Stop the generals invading the bedroom

Britain pays a high price for excluding gay men and women from the armed forces, says Edmund Hall
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If the gay RAF nurse Jeanette Smith had been serving in the armed forces of at least 12 other European countries, her career would not have come to an end. France, Belgium, Austria, Holland, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain all allow homosexuals to serve openly in their ranks.

The Ministry of Defence maintains that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service", and continues to sack up to 100 men and women a year directly because they are lesbian or gay. These men and women are subjected to extensive investigations and interrogations, often over many months, by the armed forces' own police. Many people do not realise how much energy the armed forces put into trying to seek out gay men and women - who do not need to have had any sexual relationship to be dismissed.

A man was sacked from the RAF two years ago after he told the authorities he was gay, but that because of his religious convictions did not intend to have any form of sexual relationship. Cardinal Hume is more liberal than the MoD in this regard, in his support for chaste homosexuals.

Last year in Scotland, two RAF officers were placed under surveillance for a month after an anonymous letter had made allegations about their sexuality. The whole range of skills, tools and manpower available to the armed forces police branches is regularly used to try to uncover gay men and women. There is no culture of "just keep quiet about it" or "live- and-let-live": secret homosexuals are always in fear of imminent discovery and dismissal. However good they may be at their jobs, MoD policy means they will be sacked.

In "real money" terms - lost experience, training, and administration costs - as well as the costs of detailed investigations and surveillance - this ban must cost the taxpayer £10m to £20m a year. In the Royal Navy alone during the past couple of years, three lieutenant-commanders - Simon Langley, Duncan Lustig-Prean and Patrick Lyster-Todd - have resigned or been sacked because they were gay.

Simon Langley was the Royal Navy's solo helicopter display pilot, Patrick Lyster-Todd navigated warships, and Duncan Lustig-Prean was a supply officer destined for senior rank. None of these officers, with almost 50 years' service between them, had anything other than exemplary records. Loss to the Navy in training and experience? Probably at least £3m.

So why can our European allies save themselves these kind of bills, when the MoD states that "the divisive influence of homosexual practices ... must be excluded"? The MoD says other European countries have different types of military structure and often a different role - Britain, for example, has had responsibilities in Northern Ireland - and these differences, they argue, mean Britain must discriminate. They also say that in countries with conscription, banning homosexuality would provide an easy way out for unwilling conscriptees.

It is unlikely that many heterosexual young men would want to brand themselves "queer draft-dodgers" for the rest of their lives in order to avoid a year's employment. But even if we accept this argument, that still leaves Australia, Canada and New Zealand to deal with.

Those countries ran policies of exclusion much the same as ours until 1992. They all lifted their bans at about the same time. Perhaps there was a worldwide liberal conspiracy that missed Britain out; but I think it more likely that the MoD is just a few years behind on the issue, as it has been coming to terms with equality for women and ethnic minorities. None of these countries, whose personnel regularly exchange with our own, has experienced any problems with lifting the ban. Australia is pleased with its "sexual conduct policy," which outlaws "public flaunting and the advocacy of a particular sexual proclivity, causing offence to members of the group and thus liable to provoke a breakdown in group cohesion". Also banned are "sexual relationships ... conducted openly in the communal environment of a mess or barrack block".

The US provides us with an example of what can happen if politicians avoid the issue and try to strike a compromise. In civil rights issues "compromises" never work, and President Clinton is now faced with about 130 cases before the federal courts challenging the legality of his "don't ask, don't tell"policy. Most of the men and women sacked from Britain's armed forces have said the lifting of the ban would be compensation enough for them - the issue of compensation payments is a red herring. But if the MoD insists, like the US Department of Defense, on being dragged kicking and screaming through the European Court of Justice, then the possibility of compensation becomes very real. For once it would be good to see the Government pre-empt another embarrassing ticking-off in Europe by giving Jeanette Smith her job back, and replacing the current blanket ban with a sensible sexual conduct policy.

The Government should steer well clear of the confused US model and introduce a sensible policy, like the Australian one, which outlaws sexual relationships in the workplace, in uniform or on company time.

Rules like these can surely apply equally to hetero- and homosexual members of the armed forces. It is time the MoD stopped treating members of the armed forces like school children and allowed those men and women prepared to die for their country to make their own decision about whom they wish to sleep with. It is not the business of admirals, generals, civil servants or ministers to dictate what these men and women do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

The writer is author of `We Can't Even March Straight', Vintage, May 1995.