Maj Gen Alastair Bruce reveals toughest battle was hiding sexuality
Marrying my man is my crowning achievement: Major General Alastair Bruce is the Falklands veteran who’s now a royal confidant and TV commentator – but the toughest battle he faced was hiding his true sexuality
- Major General Alastair Bruce came out in style with a tweet on his wedding day
- Alastair, 61, is the highest ranking UK Army officer to have a same-sex marriage
- A Falklands veteran, royal confidant and TV commentator, Alastair reveals in a moving interview that the toughest battle he faced was hiding his true sexuality
The newly-married Major General Alastair Bruce of Crionaich wears many hats, both literally and figuratively.
He is an expert on history (his own is impressive; he’s a descendent of Robert the Bruce) and the military (42 years Army service, and counting).
He commentates on all the big royal events for Sky TV, and is the famously picky historical adviser on Downton Abbey (don’t get him started on table settings).
He is the man to have around if you get in a tangle about titles and ranks and how to address people, particularly in aristocratic or military circles.
He was an equerry for Prince Edward, and is godfather to his son. As a child he wanted to be Lord Mountbatten, who was a family friend. He would ‘dress up as him’.
When the Queen granted a rare interview in 2018, she chose to sit down with Alastair, who knows more than most about pomp and circumstance. Perhaps about duty and expectation, too.
How sad it is, though, to hear this stickler for titles and protocol describe how he could never work out what to call the most important person in his life.
Major General Alastair Bruce, 61, tweeted a game-changing picture, a snap of his wedding day. alongside husband Stephen Knott. He had come out, in style.
‘In the early days of our relationship, when we were scuttling about, I would introduce Stephen as my researcher,’ he admits.
‘My father (who was a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy) used to refer to him as my “flag lieutenant”, which is an Admiral’s equivalent to an aide-de-camp, an officer’s assistant. That’s the way he was… legitimised.’
Stephen Knott was not a military aide, or a PA. He wasn’t even a military man for goodness sake; his family ran a bakery. He was – and is – the love of Alastair’s life.
They have been together for 20 years, but it has been a gay relationship conducted partly in the shadows, a modern-day love-that-dare-not-say-its-name.
‘I never felt comfortable calling him my partner, he admits. ‘So mostly I didn’t.’
No more. Last month, Alastair — who is something of a Twitter addict (‘it is the third person in our marriage’) — tweeted a game-changing picture, a snap of his wedding day.
He had come out, in style.
He tweeted about how this marriage would not have been possible in the British Army he joined in 1979, noting ‘attitudes change, but love is constant’.
As coming out statements go, it was spectacular. Alastair, 61, had not only outed himself, but had become the highest ranking Army officer in the country to have a same-sex marriage.
‘I was never brave enough to be public like this before,’ he says, ‘but Stephen and I have benefited from the fact that other people were courageous and pushed through such social change that I can now stand here and say “this is the man I love”.’
On liberal Twitter, his news was greeted with jubilation. One quick-witted friend, the MP Tom Tugendhat, called him the very model of the modern major general, which made him laugh.
He knew full well there would be other reactions, too.
‘I am very aware that people will have spat out their cornflakes across their mahogany breakfast tables — their properly laid mahogany tables — in shock when they read Stephen and I had got married, but the overwhelming reaction has been supportive, which is just wonderful because we can share our joy, finally.
‘We were not public and I was tired of not being public.’ He also — and about time — has a means of addressing the man he loves.
‘Now I can call him “my husband” and I have to say, that feels wonderful,’ he says. Again he says ‘my husband’, beaming, the joy and relief palpable.
When the Queen granted a rare interview in 2018, she chose to sit down with Alastair, who knows more than most about pomp and circumstance. Above: Pictured together in 2021
This is the first time Alastair has talked at length about his private life. We meet at Edinburgh Castle, where he was appointed governor in 2019.
His dream job, he says, strolling over the cobbles and pointing out the statue, over the drawbridge of his illustrious ancestor.
‘For a proud Scot, there is no finer job to get at the end of your military career.’ That it has taken until now — the final chapter of that career — for him to tell his story, though, is terribly sad.
He describes the agony of knowing, as a child, that if he wanted a life in the Forces — as his father and grandfather had had before him — he would have to ‘deny that part of myself’ and of being, as an adult, unable to even walk along the footpath with his life partner if there was a chance of bumping into anyone from his work.
‘We had an agreement that if we met anyone from the Army he would dash into the nearest shop and wait for me there,’ he says. What a way to live.
