Rearguard action has been led by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jock Slater: "The stand, in one word, is no." He wrote, "There is no choice of association on a ship. There is no privacy. And so I am absolutely certain it is unacceptable in a ship in the fleet to have declared homosexuals...." The Navy set out to conduct a risible "consultation" process, from which, unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of servicemen and women appear to have come out strongly against any relaxation of the rules. In the first round, for instance, the entire crew of HMS Brilliant docked in Plymouth was summoned to give their opinion. "Anyone here want homosexuals in the Navy?" No hands went up.
At a more relaxed discussion among personnel stationed at Faslane, some 70 per cent were positive about the idea - about the same level of tolerance as is usually found among the general public. However, a few were chosen to answer detailed questionnaires, with somewhat leading questions. Would they be frightened of going to the aid of a bleeding comrade if they knew he was gay? How about sharing a bed with a gay man, if it proved necessary in battle conditions?
These loaded questions may be unfair, but even so the compromise being proposed by the MoD looks superficially as if it might be the answer, to mollify the hostility from the top brass. Even liberals are becoming a little weary of vociferous gay campaigning on what seem to be relatively minor injustices.
After all, isn't homosexuality in effect legal now? What does it really matter about these curious little outposts, such as the clergy, the military, or, for that matter, the 16- to 18-year-olds? Surrounded by grosser social injustices, vestigial discrimination against gays may seem relatively piffling.
But in fact the law still causes a surprising amount of very real suffering to those who fall foul of it. The servicemen and women who took their cases to judicial review last year were not simply indulging an ideological point.
Take just one of them, Lieutenant Commander Duncan Lustig Prean. Eighteen months ago he was a young, very high flyer in the Navy, just about to be appointed as military adviser inside Number 10. But a well-known blackmailer threatened to tell of his homosexuality. He had done nothing wrong, committed no indecent act, but outside his navy life he had a gay partner. To avoid the clutches of the blackmailer he went at once to the captain of his ship to confess that he was gay. The captain reluctantly had no choice but to hand him over to the military police, and he was drummed out. He is still unemployed, and, he fears, unemployable. Establishment companies think him a trouble-maker for challenging the Government in court, while voluntary organisations think he is too much of an establishment navy man for them. His very promising career has been destroyed.
What happened to the blackmailer? Nothing. He is a man who frequently supplies information to the military police about gays in the forces who won't pay up to silence him. Gay persecution is a speciality of the military police, who frequently act as agents provocateurs in gay bars and clubs around naval bases.
Duncan Lustig Prean says the MoD's proposed "Don't ask, don't tell" policy would do nothing to help people like him. It was devised in America as an emergency compromise when President Clinton ran into a storm of controversy in his first days over his pledge to apply gay rights to the services. It has led to no diminution of the number of people turned out of the US forces for being gay.
Had the policy been in operation here, Lustig Prean would still have been turned out as soon as he told anyone he was gay, so he would still have been a target for blackmailers.
Although homosexuality is now widely accepted, especially among the under forties, law after law still discriminates against gays. Last year a friend of mine died in his seventies, leaving behind a partner he had lived with for some 40 years. If they had been a married couple his partner would have inherited his pension, and would not have had to pay death duties. He was lucky not to lose his share of the house, as many have done in paying death duties.
Immigration law prevents gay people from bringing in foreign partners. An unmarried partner has no right to inherit a tenancy. Unemployed gay couples do better: each will be assessed separately for income support and paid more than a married or cohabiting heterosexual couple would be. But in about three-quarters of pension schemes, there is no way for unmarried partners to pass on their hard-earned entitlements.
Stonewall, the moderate gay-rights group, wants a change in the law to give gay couples the right to have their partnerships registered in the town hall, with all the legal and financial advantages that accompany marriage. There could be a bit of a ceremony, if they want it, or just the signing of a piece of paper. If the couple were to break up acrimoniously later, they would have the same legal redress in the division of goods as married couples have. Most of all, this would bring a new social acceptance.
But it won't happen in the foreseeable future, for one rather perverse reason: the same rights would have to be given to cohabiting heterosexual couples. In the current political climate it is impossible to imagine giving more rights to cohabitees, since family values lobbies are clamouring for marriage to be strengthened through extra tax and benefit incentives - and even fidelity bonuses for those who remain married.
The ill-fated Domestic Violence and Family Homes Bill would have extended the protection now afforded to married victims of violence, to those in cohabiting relationships - including gay relationships. But a burst of moral outrage against cohabitees' rights stopped the Bill in its tracks, and it has been hastily watered down.
The gay world may seem like a small outpost of society, but in fact the way it is treated reflects a huge and growing area where the law is badly out of kilter with the way people actually live and what they believe. That is why "don't ask, don't tell" amounts to a conspiracy of silence that still proclaims homosexuality officially unacceptable.Reuse content