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Time to put an end to prejudice

Delicious irony! The Aussies of all people telling us we are guilty of discriminating against gays in the armed forces. The country where Bruces are Bruces and Sheilas are Sheilas, where brawny, macho men walk miles for a lager, telling Britain off for banning gays in the military! How droll, how unexpected.

But, of course, that is the Australia of stereotype. The real country is one that, like almost all other Western nations, has abolished discrimination against male or female homosexuals serving in the armed forces. The real Australia is genuinely shocked that one of their sergeants, on attachment to an RAF base, should be expelled on the grounds that he is gay.

This incident, reported last week, came just after an important judgment in the High Court to allow Jeanette Smith to seek judicial review of her dismissal from the RAF. Ms Smith was sacked because of her lesbianism and leave was granted on the basis that her dismissal might well be contrary to European anti-discrimination law. If Ms Smith wins her case, the outcry will be immediate and savage.

Let us consider the arguments that will be deployed against a relaxation of the ban. They are likely to consist of one or more of the following: gays are open to blackmail; gays are unsuited to the armed forces; admitting gays will lead to a lowering of discipline and morale.

The first is fairly simple: no ban, so nothing to hide, so no blackmail. Point two, the lack of suitability, is difficult only because of the surprisingly large number of people who, rather unquestioningly, believe it. Gay men, in particular, are held to be gentle, effeminate, fussy and inclined towards the arts, but not good at fighting. This very partial view is based on ignorance. For good or ill, the gay community contains its fair share of tough guys and gals, sure shots and strategists.

But the trump for the discriminators is the third contention. At the moment (goes the argument) there is not much two-person sex of any description going on in the armed forces. In most situations, men do not serve with women. Where they do (as in the Navy) behaviour is strictly circumscribed. As a result, important team work is not marred by the jealousies and emotional turmoil that come with intense sexual relationships. If gays were allowed in, this situation might break down.

However plausible this argument, there is one problem with it. In other countries, such as the Netherlands and Australia, where gays have been admitted to the armed forces, no such breakdown has occurred. There has been no epidemic of lovers' tiffs in the messes, no explosion of uncontrollable sexual activity. There is no evidence to support this reason for maintaining the ban.

Many people will disagree violently, but the time has now come for this discrimination to stop. It is unacceptable that careers, embarked upon out of a desire to render public service, should be terminated because of prejudice. Ability, not sexual preference, should be the deciding factor. It will not be easy, as President Clinton discovered in the United States, but it is possible. Otherwise we will be living up to another stereotype: the one of British public life dominated by boneheadedness, antiquity and cruelty.