Meet the man who's had the tragic death of a former lover on his conscience for the past 61 years
Keith Biddlecombe is one of the thousands of gay men who could be "pardoned" by the government for historical gay sex offences.
But the 81-year-old, who is one of the recipients of this year's Attitude Pride Awards and was born in a time when homosexuality was illegal in the UK, says that he won't accept such a gesture because it would be like he was admitting that he committed a crime.
Keith's story is a tragic one, and something that LGBT+ people must take note of and remember when taking the rights currently afforded to us for granted.
He joined the Navy at the age of just 17, but his career was cut short when he was caught sleeping in bed with another man. After a “painful and degrading” examination that they were both forced to endure, the pair were charged with buggery and gross indecency, and were then court-martialed.
Keith then faced a huge dilemma when officers told him he faced five years behind bars if he didn't reveal the names of other officers he had been sexually active with. He refused to say at first, but he eventually relented when he was told all the men had to do was deny the charges and they'd be fine.
I thought, ‘Well, that’s a get out’. They were interested in an army officer who I’d spent a night with in Malta, so I was kept there waiting for his trial.”
However, there was never a hearing. Things took a shockingly dark turn when just weeks later, Keith was told to pack his bags because the officer in question had committed suicide.
“I’ve carried that with me for 61 years. He’d shot himself because, unlike me, he had a code to live by and felt he’d brought disgrace to his family and all the rest of it. “If only I’d been able to talk to him, to tell him that there is a gay life. But I wasn’t able to see him; he chose his path and I still feel very sad for him.”
Keith eventually served out his sentence at HM Prison Shepton Mallet, but he was released after six months due to good behaviour. However, with a criminal record and a court martial to his name, he struggled to get his life back on-track, but at the age of 81, he's finally made peace with his tragic past.
“All those years we were illegal were so senseless. That’s why I’m proud to accept this award. Not only for myself, but also on behalf of all those others who suffered before decriminalisation.”
Read the rest of Keith's story in the August issue of Attitude, out on July 20.