David Aaronovitch column

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The Independent Online
Just because Nicholas Soames says it, it doesn't necessarily follow that it ain't so. On Thursday, after an adverse ruling in the High Court, the armed forces minister repeated his view that allowing openly gay men and women to join or remain in the military would affect its "morale, cohesion and effectiveness".

This is a big charge. As my friend (and Labour's defence spokesperson) Dr John Reid MP said to me in the committee corridor of the Commons last year, it's all very well for us liberal types to sit in our Islington wine bars and call down injunctions on the Chiefs of Staff, but what if having gays in the military really would mean that our ability to defend ourselves is undermined? Wine bars are uncomfortable places when under fire from a howitzer manned by a mad Albanian.

So we must take this argument seriously. For it does not depend on red herrings, like the "gays are no good at fighting" argument. True, one of the ex-naval gay men campaigners is called Duncan Lustig-Prean, whose very name suggests a life spent dressing up and going to naughty clubs, but in reality Duncan turns out to be very brave. He and his friends are not chiefly concerned with choosing the colour of the curtains in the Naafi, or trying to persuade Galliano to design the next generation of battledress. The annals of history resound to the names of martial gays, from Alexander, through the Lionheart to General Kitchener.

But what about the intrusive relationship argument? You're in the thick of battle and you must decide whether to fire your grenade launcher in support of X or wield your combat knife to defend Y. Oh, and Y is your boyfriend. Poor old X.

Or the jealous lover variant: the crew of the Memphis Belle are flying over Schweinfurth. "Bandit at five o'clock!" calls the pilot, "Nail him, Chuck!" "Not until you apologise for your terrible behaviour yesterday," comes the reply.

Two responses to this. First, just imagine how awful it would have been if, say, Montgomery and Patton had been jealous of each other. The whole Arnhem operation might have become a fiasco. Thank God they were straight! But, more seriously, there is no suggestion that homosexual acts should be permitted, any more than heterosexual ones.

Which leaves us with the discomfort argument. As Michael Portillo put it last year, "People are working in a situation of absolute trust. They are living almost literally on top of one another." Given that closeness, if current servicemen and women get antsy with gays around, that might be enough to lower cohesion, morale and all that stuff.

A recent survey showed that particular areas of concern were sharing tents ("camping tonight"), submarines (the shape?) and something called "hot bunking". This sounds fair enough (who would not be frightened of a bit of involuntary hot bunking?) until one learns that this actually describes a situation in which, when one man leaves a bunk, another gets into it. Thus precluding most prolonged forms of sexual activity, rather than encouraging them.

And, above all, the showers. As one sergeant put it, "Men don't like taking showers with men who like taking showers with men". But wait a minute! We don't want them to like showering, because - if they did - we would not like to shower with them.

Which brings me to Dr John Reid's Shower Test, whose logic goes thus: we agree that women should not be forced to shower with men, don't we? And for why? Because they would be uncomfortable being naked in front of people for whom they might be a source of sexual attraction. Well then, doesn't it follow that the same women should not be forced to shower with other women by whom they might conceivably be considered desirable?

Mmm. But why then does this not apply to schools, or universities, or sports clubs, or hospitals, where we straights may be forced - willy-nilly, so to speak - to become the unwilling objects of lustful stares? I often feel myself to be at risk of envious or strange glances in the shower, but I have racked my memory and I can't remember this ever having been a problem. Certainly not one that just turning around didn't solve.

So, Nick, turn around. If there's anyone watching.