‘I just accepted it. I knew, even as a child, that if I wanted to realise my ambitions this is how it would have to be.’
He always knew, really, that he was gay. ‘I kept waiting for the phase to pass and it didn’t.
‘Once, when I was having some crisis or another someone said to me: “It’s simple. If you get on the Tube and two people get on — an attractive man and an attractive woman — which one do you look at?”.’
He holds his arms up. No contest.
There is a photograph of Stephen and him on his wall — his office, on Ministry of Defence property — taken in the early days of their relationship.
‘We never had that freedom that so many people enjoy,’ he observes. ‘We lived behind this façade, a façade I presented, but for survival.’
Why did it take so long, though? This is not the dark ages. This is Britain in 2021.
‘You have to remember that in 1979, when I joined the Army, it was illegal to be a homosexual.
‘If you were discovered, it meant a dishonourable discharge. Friends of mine were thrown out of the Army for being gay. Even when it was no longer illegal, that does not mean it was safe.’
Among other talents, Alastair is the famously picky historical adviser on Downton Abbey. Pictured above with Michelle Dockery on the show’s set
One of Alastair’s talents is making history touchable, and over the course of our chat he dips in and out of the centuries.
‘It was George V who is supposed to have said, about somebody who was gay “you’d think somebody like that would have the decency to shoot themselves”.
‘I have no idea if that is true, but if you reflect upon that being even a possible comment by anyone of that generation… And I touch that generation, too.
‘One of my jobs is as a herald in the College of Arms, and I worked for the Duke of Norfolk — father of the current Duke — who once stood up in the Lords when they were trying to change the age of consent for homosexual men to 16, the same as for heterosexuals.
‘He said — I dare say he was being amusing — that he thought the age of consent for gay men should be 95, and only then with their parents’ consent. This was my boss.’
His Army bosses have known ‘for some time’ about Stephen.
Being more open was a requirement when he got the Edinburgh job, because it comes with a house and Stephen would often stay there. The Queen is often a guest, too, when she is in Edinburgh.
Has she always known about Stephen? Did he have to tell her? He takes a sip of his tea.
‘She is aware. I’m quite cautious about bringing her into things, but all I can say is that she has been wonderfully and surprisingly warm and kind, and welcoming to him.’
Why surprisingly? ‘Because of her generation.’
How have friends and acquaintances reacted? ‘It’s hard for me to unravel who knew what. Some people reacted with “oh we knew, we’ve always known”.
‘Some people said “why didn’t you tell me?” and I said “why didn’t you ask?”
‘People knew, but didn’t know, if you know what I mean. It’s the sort of thing you can keep… vague.’
His family knew, clearly. His mother, who is 93, gave him away at his wedding, ‘and she adores Stephen. I think she loves him marginally more than she loves me’.
His father died in 2011. He shrugs.
‘My mother says he knew. I mean he must have known. Stephen lived with us. He slept in my room!
‘But it was never talked about. We never had a conversation about it. It was just there.’
Now that there are no secrets, he wants to talk. Mostly he wants to talk about Stephen.
The proposal took place at the majestic and hopelessly romantic Mussenden Temple in Northern Ireland, Stephen’s homeland.
‘His mother was dying and it was a difficult time for him. I wanted him to feel safe and loved, and protected. He is 18 years younger than I am.
‘I wanted the proposal to be special, so I asked him about places that were meaningful.’
He laughs. ‘He said the family caravan. Well there is no way I was proposing in a caravan, but we stayed in a hotel nearby and we went to this temple and I discovered — to my amazement — that it was built in the grounds of the Bruce family’s home in Ireland. I believe in fate, and that was it.
‘I got down on one knee and said “will you marry me?” and he said “are you feeling all right?” ’
They’d met in 2001 — on a cruise, where Alastair was giving historical talks.
As a Reservist, Alastair has always been able to dip in and out of his military life, and his public speaking career simply ran alongside.
He was not interested in long-term relationships, he says. ‘I had tried that, with a few people and it was clear it was just never going to work.’
Then Stephen — just 23 at the time, and on the cruise with his parents, popped along to one of his lectures.
They chatted about history, about music (they are both choral music fans), about cathedrals. ‘It was never going to be a relationship that continued off the ship,’ he insists.
‘But when we were disembarking, he walked off with his parents and looked back at me, and that was it. I knew I was in love with him.’
There were hurdles other than the Army to overcome. Stephen moved from Northern Ireland to live with him.
