Gays fear dismissal from armed forces: President Clinton's move towards ending the US armed forces' ban on homosexuals has renewed debate about the services and police in Britain. Heather Mills reports

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The Independent Online
SARA believes her days in the Wrens are numbered. She says she has already undergone hours of interrogation by Special Investigation Branch officers, her letters have been opened, her calls intercepted and she has been followed off base.

The 'offence' for which she is a prime suspect is being a lesbian. Last year, two of her friends were discharged after 'confessing' to homosexuality - one after being offered an 'option of seeing a psychiatrist for treatment'.

Paul Crone, 23, claims he was beaten and kicked during three days of interrogation until he signed a statement admitting he was in breach of service law by being homosexual before he was discharged from the Royal Highland Fusiliers.

And Army SIB officers wore latex gloves when they searched Elaine Chambers' rooms for evidence that she was a lesbian. After nearly six years in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, the lieutenant was forced to resign her commission. But in what she describes as a 'witch-hunt', the scrutiny of her private mail, diaries and other personal belongings led to five other women being forced to quit.

The Ministry of Defence makes no apologies for enforcing its belief that homosexuality 'is incompatible with good order and discipline'. While no up-to-date figures are kept, the latest available show that in the three years up to 1991, 272 men and women were discharged because they were homosexuals and a further 34 court-martialled and given sentences of up to two years.

While President Bill Clinton yesterday underlined his determination to lift the ban on homosexuals in the US armed forces, there is little indication that the British Government will contemplate the same.

A cross-party select committee on the armed forces accepted that present policy causes distress and leads to loss of competent men and women. It concluded in 1991: 'We are not persuaded that the time has yet come to require the Forces to accept homosexuals or homosexual activity.' However, it did recommend decriminalising homosexuality.

Last summer, Jonathan Aitken, the Armed Forces Procurement Minister, announced he was prepared to accept the recommendation, which will bring military law into line with the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. Although homosexuality remains a technical offence until new legislation is introduced, Mr Aitken said the recommendation would be implemented in practice.

But campaigners for reform argue that the treatment of homosexuals remains degrading, inhumane and amounts to persecution. They point out that many people join before they have recognised their sexuality. Often by the time they come to believe they may be gay or lesbian, they are already advanced into their careers. Anne was 19 when 'suddenly there were so many things I had to come to terms with - not just my sexuality but the sudden threat to my career'.

Although she survived one interrogation after her commanding officer received an anonymous 'outing' letter, she left after nine years in the service. 'I had been promoted to lieutenant and I could not stand the hypocrisy. I was in a horrible position where if any of the girls had been found out, either I would have had to put my own career on the line and speak up for them or be active in booting them out.'

Yet according to Anne, a lot of lesbian senior officers have survived. 'I think there is a kind of 'Old Girls' network.'

But if the US President remains true to his word, gay equality in one of the world's biggest armies will put pressure for change on Britain. It is already out of step with several of its Nato allies. Forces in France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway are open to gays and lesbians. Australia and Canada ended their ban last year. The Labour Party favours a review and the Liberal Democrats would support lifting the ban.

Reformers also highlight research - commissioned by the United States Defense Department, which concluded that sexuality was unrelated to job performance and that gays and lesbians display military suitability 'that is as good or better than the average heterosexual'.

Meanwhile, according to Rank Outsiders, a support group for former armed forces homosexuals, persecutions and inhumane treatment continues. Robert Ely, its chairman who was discharged as a bandmaster in the Parachute Regiment after nearly 20 years' service, said allegations of inhumane treatment by investigating officers had come to his attention in the last two days.

He is seeking an independent review of homosexuality within the armed forces, arguing that the MoD has not produced evidence to support its claims that homosexuality can cause tension and damage the cohesion of a unit. 'It remains the case that once identified, a gay man or lesbian woman has their life closely scrutinised, investigated and often ruined,' he said.

The MoD said yesterday it could not discuss individual cases, but if people had complaints, there were 'proper channels' for complainants to pursue.

(Photograph omitted)