`For years, I thought I had been living a successful lie. But they all knew I was gay'

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The Independent Online
WHEN Lieutenant-Commander Duncan Lustig-Prean realised he was going to be discharged from the Royal Navy because of his homosexuality, he assembled members of his ship's company to explain what had happened. Much to his surprise, nobody seemed the slightest bit surprised.

"I thought I'd been living an entirely successful lie," he said yesterday, "but they just said: `Oh we know that, boss. We've known it for years'." The incident showed that, contrary to popular perception, the issue of homosexuals in the forces is not an enormous problem for those serving in them, he said.

When he did have to go, after reporting a blackmail attempt against him, the overwhelming reaction from colleagues was sympathy and understanding. "Very often when this happens the reaction is one of anger, because people know they are losing a valuable member of the team," he added.

He was speaking after he and three others had their cases upheld in the European Court of Human Rights, in a unanimous ruling that has already brought an end to the immediate dismissal of lesbians and gays from the ranks of Britain's armed forces.

His are the kind of arguments that will be rehearsed again and again in the coming weeks and months, as pressure is kept up on the Government and the Ministry of Defence to abandon completely the existing policy of automatic discharge.

If any further dismissals do happen, say campaigners, both will find themselves back in court immediately. The ruling is due to become law in a year's time, after the European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated into British statute. While most observers see this in effect as the end of the policy, there will still be much work to be done within the armed forces to sell such a change, as commanders have disagreed with it.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the Secretary of State for Defence, swiftly announced that the Government accepted the court's ruling and that all disciplinary cases still pending would be put on hold. "The detail of this complex judgment and the practical implications are presently being studied carefully," said his statement. "After consulting service chiefs, ministers will be making their recommendations in a timely manner."

The Government planned to review the ban as part of a new Armed Forces Bill in 2001, most likely with a free vote for MPs, but the ban could now be lifted before the Bill is reintroduced.

The decision of the court was widely expected, and there was speculation around Westminster that the Government has reason to be grateful for it.The continued resistance of the service chiefs was seen as a major block on the move. Ministers were mindful of the backlash that accompanied Bill Clinton's early attempts at removing the ban on gays in the US armed forces.

"The Government has been waiting for this judgment so that it can say to the service chiefs, `There is nothing we can do about it'. They are using it as cover," said Crispin Blunt, a Conservative MP and a special adviser to Malcolm Rifkind, the former defence secretary.

During the last government there was no voice in favour of change, he said, although "some were more illiberal than others". The spectrum went "from the Royal Navy, which was extremely concerned about the effect on discipline in ships, to the RAF where there was a good deal less concern".

Overall, he added, the defence establishment was determined "to sustain the policy in the face of changing social attitudes".

The arguments deployed by the military dwelt on the potential threat to discipline, on the possibility of abuse of power by officers and NCOs and that soldiers are admitted to the British Army at 16 - younger than in most Western countries.

But they also reflected a reluctance to complicate their lives further with new regulations and codes of conduct.

The Navy, struggling with the effects of admitting women on board ships since 1991, resisted further change fiercely. But it is likely to be the Navy's special code of conduct, introduced to deal with that situation and generally known as the "no touching rule", that will be the blueprint for any new accommodation of homosexuals.

For some former commanders, however, the ideal would be for parliament to reject immediately the European ruling and get together with other states to seek an exception for armed forces.

"The forces are the only institutions in our society where people are recruited and trained for the battlefield," said General Sir Anthony Farrar- Hockley, who commanded allied forces in northern Europe until 1982.

"When you are in the contact zone, face to face with an enemy, you want to be able to concentrate on that and nothing else. You do not want people behind you in a slit trench having a sexual squabble."