Leading Article: Gays in the military: individualism's new frontier

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The Independent Online
The drive to equality sweeps through contemporary history like a tide. Its headwaters deepened even when Margaret Thatcher, the arch- priestess of inequality of income and wealth, was in power. In a Conservative acceptance of the value of equal opportunity and treatment, backbench Tories have had to sit there whingeing about political correctness even as the Cabinet Office published guidelines for its black, disabled and gay employees as individuals deserving equal treatment.

Britain has become more unequal in terms of income distribution, but also arguably more equal in terms of treatment. Black people, disabled people and people labelling themselves as possessing different and distinct sexual personalities are recognised in public policies as possessors of the same civic identity as everyone else. They demand recognition of their special characteristics, measures to prevent discrimination and promote equal treatment.

This pursuit of the right to self-determination springs from the same sources as the individualism that underpinned tax cuts as incentives to self-interested effort. The same philosophy of individual assertion stimulates the disabled person to demand, as a right, ramps in public buildings, and the gay man to be openly homosexual and a corporal in the Scots Guards.

One very good reason why the Thatcher government was unable to do away with the Commission for Racial Equality or the Equal Opportunities Commission was the force of the arguments against discrimination coming from the Tories' own liberal economics. One very good reason why the Government has to live with the European Convention on Human Rights and accompanying (anti-British) judgments by the Strasbourg Court is the indivisibility of the economic and constitutional elements of liberal individualism. You cannot at one and the same time oppose compulsory trade-union membership and say that gay people have no rights as individuals when confronted with prejudice and discrimination. What the Conservatives have never quite figured is that their own individualism is a protean force but one that makes constant demands on government and society to recognise individual rights. The "right" to be individual is often meaningless unless it has the sanction of the state and its courts.

As the dominant principle ordering our society, it makes the specific instance of whether to employ gay people in the armed forces an open and shut case, doesn't it? Just as angry disappointment is the only reaction to cases of black soldiers victimised and rejected by the Army, so the exclusion from the ranks of open homosexuals looks like another example of our core principle being flouted. Radio listeners yesterday may have heard the leader of the Labour Party twisting on the contradictions of his own position on Edwina Currie's amendment to the Armed Forces Bill. (She would have overturned the official ban on avowed homosexuals serving in the forces.) Tony Blair says he opposed the ban in principle but he couldn't support overturning it because it was opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So much for the power of a prime minister over the military in a civilian democracy.

Yet one of his problems is that the military men have been so mealy-mouthed. What they have wanted to say, presumably, is that gay people are subversive of military good order because they are disposed to behave in certain ways. The Army, the Navy and the RAF are bureaucratic and hierarchical organisations. They depend sometimes - by no means always - on communal solidarity in the ranks and need to guard against a great variety of dispositions: towards stealing in barracks, drinking at moments of stress, killing except on command, and so forth. But the law does not forbid kleptomaniacs, alcoholics and homicidal maniacs from becoming soldiers. What it does do is proscribe all those behaviours that defeat the purpose of a standing professional army (and one, incidentally, having to adapt to a growing diversity of purposes). Whether recruits are homosexual is irrelevant unless and until it leads them to act contrary to military purpose.

It will not do, however, to label the Joint Chiefs of Staff homophobic and leave it there. They believe, and it is a common enough view, that many homosexuals have grown up in a sexual culture in which libido is rampant and promiscuity unrestrained to such an extent that it might cause mayhem in the barracks. Such a view of homosexuality is not confined to the upper echelons of the officers' mess. It is worn as a badge of pride and a source of common identity by leading gay advocates.

Andrew Sullivan, the British-American writer, argues that gay men have a special calling. Their vocation rests on their non-participation in demanding households and it is one of creativity and radical reappraisal. Homosexuals are insurgents. Mr Sullivan's view is a variant of a position that most gay men would subscribe to. To be true to our individual natures we have to present ourselves as different, they say, and be proud of it. So what if they are different in ways that do turn out to be subversive of order and institutional purpose?

The answer is that different rules must apply to public and private space, so far as they can be separated. Privately, let difference blossom. Publicly, individual rights of belonging and participation and access may have to be matched by some suppression of "difference" in the name of efficiency of purpose. Government and institutions can establish wide areas in which public rules apply. Squaddies are the same, to all intents and purposes, on parade, in the mess and pinned down in Gorazde. In that space, equality rules. Pass the training course, muster out - sexual orientation irrelevant. Are barracks bedrooms, sleeping quarters below decks, public spaces for this purpose? Yes they are: liberal rules of entry apply; but once inside, institutional rules of conduct hold and they may well restrict the scope for "difference".

Individualism has not run its course. Classes and groups may still justifiably claim discrimination and obstruction in their access to the public spaces of our society. But those spaces are not playgrounds. In them, strict rules of conduct legitimately apply. In them, formal equality may require us to look and behave the same.