It’s an undeniable fact that without the devoted service of a multitude of gay staff, operations at Buckingham Palace would grind to a halt.
But there have long been suspicions of a lingering disregard for true equal rights at the palace; even supposedly affectionate stories, such as one of the queen mother teasing her gay steward William Tallon—aka 'Backstairs Billy'—for being 'an old queen' can be seen as deeply patronizing.
Prince Philip, as one might guess, is thought to have been no great force for LGBT equality.
But gay men and women have always been hired within the royal household, not least because long-term gay employees were less likely to have children, and family-appropriate accommodation at the palace is in short supply, whereas single rooms are plentiful.
There had been a sense in recent years that things were beginning to change, with the news that the queen did not oppose the introduction of gay marriage being seen as a step in the right direction. Prince William gave an interview to British gay magazine Attitude, deploring homophobic bullying and Prince Harry and Meghan spoke out earlier this year in support of LGBT issues, with the American star saying, it was about "basic human rights."
There is little doubt that the young royals believe unquestioningly in equality.
So it was all the more disconcerting to read, this weekend, of the revelation that the queen’s first openly gay senior footman had resigned, after being forced to accept a series of humiliating demotions for allegedly ‘courting publicity’ following the appearance of some articles about him on gay websites. There was an acute sense of disappointment, work being undone and clocks being turned back.
While some people might think it absurd that Ollie Roberts, 21, resigned after being told he could no longer pass the queen a blanket or walk Her Majesty’s dogs, being permitted to interact directly with the queen is more than just a vanity massage or an ego-trip for poorly-paid royal household employees; it’s a crucial step on the career ladder, as it is a sign that you are trusted.
While it is true that generally, staff are not allowed to give media interviews or cooperate with the press in any way, shape of form, this rule is largely about preventing unauthorized or embarrassing information leaking out to journalists.
If Roberts did tip off or otherwise co-operate with some journalists, this would appear to most people to be at worst, a youthful error of exuberance, perhaps slightly self-aggrandizing. There is no suggestion he has sold or betrayed Her Majesty’s secrets.
A royal insider told The Sun, which broke the story: “Ollie was informed he had been overdoing the press stuff and they knew he was behind articles and gossip pieces.
“They told him his profile was becoming too high and he wasn’t there to draw attention to himself.”
He was subsequently demoted and deprived of key duties. He then “decided he should quit. He feels badly let down when he was proud to be gay in such a good job.”
Veteran LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told The Daily Beast: “I can see no example of him giving quotes to the media, which might justify the claim that he was 'courting publicity'. It looks more likely that the Palace is embarrassed for it to be known that it has gay staff, and it is consistent with decades of homophobia by the queen's inner circle.
“Only two decades ago, the royals banned gay employees from bringing same-sex partners to the Buckingham Palace Christmas staff party. This homophobic discrimination was only overturned after I exposed it and created a public furore, forcing the palace to back down.”
Tatchell, it should be noted, is no great fan of the monarchy and is a high-profile member of the pressure group Republic which seeks to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state.
Tatchell added: "Since the queen ascended the throne in 1952, the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ have never publicly passed her lips. She refuses to speak them. Even when she announced government plans for gay law reform in her Queen’s Speeches in Parliament she avoided using the words lesbian and gay.”
The palace declined to comment on the story when contacted by The Daily Beast and informed of Tatchell’s accusations of homophobia.
While many would be inclined to give the queen the benefit of the doubt, the departure of Ollie Roberts from his front-line role looks, at best, like a thoughtless own-goal for an institution that desperately needs to modernize, and be seen to modernize.
It is hard to know which is more depressing; that Roberts is the first ever footman to feel comfortable openly talking about his sexuality to the media, or that the palace should have been so stupid as to demote him for doing so, thereby encouraging his resignation.