In 1994, I was the last person sent to prison in the UK for being gay – and I’m still being punished today

David Bonney realised his employer, the Royal Air Force, was investigating his sexuality within minutes of entering the guard room at RAF Mount Batten, a military base near Plymouth. It was 1991 and Bonney, then a 21-year-old medical assistant, had just been escorted from his post at the medical centre by military police. He sat down in the guard room, opposite the duty staff, and the interrogation began.

“Questions about my sex life,” says Bonney, now 55. “Questions about witnessing me with other gay people. Questions about things I said on the phone to my mother.” He says there was shouting, swearing, banging on the desk. “Threats to me, threats to my career, threats to my family.” Bonney hadn’t told anyone in the military that he was gay. Before 2000, it was illegal for gay people to serve in the British armed forces and he knew a confession would cost him his career. “They wanted to get rid of me,” he says. “Anything they could to just manipulate me into confessing, to frighten the hell out of me.”

The initial interrogation took two hours. The RAF’s investigation into Bonney’s sexuality lasted two years. He says he was questioned more than a dozen times, spied on, threatened and intimidated.

When Bonney did confess, in October 1993, he was court martialled. He received a dishonourable discharge, a criminal record, multiple fines and was sentenced to six months in detention – one month of which was in solitary confinement. They would have taken his medals, too, had he not hidden them. The solitary confinement was, he says, a vindictive decision, he says, because “I made them work for two years to try to get rid of me” before he confessed.

Bonney served four months in prison, before being let out early for good behaviour. He is believed to be the last person in the UK to be imprisoned for being gay. Three decades later, he is still dealing with the fallout.

Bonney at RAF Mount Batten in 1993. Photograph: Courtesy of David Bonney

I meet Bonney at his home near Euston station in central London, where he lives with his cockapoo, Scuba. He talks proudly of his career and stoically about what happened to him, but he is hard to pin down. Our conversation takes twists and turns and there are flashes of anger towards his former employer.

Born in Morecambe in 1969, Bonney grew up in Plymouth with his adoptive parents and two brothers. His father was a flight lieutenant in the reserves and ran the local Air Training Corps, where children would learn to drill and shoot weapons. So, when Bonney left school at 17, joining the RAF made sense. He started out on air traffic control, but kept killing people on the simulator exam (“It wasn’t my skill set”), so he retrained as a medic.

By the time he enlisted, he had suspicions he was gay. The closest he came to acting on them, though, was buying a copy of Gay Times, which was later discovered in his wardrobe during a routine room inspection. “You had no right to have a private life,” he says. “It’s very different now. But then you didn’t.” There was an aggressive confrontation, but with Bonney’s deployment to the Gulf war imminent, there was no time for an official investigation.

During the preparations stage of the war, he stayed in a hotel in Bahrain, where he met a Norwegian Red Cross worker by the pool. Was he good looking? “God yeah!” he says. “Quite tall. About the same age as me.” They got chatting and one thing led to another. Their fling lasted only a few days. It was Bonney’s first gay experience. “I panicked,” he says. “So I broke it off with him.” Bonney was sharing a room with a sergeant, who heard the Red Cross worker crying outside their room. “I had to try to explain to a sergeant in my room why this guy outside was crying.” After that, he was even more cautious about keeping his identity secret.

Bonney receiving an RAF certificate. Photograph: Courtesy of David Bonney

During the war he sustained a life-changing back injury. “It was nothing as glamorous as a bomb or a bullet,” he says. As part of the process of de-kitting the base, Bonney, along with six colleagues, had to move a large air-conditioning unit on to a truck without any lifting gear. The exertion landed him in hospital. “It then deteriorated over the following years – the disc in the spine pressed on the nerves connected to my leg. Eventually, it got so bad and disabling that I had to have a discectomy.” But, he says, the surgeon botched the operation. He had to spend time using a wheelchair and experienced loss of sensation and control in his legs and lower back; he still has pain today.

Bonney received three medals for his time in the Gulf. Afterwards, he chose to be stationed at RAF Mount Batten in Plymouth. As it was his home town, he was able to live in his own flat, rather than the barracks, so could start exploring his sexuality. “I was a late bloomer,” he says. “I wasn’t ugly, so I went for it!” He would often head to a gay pub called the Swallow. “I was in my 20s, enjoying a gay life, and it was good fun.” He had no idea an investigation into his sexuality was under way.

When he was pulled away for questioning by the military police that day in 1991, his reaction was to “deny, deny, deny”. By the time he returned to his post at the medical centre, word had spread around the base. “Someone said they wanted to punch my lights out, so I just lied to him,” he says.

The investigation continued. “They followed me around,” he says. “They had people stationed outside the Swallow. Then they’d drag me in and say: ‘You’ve been seen going into a gay bar.’” Bonney would just tell them he had gay friends and that there were no laws prohibiting that. Still, the constant questioning took its toll. “What was scary was the threats of violence and the approach they took. I didn’t feel safe for those two years.”

Based on the information presented to Bonney during these interrogations, he suspects the RAF were listening to his phone conversations and had read his mail. “It was unusual things, like I’d hang up on the phone and then it would ring back and there’d be no one there,” he says. “I could hear clicks in the background. And they didn’t need a warrant. The commanding officer says: ‘I want this done,’ and it gets done.

“You just accept it when you’re in the military. You don’t have a right to a private life.”

