A Special Case
by Angela Mason, Executive Director of Stonewall
The ferocity with which the British military establishment have defended the ban on homosexuals gives an insight into one of the stranger twists of our national psyche. The need to hunt down and dismiss homosexuals has become, in the minds of the military establishment, part of the defence of English manhood, central to the very 'virility' of our nation.
Our admirals and generals fear homosexuality as a dangerous pollutant which will 'disarm' strong men. They justify keeping the ban by claiming that our armed services are actually better and more efficient than those of any other country precisely because homosexuals are excluded. To preserve our fighting integrity, the British armed services are also required to identify, hunt down and dismiss any known lesbians or gay men. Individuals are routinely treated as criminals, their property searched, personal possessions including letters, photographs and address books are taken away. They arc interrogated by military police about the details of their sexual lives and they are asked to name names. The Data Protection Registrar is presently investigating allegations that the armed services hold a secret data base with records of the sexuality of both serving and ex-service personnel.
In A Patriot For Me Osborne asks for no favours for his homosexual protagonists. The Countess claims she is sick of how 'you (homosexuals) all roll out your little parade: Michelangelo and Socrates, and Alexander and Leonardo. God you're like a guild of housewives pointing out Catherine the Great.' But at the Drag Ball Steinbauer resents the treatment he received as a young soldier at the hands of his priest: 'I worshipped Radetsky at the time, and he knew it. So he said do you think someone like Radetsky could have been like that? I didn't know about Julius Caesar and Alexander then.'
So while attacking a cliche Osborne also acknowledges that there is a lack of relevant knowledge available to young gay men. The sophisticated can take the Countess's point as read but for the majority ignorance is still propagated. Very little is known about the ordinary gay soldier but it is as well to know that the Theban Band was a crack regiment of male lovers, that Alexander did love Hephaistian, Julius Caesar was bisexual and William of Orange, Frederick the Great, Kitchener, Gordon of Khartoum and Lawrence of Arabia were all gay. There is also a debate over the sexuality of Montgomery and Lord Mountbatten.
The only other NATO country which operates a ban of this nature is Turkey. The United States has been forced to modify its position and there the uneasy compromise of 'don't ask, don't tell' is being successfully challenged in numerous court cases.
The first legal challenge to the British policy came in May 1995 when three men and an RAF nurse challenged the ban in the High Court. Lord Justice Simon Browne ruled that the ban, whilst not unlawful, was, in his view, without merit and solely based on prejudice. 'The tide of history is against the Ministry' he said. Both judges called upon the Ministry of Defence to review the ban and examine the experience of the growing list of countries who have lifted any bans.
In September the Ministry of Defence, after earlier denials, announced that they were setting up an independent review, but the very next day the First Sea Lord made it plain that so far as the Chiefs of Staff are concerned, it is 'no surrender'.
If the judge is right and the Chiefs of Staff are now fighting against the 'tide of history', an important part of this change has been the willingness of lesbians and gay men to come out and organise for their civil rights. In 1991 Robert Ely, a bandsman who joined the army at seventeen and served for twenty years before being dismissed for his homosexuality, set up Rank Outsiders, a group for lesbians and gay men in the armed forces.
In 1967, when the position of homosexuals in the armed forces was first considered by Parliament, things were very different. The armed forces were exempted from the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partially decriminalised homosexuality. Gay sex therefore remained illegal. But in 1991, the Armed Forces Select Committee heard evidence from Stonewall about the position of lesbians and gay men and recommended decriminalising homosexual sex. The repeal was finally carried out in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Homosexual acts in the armed forces and the merchant navy ceased to be illegal where they would be legal in civilian life; that is, acts in private between consenting men over eighteen. Lesbianism has never been a criminal offence.
Homosexuals are no longer criminalised, but homosexuality is still regarded as incompatible with service life and known homosexuals are automatically discharged from the forces. Attempts have been made to modify the procedures for dismissals. Previous Defence Council Instructions emphasised the importance of medical examinations and signs of effeminacy. In March 1994 new regulations for homosexuals were introduced. Whilst less crude, the scope of these new regulations is even wider. In shifting the emphasis from homosexual conduct to the condition of homosexuality, the armed forces have been forced to try and screen the thoughts and fantasies of all personnel. There are a number of cases of individuals who have been dismissed solely on the basis of homosexual fantasies. One such man was and is entirely celibate. He, like many others, sought help from his Chaplain, who felt compelled to inform on him.
But it is the absolute nature of the ban which makes it vulnerable to legal challenge. The case of Jeanette Smith, Graham Grady, John Beckett and Duncan Lustig-Prean will go back to the Court of Appeal on 9 October. If the policy is not declared unlawful in the English courts, they will go on to the European Court of Human Rights, where it is widely thought that the ban will be found to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights.
In the next parliamentary session there will be two full debates - one on a new Armed Forces Bill, which will create a New Voluntary Reserve Force of civilians to whom the ban will also apply, and the other the Special Select Committee on the Armed Forces which sits every five years, who will hear the evidence of the Ministry of Defence's 'independent review'.
Meanwhile, potential costs are mounting. Few can hazard a guess as to what sort of compensation will be payable. The costs of the present policy has been estimated at between £40-50 million, taking into account the costs of training and administrative costs for officers and enlisted men and women.
Historically, the armed forces have taken their authority from the royal prerogative. An all-male institution, perhaps a little like the Church, set apart from civil society, a law unto themselves. Today there are few, apart from the Chiefs of Staff, who believe that concept to be valuable or defensible.
How much longer will Parliament sanction a disciplinary code which gives discretion to dealing with any other offence - including drunkenness, drug-taking and serious criminal assaults - but treats the condition of homosexuality as an absolute bar to service life? Public opinion is coming to recognise that a brutalised masculinity may not be the best basis on which to build an effective fighting force. If lesbians and gay men can serve in the merchant navy, the police force, in the diplomatic corps, as MPs and even in Her Majesty's government, why are the armed forces a special case?
There is a simple answer to fears about the breakdown of morale that might occur if homosexuals live openly. It has already been adopted by countries like Australia and New Zealand. There they have one code of conduct for all inappropriate sexual behaviour, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
These fears parallel exactly the arguments about women serving in fighting units. Perhaps our military establishment needs to cling to the ban as a last defence of an older order where pride and patriotism were constructed in acts of exclusion and even denigration. A rigid distinction between 'us' and 'them'.
Liberty and human rights are concepts that still have a fragile hold in our society, but as lesbians and gay men unravel the prejudice of the generals perhaps they can also untie some of the old bonds which have denied respect and liberty, and held so much of British society in their thrall. As David Panick, QC for the applicants, pointed out during the High Court case, ultimately the purpose of our armed forces is to defend the liberty of its citizens. How can they deny the liberty of those they are there to defend?
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Last modified: 2012-03-15