Battle to lift ban on gays in the military breaks out on West End front

Cole Moreton on the new play about to become a weapon in the campaign for homosexual rights
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GAY RIGHTS campaigners believe a controversial new West End play could provide fresh impetus for their battle to lift the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces.

Burning Blue, which opens at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, this week is the first play by David Greer, a former US Navy pilot. It is the semi- autobiographical story of a promising young officer who falls in love with a colleague and is forced to resign after an aggressive and intrusive investigation by Naval Special Intelligence officers.

For all its anger, the play knows its own audience. There were huge cheers during preview shows last week when a rampantly heterosexual character admitted he went to gay clubs "because the music is better and the people are more fun".

"I did not write this as a polemic," says Mr Greer. "I wanted to write drama for the stage, and the story just happens to be about two men in the Navy who are in love with each other, and how an investigation into the alleged homosexuality of one of them causes his whole life, all his friendships and everything around him, to unravel."

Nevertheless, Angela Mason of the gay rights group Stonewall believes Burning Blue will prove to be "a rallying point" for supporters of a legal campaign being fought by four homosexual former members of the British armed forces.

In June the four - three men and one woman - failed to persuade the High Court to overturn the ban on gays in the military, although Lord Justice Simon Brown turned down their request "with hesitation and regret".

If an appeal against the decision fails in October, they plan to take their fight to the European Court of Human Rights, where they are confident of victory. A Commons select committee will also consider whether to review the ban in time for the proposed Armed Forces Bill next summer.

"We regard the ban as an indefensible contravention of human rights that is wrecking lives in a way that is completely unnecessary," says Ms Mason. "When a senior High Court judge says these rules are based on prejudice alone, that is quite persuasive. This play will be a timely reminder that a fudge is not really possible."

Duncan Lustig-Prean, a former lieutenant-commander in the Navy, who is one of the four campaigners, says public response to the case has been "staggering". "A few months ago we could not have even dreamt that this issue would be considered a subject of interest for a play in the West End. It shows the change there has been. We have received support from far beyond the gay community."

Mr Lustig-Prean will see the show on Tuesday, its press night. He says the response to the problem it outlines was the disastrous policy of "don't ask, don't tell", now the subject of several legal battles in America. "We are afraid that the Government here will try to come up with a compromise like that," he says. Stonewall's armed forces group, Rank Outsiders, has seen 10 gay servicemen and women for counselling after they were moved towards discharge in the wake of Lord Justice Brown's ruling. "Some of them have been an enormous loss to the Crown. Four RAF pilots have been discharged, for example, at an estimated cost of pounds 25m in wasted training."

David Greer has followed the case closely since moving to London seven months ago to see his play through fringe performances in Islington. "I think Lord Justice Brown's attitude is encouraging, if a bit of a cop- out. Nevertheless he has said this is an antiquated, outdated policy and it needs to change."

He is surprised it has taken this long. "It's funny that our two countries are going through this issue together. We're so much younger than you, I would have thought you would have been through this years ago. But the US armed forces are the last bastion of that system of tradition and ceremony that doesn't exist anywhere else in the States. We are of you. In terms of its power base, America really is, still, so much a product of England. That white, male Anglo sensibility."

Like the lead character in his play, Mr Greer is the son of a high-ranking naval officer. He too dated women and was surprised to fall in love with someone of the same sex, although in his case it was not a fellow member of the armed forces. "It was something that I really fought, because of the difficulty of it. But after a while the heart was much more powerful than reason, upbringing, culture and law all put together."

The relationship was not discovered and he was not investigated, but knows others who were. "I do know the son of an admiral who was called into a kangaroo court like the one in the play and questioned for two days, non-stop. Finally, he resigned. His parents still don't know why."

Despite the rules, Mr Greer found support among his closest colleagues. "Maybe this play is a window in which to see that they're not just a bunch of Stepford clone soldiers. They are multi-dimensional, complex, sensitive, intelligent men and women that are doing a job within the confines of a system that doesn't want you to express any of that, any of the softer, feminine energy."

David Greer gave up service as a test pilot in 1986 and supported himself by renovating apartments in New York while writing his play, which he chose to develop away from the harsher gaze of a home audience.

His stepfather, Vice-Admiral Howard E Greer, will fly over in a fortnight's time to see it. Mr Greer is nervous about that. "My father is from a different generation. He's 74 years old and part of that old guard of America; Bush and Reagan and all those defence people in the military industrial complex."

Despite the pain obvious in the play, and the impression given of a huge organisation crushing individuality, Mr Greer misses the Navy. "It is a very insular world. It was like leaving the clergy: you're taken care of but it's a life of abstention. In the service you have to abstain from having a political point of view, or from exercising your free will to the extent a civilian does. There's this large organisation taking care of where you live, your disposable money, your assignments and your next move. What bed you're going to sleep in. I didn't want to leave that second womb."

He still has the neatness of an off-duty military man, with pressed cotton slacks, tight T-shirt and short hair. He sometimes even sounds like one: "There were some really great people in the Navy. There's a wonderful sense of the ability to do anything; to get the job done and not whinge about it."

Surprisingly, he thinks that includes change. "It depends on the chiefs of staff to say: 'This is it. There are going to be homosexuals. They will not be discriminated against. They will be treated fairly and equally. Bottom line.

"They will adhere to certain codes of conduct and behaviour during service just as you do. My peers in the service will be the leaders in five or 10 year's time. The time to start educating them is now."