Officers got hold of his address book, identified his civilian friends, then brought them into Charles Cross police station in Plymouth to question them about him. A man with whom he was having a relationship, Mark, was brought in. “He was in the police station for six hours being questioned. This is a civilian police station. It’s not a civilian offence. But the civil police in Plymouth allowed for the military police to use that.”

Bonney says his peers in the RAF turned against him. “Once the investigation had begun, nobody wanted to come near me,” he says. He was put in a headlock by one colleague, got an “envelope of shit” sent to him and received anonymous letters “threatening me with harm”.

Inevitably, “a year of being shunned” lowered his self-esteem. “It made me not like myself,“ he says. “All that negativity around, not fitting in. And you want to fit in when you’re young; you want to be part of the group. It does affect you to deny a really important part of yourself.”

Bonney … ‘I keep sending emails asking for progress and I get ignored.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Bonney’s attitude was to get on with his job. One day, a colleague dislocated their kneecap while playing squash. “I was the only medic left,” he says. “I put his kneecap back in and that’s when things started to change. They started to trust me again.”

In 1994, Bonney was given an emergency posting to RAF Fylingdales in the North York Moors. He had 24 hours to get there – a tight turnaround he was able to make only after his brother lent him a car. Bonney says he had been set up to fail by the RAF, who wanted to accuse him of going awol. “They were getting desperate, so I decided to jump,” he says. He confessed to being gay. He did his month in solitary confinement at RAF Innsworth in Gloucester, before being moved to Colchester.

While Bonney was in prison, his lawyer – who had filed an appeal on his behalf – got in touch with Bonney’s MP, Janet Fookes, who raised his plight in the House of Commons. “It was becoming too uncomfortable for the military, having me in prison,” he says. “They could see that the environment had changed – that they were in the wrong about gay people and they were going to have to start to change.”

Bonney on guard duty during the Gulf war, circa 1990. Photograph: Courtesy of David Bonney

Bonney won his appeal while he was inside: “I got my sentence reduced and one of the fines taken away and I got my honourable discharge back.” He was released in early 1994. Later that year, being gay in the military was downgraded from a crime to an offence for which you could still be thrown out of the forces.

Despite getting his honourable discharge back, Bonney’s dismissal is still on his criminal record. After leaving prison, he trained as a psychiatric nurse and had a long career in the profession before retiring in 2011. “But I’ve still got a criminal record,” he says. “And it’s robbed me – continues to rob me – of a right to a private life. Every job I went for as a nurse, I had to tell them. You’re supposed to have a right not to tell your employer your sexual orientation. I don’t.”

Perhaps the most enduring result of Bonney’s experience is his heightened paranoia. He lives across the street from a police station. Today, the curtains are open, but normally they would be closed. “I’ve been spied on by the state, by the experts,” he says. “You do learn to think: why is that person walking so close to me? I shouldn’t be having to think like that. But I still do.”

It has also affected his relationships, especially with new people. He is suspicious of people’s motives and wonders at first why they are talking to him. “You should just be able to have a conversation with someone. But it pops in your head,” he says. “And it makes it a struggle for me to then make friends and join groups and develop trust.”

Five years ago, Bonney started campaigning with Fighting With Pride, seeking justice for the thousands of LGBTQ+ servicepeople who were affected by the ban. In May 2023, Rishi Sunak formally apologised, after the publication of a government-commissioned review, which looked into the experiences of LGBTQ+ people who served in the military between 1967 and 2000, when the ban was in place. “In that period, many endured the most horrific sexual abuse and violence, homophobic bullying and harassment, all while bravely serving this country,” Sunak said. As well as an apology, the review recommended compensation of up to £50m.

For Bonney, the outcome is a start. But it doesn’t go far enough and is already marred by delay. “It’s taken all this time for them to behave like decent human beings,” he says. As well as a written apology, he wants financial justice for all the veterans who were discharged as he was. “I am owed the missing years’ wages, benefits and part of my pension,” he says. At the time of his court martial, he still had three years’ service to complete, plus six in reserve. “Rishi so far has said yes to everything except the recommendations around pensions and lost earnings. If it’s not forthcoming, I will be going to court to seek redress. Loss of pay, pension, interest and, of course, compensation – for 30 years’ loss of a right to a private life, suffering a gross invasion of my rights.”

Bonney: ‘Anything to do with the investigation has disappeared.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Asked about Bonney’s experiences, a government spokesperson said: “We deeply regret the treatment of LGBT serving personnel between 1967 and 2000, which was wholly unacceptable and does not reflect today’s Armed Forces, and thank those that have come forward to share their stories. We have already implemented over half of the recommendations of the LGBT veterans review and are working at pace to deliver those that remain. We will be providing more information as soon as we can and encourage LGBT veterans to apply for restorative measures online.”

Bonney has applied to have his discharge removed from his criminal record, but he is still waiting: “I keep sending emails asking for progress and I get ignored.”

A while ago, he asked for his records from the military, but anything highlighting the investigation into him was omitted. “Anything that puts me in a bad light” – haircuts the RAF didn’t like, shoes not polished, toilets not cleaned – “all these things are there,” he says. “Anything to do with the investigation, it’s all disappeared.”

Despite everything, Bonney is proud of his time in the RAF. He still has his medals, kept carefully in their box. On the coffee table in front of me sit folders and folders filled with documents, pictures and service records. He hands me a pile of photos of his time in the Gulf – a beaming, fresh-faced Bonney on guard duty in the desert.

What galls him is the fact that no one has been punished for the way he and other LGBTQ+ servicepeople were treated. Every day, he says, “I’m still being punished.”

The Guardian