Scotsman Obituaries: Roddy MacDonald, gay airman who fought MoD discrimination

Roddy MacDonald Born: 1964 in Nairobi. Died: 2023 in Edinburgh
Roddy MacDonald became a well-known face on the Scottish folk scene (Picture: Mhairi Law)Roddy MacDonald became a well-known face on the Scottish folk scene (Picture: Mhairi Law)
Roddy MacDonald became a well-known face on the Scottish folk scene (Picture: Mhairi Law)

Of the many names associated with the LGBT movement, Roddy MacDonald’s probably isn’t one of the first that springs to mind, though he played a pivotal role in the fight against regressive and discriminatory employment rights in the UK, specifically for gay servicemen and women.

He was the first to successfully appeal a tribunal against the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for discrimination after being sacked due to his homosexuality. While the ruling was ultimately overturned, it helped pave the way for landmark legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

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Roddy was born in Nairobi, amidst the dying embers of the British Empire, to a military family. His father a soldier and his mother an army nurse, they moved around the world several times throughout his childhood before he enrolled at the Queen Victoria military boarding school in Dunblane.

From early on, a life of military service seemed inevitable and Roddy’s decision to join up full-time upon leaving school was not a difficult one.

Having received a commendation for his service at RAF Aldergrove, he became flight lieutenant after transferring to RAF Prestwick. It was there – aged 35 – where a promising career on a steep upward trajectory was cut short due to his being gay.

During security vetting for a new post as custodian of communications security at the Scottish Air Traffic Control Centre, he admitted his homosexuality under questioning. Shortly afterwards his security clearance was withdrawn and he was asked to resign his commission.

Roddy accused investigating officers at the time of engaging in what he called a “queer hunt”, claiming they even ransacked his flat in Ayr.

This incident was apparently the catalyst for a move to Edinburgh, where he sought the help of Rank Outsiders, a group campaigning for gay men and lesbians to be allowed to serve in the British Armed Forces. Refusing to resign, Roddy found himself compulsorily discharged in March 1997.

Thus began years of legal battles with the MoD, on the grounds of sex discrimination. His case was initially rejected by a tribunal in 1999, which ruled that discrimination due to sexual orientation did not constitute sexual discrimination, on the basis that a gay woman would not have been treated any differently.

The MoD was quite open about the fact he was discharged because of his sexuality, something which was still technically lawful if it fell outwith the Sex Discrimination Act, and was – they argued – in the interest of national security.

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A year later, though, following an appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, that decision was overturned in a landmark ruling, which found Roddy had been a victim of sex discrimination and sexual harassment. This ruling had the potential to spark major change for gay service personnel overnight, giving as it did the first precedent that sexual orientation fell under the sex discrimination act.

Unfortunately, the MoD appealed to the Court of Session, which overturned his victory.

Despite losing a final appeal in the House of Lords, this would ultimately be one of the last cases of its kind in the UK. Thanks in no small part to trailblazers like Roddy, an EU directive forced the UK government to adopt legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation just two years later.

The order came too late for Roddy, whose military career was cut short, and who – like so many gay men of his generation – came to wear his homosexuality like a battle scar.

Sadly, struggles with physical and mental health dogged his final years, but the two decades which followed his dismissal from the RAF came to be defined by an ensconced joie de vivre in the Edinburgh folk scene, where he became a passionate and dedicated supporter of live traditional music wherever he found it.

Roddy was also a firm believer in an independent Scotland, throwing himself behind the Yes campaign during the 2014 referendum.

In the battle for gay rights, Roddy’s story stands as an historic flashpoint. Though his name may not be instantly associated with the luminaries of the Pride movement, he is more than deserving of his place in that hall of fame.

For every young serviceman or woman who doesn’t feel the need to choose between their sexuality and their career, a debt of gratitude is surely owed to pioneers like Roddy MacDonald.


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