Stephen’s story isn’t his to tell, he says, but being gay in Ulster 20 years ago was rather akin to being gay in the Army, he quips.
There were issues, too, with Stephen’s family (since resolved, given the family were at the wedding, and his father gave him away).
At the beginning, ‘his mother cried for two years,’. Both men come from backgrounds, then, where they were told that being gay was wrong.
‘Oh yes. My Church told me it was wrong. My school told me it was wrong.’
The messages were conflicting, though.
He remembers a school friend being expelled when he was found with a girl in his room, but another boy who was found ‘messing about with’ another boy was simply told ‘don’t do it again’. ‘There is a lot of hypocrisy about,’ he says.
Alastair Bruce really is a remarkable man, elegant in dress and diction, quick-witted. Camp as chips, too, always ready with a quip about spending so much of his life in ceremonial tights.
Did he not stand out like a sore thumb in the macho Army environment? He makes a joke how while his colleagues were charging towards the front line he was likely to be trailing behind ‘pressing wild flowers’.
Yet no one could take his military career more seriously.
He saw active duty in the Falklands, in Northern Ireland and in Iraq.
He was involved in the battle of Tumbledown in the Falklands. Four of his men did not come home, and he says he thinks of them ‘every single day’.
‘I was the intelligence officer. I’m quite uncomfortable when people say “oh you were the hero”. I wasn’t. I’ve got four soldiers with their names written into the Scottish National War Memorial, and they did fight, and they were the heroes.’
But he will take down anyone who suggests that gay soldiers are in any way weaker than straight ones.
They are all trained to kill, he points out.
‘Can I deliver violence when it is required? Yes, without any question. I will drive soldiers to prepare themselves for what is an environment beyond comprehension.’
He mentions a ceremony he organised at the castle in February, which coincided with the anniversary of LGBT being acceptable in the Armed Forces.
‘We had a lot of young soldiers from the LGBT network and I was so pleased to see them. Bright, intelligent chaps. It was really affirming.
‘And we made sure that everyone knew we were in the business of training to deliver calculated, precise and lethal violence against the Queen’s enemies. If we’re required to do that.
‘And that’s what the Army is for, whether we like it or not. And yet here we were doing that and demonstrating that we are about that business, but we’re all gay.’
Here he gets a little choked. ‘I’m so proud of the younger ones there because they can wear their uniform and say they are gay, and it’s not an issue and nobody cares.’
Yet Alistair is astonishingly candid about feeling that he was never brave enough to fight for gay rights from within.
‘The irony is that The Army is an establishment that holds to integrity, to courage, to selflessness, and I failed in all three.’ But he argues that he can be courageous now.
He cites the Labour MP Diane Abbott, who recently said: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ He says that his visibility now is a form of leadership.
‘If I can make one young man or woman more comfortable, and convince them that the Army is a safe place for them, then it will be worthwhile.’
There are more battles to be fought, not just within the Army, but within that other establishment he holds dear — the Church.
Interestingly, he and Stephen were married in the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is on the more progressive scale of churches (‘it’s on the naughty step of churches,’ he says).
Ironically, Stephen, who is also deeply religious, now works as assistant chief of staff to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Since the Church of England is now tussling with the whole notion of same-sex marriages, this makes for even more feather ruffling.
Alastair simplifies it all. ‘The Bishop of Edinburgh who married us cried at our wedding. He said he did not marry gay people or straight people, he just married people. That is the crux of it for me.’
Which brings us to perhaps the most difficult subject of all, the issue of those friends and colleagues who were drummed out of the Army, while the lucky ones like Alastair watched.
He describes witch-hunts. ‘I don’t think the Army was ever tub-thumpingly determined that all homosexuals should be crushed, but the SIB (Special Investigation Branch) which was a part of the military police, were not a pleasant bunch of people.
‘There were detectives who used to enjoy breaking into the lockers of young men and women, I presume trying to find letters from other young men and women, which would implicate them as gay.
‘I have friends who were thrown out of the Armed Forces because of this and it is hideous what they went through. Absolutely unacceptable.
‘I may not have survived as well if that had happened to me.’
In more recent times, the Government has said good conduct medals which were stripped from gay soldiers will be returned.
‘I have asked the Army if I can have the privilege of giving them back,’ he says. ‘I haven’t been given that chance yet, but I would like to.’
There is huge guilt here. He shakes his head. ‘Guilt does not get you anywhere. I survived. Now the question is: What am I going to do with it?’
Source: Read Full Article