The sailor who received the U.K.’s first Merchant Navy Medal for promoting LGBTQ+ equality has opened up about bullying he endured after coming out.
Second Officer Paul Owen, 53, joined the Royal Navy at age 16, when it was illegal to be gay in that force; gay people could be dishonorably discharged (the policy was lifted in 2000). After a few years of putting his personal life “to one side,” he realized he was indeed gay, he switched to the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, a civilian force that supports the Royal Navy but did not engage in anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination.
At first in the RFA, he did “pretend not to be gay,” he recently told the BBC, but within a couple of years he started coming out, first to close friends and then to others, and soon it was common knowledge. Many people said they already knew he was gay, and much of the reaction was positive, but there were some insults.
“The bullying was, a lot of it was verbal bullying,” he said. “It was the usual name-calling: queer, poof, things like that.” Now he is dedicated to helping other LGBTQ+ people in the service.
“Having suffered a degree of bullying early in my career because I identify as LGBT+, I made the conscious decision to offer support to fellow seafarers experiencing difficulties because of their sexuality,” he said upon receiving the medal early this month.
While on assignment to Maritime U.K., the parent body for the RFA, last year he helped organize the first Pride in Maritime event, and he is part of a private Facebook group where service members experiencing homophobia can get support. With the RFA, he will now have the title of champion for LGBTQ+ rights.
Receiving the medal “is a great honor, I must admit, and it shows from 1984 to 2021 how much we have progressed with LGBTQ+ rights,” he said in the BBC interview. “And it’s a deep honor to be the first openly gay person to receive this honor.”
He was one of 16 recipients of the Merchant Navy Medal this year. The medal is given for outstanding contributions to the maritime sector, and he is the first to receive it for LGBTQ+ rights work.