Thursday 1 June 2017

It's An Honour

There may not be a British Empire any more, but twice a year it returns in the form of the New Year and Queen’s Birthday Honours lists. One of the most popular and well-known of all UK honours is the OBE, the Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Even though it bears an outdated imperial name it is among the honours that is given to more UK citizens than any other, and it celebrates its centenary on Sunday. Earlier this year I had a lesser celebration in an article on tartan at the palace.

The OBE is just one of several honours that belong to the order, in full the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. There are very few honours that are anticipated and criticised in equal measure.

I have a very good reason to celebrate the centenary because two close family members have been honoured. My uncle, a former Honorary Physician to the Queen, was awarded the OBE in 1993, and my cousin was awarded the MBE on his retirement from the diplomatic service in 1991.

There are several levels, or classes, in the Order and these are (in descending order):
GBE : Knight Grand Cross, and Dame Grand Cross
KBE and DBE : Knight Commander and Dame Commander
CBE : Commander
OBE : Officer
MBE : Member
BEM : British Empire Medal (not strictly part of the order but affiliated with it).

The origins of the Order of the British Empire are in World War I. Until then all honours and awards were predominantly for political, military or royal service. Ordinary British citizens had little chance of being honoured. King George V realised that many people were providing invaluable and brave service during the war. Awards were also to be made for community, charitable and humanitarian service. He created the Order of the British Empire as the “people’s honour” and it has remained so ever since.

There are two divisions of the Order, military and civil. The difference can be seen in the medal ribbon in that the military division has a white stripe down the middle. While it is not possible for a person to hold two medals in the same division (e.g. 2 OBEs in the civil division, or 1 CBE and an MBE in the civil division, or any other combination). There is no restriction on holding one in each division, as in the case of Sir Maurice Oldfield (whom I mentioned in my James Bond article in April). He was awarded a military MBE in 1946 for services to the Intelligence Corps, and in 1956 was awarded a civil CBE for his services to the Foreign Office.

People who are promoted in the Order, that is get another medal of a higher class, are expected to return the lower one. A good case to illustrate this is the newly knighted gay Paralympian Sir Lee Pearson. Like many others, especially in sport, he received an MBE and was awarded higher medals in later years. He received the MBE in 2001 for winning 3 gold medals at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, followed by promotion to OBE in 2005 for winning 3 more gold medals in Athens 2004, and a further promotion in 2009 for winning yet 3 more gold medals in Beijing 2008. Finally he was knighted this year after winning a total of 12 Paralympic gold medals and many more in his career so far.

You may be forgiven for thinking that men like Sir Lee Pearson are given the KBE or GBE. The vast majority of knights are Knights Bachelor, the lowest ranking of the 11 knighthoods in the UK. It actually ranks lower than all Dames and there is no female equivalent. This explains why Sir Lee, and other knights like Sir Elton John and Sir Ian McKellen, can still put CBE after their names.

This doesn’t mean that there are no lgbt GBEs or KBEs. Lord Boothby (mentioned in this article), Sir Philip Sassoon and Sir Anthony Sher are knights of the Order of the British Empire. Franco Zeffirelli was awarded and Honorary KBE in 2004.

Within a year of the Order of the British Empire being created there were lgbt recipients. The first was awarded to journalist and writer Hugh Walpole (1884-1941). He worked at the Department of Information at the Foreign Office and was awarded a CBE on 7th January 1918 (he later became a Knight Bachelor). Two days later Margaret Damer Dawson (1873-1920) and her partner Mary Sophia Allen (1878-1964) received OBEs for their pioneering service to the women’s police force.

There have been lgbt recipients in all classes of the Order of the British Empire. The above-mentioned Sir Philip Sassoon (1888-1939), a second-cousin of Siegfried Sassoon (they had the same great-grandfather), was awarded the GBE in 1922 for his work as Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Lloyd George. He is the first known lgbt recipient of a knighthood of the Order of the British Empire.

At the other end of the Order is the most recent lgbt recipient of the British Empire Medal, Gordon Aikman (1985-2017). He received the BEM in 2015 “for services to motor neurone disease awareness and research”. He was diagnosed with the disease while he was campaigning during the Scottish independence referendum (in favour of union). He turned to fundraising and campaigning for the disease and sadly succumbed to the illness on 2nd February this year.

A few other lgbt people have only been able to enjoy their honours for a short time. Dusty Springfield (1939-1999) received the OBE in the 1999 New Year Honours “for services to popular music”. She became too ill with cancer to attend her investiture at Buckingham Palace. A private ceremony was held at her bedside a few days beforehand and she died on the day her investiture was planned.

The oldest known lgbt recipient of an award in the Order was Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990). At the age of 91 she received the OBE in the 1990 New Years Honours for services to. She died just 14 days later.

Several families, as well as my own, have had more than one recipient of an honour in the Order of the British Empire. Among the families with more than one lgbt recipient is the above mentioned Sassoon cousins, they were the first – Sir Philip (GBE 1922) and Siegfried (CBE 1951). A closer family connection comes with Sir Malcolm Bullock (MBE 1924) and his great-grand-daughter Clare Balding (OBE 2013). The closest family link comes with the first same-sex married Olympians, members of Great Britain’s Olympic hockey champions from Rio, Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh. Team captain Kate received the MBE in 2015. In this year’s New Years Honours list she was promoted to OBE while her wife Helen received the MBE.

There have been many lgbt recipients of honours who have been recognised specifically for their work in lgbt, gender or sexuality issues and charities. The first of these to be made with explicit reference in the official citation was Inspector Paul Cahill of the Metropolitan Police who was listed as “Chair, Gay Police Association”. He received the MBE in 2004 for “services to diversity in the police and wider community”. However, Sir Elton John had received the CBE in 1995 for “services to music and for charitable service”, referring to his work with AIDS and HIV without being specific. Sir Nick Partridge was made OBE in 1999 for “services to people affected by HIV/AIDS”, again without specifically referring to sexuality.

In 2005 first two transgender recipients were both recognised for their “services to gender issues”, Professor Stephen Whittle (OBE) and Angela Clayton (MBE). Two other transgender recipients have been Jan Morris (CBE 1999 “for services to literature”) and April Ashley (MBE 2012 “for services to transgender equality”).

There has also been one award made specifically for “services to the bisexual community”, Jen Yockney who received the MBE in 2016.

Even though around 100,000 people have accepted honours in the Order some have refused them. Many refusals have justifiably referred to the imperial name and its connotations. Two known lgbt refusals have come from heritage author and diarist James Lee-Milne (1908-1997) who turned down a CBE in 1993. More recently Phyll Opoku-Gyimah turned down an MBE in 2016. Both expressed their pride at being considered for an honour but turned them down as being inappropriate.

As we (or at least me) celebrates the centenary of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire my fellow Brits should join me in trying to convince the powers be (the Queen, government and Civil Service) that a re-name and re-brand will be welcome. Perhaps it could become an all-encompassing honour with no classes or divisions. Perhaps a change of name from the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to the Order of British Excellence. That way we can keep the popular OBE letters after people’s names.

In the mean time the country waits in anticipation of the new Queen’s Birthday Honours list in a couple of weekend's time and hope that more lgbt recipients will continue to be recognised for their work in the community.

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