, I knew that there was something ‘different’ about me, something that people would think was bad.
By the age of 10, I started to understand that I was attracted to men. Growing up in Brighton in the 70s, I was exposed to gay culture frequently, so was able to pin these complex feelings against an identifiable concept. However, from long before that age, my single desire was to join the army. I persisted with the hope that the army would ‘sort me out’.
Could you tell us your ‘coming out’ story?
Unsurprisingly, the army didn’t magic the gay away. This was during a time that being gay in the army was illegal, and carried a hefty prison sentence, but I loved being a soldier so stayed firmly in the closet.
In 1991, I found myself fighting in the Gulf War in a close recce role, so a good distance in front of the front line. I saw and did things that changed my life forever, and returned a different man. During my post operational leave I met my first partner. Having come so close to death, and witnessed it close up, I made the decision that I needed to stop denying who I was. The thought that I could have died without people knowing the real me was an unpleasant one, especially the people I loved.
I told my parents, both of whom were WWII veterans, that I was leaving the army and the reasons why. They were so proud of my combat service that I feared the worst. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were proud of me, of the man that I was. In fact, this being Brighton, my dad offered to hook me up with a friend of his, an offer which I politely declined.
I actually came out twice. I left the army initially in 1992 without disclosing my sexuality, for fear of prosecution. However, I was called up as a reservist in 1996 to undertake a tour of Bosnia during the conflict there. Long story short, my commanding officer threatened to charge me on something trivial, so in a fit of pique I suggested he charge me for something worthwhile, and told him I was gay. None of my fellow soldiers really cared a great deal. I was good at my job, and in these types of situations, that’s all most soldiers really care about. In fact, they delayed my discharge until the end of my tour.
From coming out to now, what lessons have you learnt about yourself with regards to you and your sexuality?
Feeling that you ‘belong’ is incredibly important. Having a family that supported me, understood sexuality, and had similar combat experiences to me, meant that I was able to navigate the post coming out, post combat fallout more successfully than others.
My sexuality and my identity as a veteran are equally important parts of who I am. They are complimentary, not contradictory, despite what people may at first think. But it does make finding a sense of belonging that little bit more difficult. That’s why I love working for Riverside. I get to work in an environment that recognises and accepts my sexuality, but also allows me to be actively involved in the veteran’s world through our veteran specific services.
What are the biggest challenges still to overcome in the UK for the LGBT community?
We have achieved so much in my lifetime, virtually eradicating legislated discrimination. But there are still sectors of society that hold on to their discriminatory beliefs.
This faces us with a unique challenge. We have a unique identity as a community, often built on the things that make us different. But as we are more and more treated like everyone else, that difference is eroded. The challenge, as I see it, is how we change the views of those still bigoted against us allowing us to integrate into mainstream society, while maintaining a cohesive community identity.
And what about for the rest of the world?
My fiancée is American, so we watch the political environment change in the States with trepidation and concern.
In countries that have made great steps forward in equality, we also see the rise of populists and far right politics. This poses the real risk of halting advances in countries with some way to go still, and even reversing advances made in some.
What would you say to your young self or a young LGBT person with the knowledge you have now about coming out?
Things have changed so much, including the decriminalization of homosexuality in the military. To a young LGBT person considering a career in the military, I would now tell them to go for it!
Find somewhere you feel that you belong, and you are able to be yourself.
How does being gay impact on your job/career?
In short, it doesn’t really, and nor should it. But that’s because I’m able to be my true authentic self at work, feel comfortable, and have a sense that I belong.
It’s these things that mean that I am able to achieve my full potential and has had the greatest impact on my career.