LEADING ARTICLE:From Lionheart to Stonewall

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It was a technical knockout. Yesterday's High Court ruling that the armed services ban on homosexuals is legal was based on the fact that it was not "irrational". In legal-speak this means that the Ministry of Defence did actually manage to dredge up some reasons for the ban, even if these were all untestable assertions. Lord Justice Simon Brown tempered the disappointment of the gay rights campaigners by suggesting that their eventual victory was only a matter of time. "The tide of history is against the Ministry," he said, "... it seems improbable that the existing policy can survive much longer".

Life may not, however, be that simple. We are talking here about the immense power that prejudice exerts over otherwise good minds. Take the "reasons" adduced by the Ministry of Defence for maintaining the ban: that allowing gays into the forces would lower morale, diminish unit effectiveness, compromise the special conditions of communal living and endanger the in loco parentis role that the services play in relation to recruits under 18.

These are candy-floss arguments - seemingly substantial, but doomed to disintegrate on contact with thought. There are already rules in place to deter heterosexual soldiers and sailors of both sexes from spending all their time in liaisons and dalliances with each other. Such rules can be applied to everybody. That deals with the first three arguments. The fourth - protecting young squaddies from potential corruption - is preposterous. If we can have male teachers teaching girls, gay men teaching boys and bisexuals teaching anybody, how can we possibly object to 17- year-olds being in the same regiment as gays?

But the real, subterranean reasons why the Chiefs of Staff and others object to gay people in the armed forces are more likely to surface far away from the courts, in the befugged privacy of clubs and messes. They are the conviction that gays make lousy soldiers and that the regular guys will feel uncomfortable at the thought of being given the once-over in the showers or at bedtime. In this world of prejudice all homosexuals are mincing faggots, afraid to dig trenches for fear of breaking a nail and cruising the barracks in sequins and boas. Never mind the evidence, never mind the contradictions. Richard the Lionheart, Lawrence of Arabia - big girl's blouses! Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great - a giggling pair of AC/DCs! Give us a real man any day.

Julian Brazier, MP for Canterbury, understands the feeling. Vice-chairman of the Conservative back-bench defence committee, he welcomed the judgment on behalf of "the vast majority of service personnel, who do not want to share their homes with practising homosexuals". Don Juans, wife-beaters, alcoholics, sadists and transvestites they can tolerate.

The battle against this unreasoning attitude will be hard, despite the judge's optimism. His colleague on the bench, Mr Justice Curtis, for instance, said he did not agree that the ban was wrong or "doomed to die an early death". There are plenty of people who would back him. Whether the matter now goes to Parliament or the European Court, the campaign against liberalisation (so far dormant) will be far more savage and effective than most commentators yet realise. The forces of prejudice will be mustered. Those of enlightenment need to rally round.