LEADING ARTICLE:Portillo panders to forces' homophobia

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The Independent Online
Michael Portillo is pandering to the homophobia of the military establishment. Yesterday the Defence Secretary announced that the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces would remain - and all because a survey of servicemen found only 3 per cent of personnel would be "more comfortable" if homosexuals were accepted.

If 97 per cent of the armed forces said they would prefer to work alongside white colleagues, would he ban other ethnic groups? Of course not. Racism is unacceptable and so is the current ban on gays and lesbians. Homosexuals are dismissed from the armed forces not because of their behaviour, but because of the mere fact of their sexuality. It is unlikely to be long before the ban is overturned by the European Court of Human Rights.

The military establishment is still trying to claim that its objections are not homophobic. They argue instead that gays and lesbians undermine the effectiveness of the unit as a whole, even if as individuals they are perfectly capable of doing the job. Pointing to the close, cramped quarters that fighting personnel must often share, Mr Portillo said that lifting the ban "would create such a complication that the armed forces ... believe that they could not then retain their fighting power, their trust, their morale."

These concerns are deeply misplaced. Intimate sexual and romantic liaisons between two members of a tight team can occasionally invoke loyalties and jealousies which jeopardise the discipline and commitment of the whole group. But when this occurs in other work places, most people adopt a professional approach and find a way to handle the situation. If the armed forces are right that their personnel lack the maturity to cope, then they should adopt the Australian approach: outlaw sexual relationships on the job.

There is no reason why the mere presence of gays and lesbians in barracks should undermine operational effectiveness. Same-sex, same-sexuality bonding is not an essential precondition for "trust" between comrades in arms. But the guiding purpose of armies is to use discipline to harness force and control fear. Servicemen and women should learn to control the power of their own sexual attractions and revulsions in the same disciplined way.

The MoD should lift the ban on gays and lesbians. There will doubtless be short-term management problems as the forces cope with outbursts of harassment and homophobia. But no one ever promised that fighting prejudice would be easy.