A battle has been won, but the war is far from over. The ruling from the European Court of Human Rights on gays in the military caused the predictable brouhaha in the papers, and there were few surprises about who was in favour and who was against.
The Guardian, Independent, Express and Observer all wrote supportive editorials with no caveats or qualms about the rightness of the decision. The Times, The Telegraph and the Mail were just as certain that it was wrong-headed and dangerous.
Significantly, the tabloids were neutral on the point, and let the issue pass without much comment, although Brian Reade in The Mirror wrote: “Like those other great bastions of masculinity — university rugby teams and the British National Party — the armed forces are obsessed with homosexuality to the point where you wonder quite why.”
Ironically, the day after the ruling, The Express reported the Prime Minister’s speech at the Labour Party Conference under the headline: “Blair’s Nation of Equal Opportunity.” Needless to say, inequality is as evident today under Mr Blair as it ever was under the Tories.
Mr Blair loves to talk about equality, but I don’t see his much-trumpeted “equal opportunities government” rushing to put things right. As Angela Mason told The Observer: “To continue the ban after a European Court judgement would be simply disgraceful. The question is whether [the Government] is going to continue with an essentially Tory policy.” Mr Tony could, of course, have dismantled the ban the day he took office, but declined to do so.
The Observer revealed that Portillo “ignored legal warnings that the ban on gays in the military breached human rights and maintained the prohibition in order to reduce compensation pay-outs to sacked service personnel.”
The paper had uncovered a ministerial briefing that had been prepared for Portillo when he was Defence Secretary. It said: “Before the Court of Human Rights…we are likely to lose. But that would certainly be in three or four years’ time…”
Given this, we might enquire of the Conservative Association in Kensington and Chelsea, where Mr Portillo is seeking selection as their candidate for the forthcoming by-election, whether it really wants a human rights abuser as its MP? A man who made the — some might say hypocritical — decision not to correct a gross breach of the European Convention on Human Rights when he had the power do so?
Needless to say, those directly affected by this decision — the guys and gals in the barracks and on battle-fronts — had little to say about it all. Their officers, on the other hand, were very quick off the mark, and very few of them had a good word to say about the decision.
Major-General Julian Thompson was typical of the “let’s-keep-the-status-quo” brigade. Writing in The Daily Mail, he couldn’t resist misrepresenting the ruling: “Now that the ‘right’ to homosexual activity is likely to be established in the armed forces, the gay propagandists will try to push the envelope of what is acceptable in pursuit of their own agenda.”
Did I miss something? Did the ECHR really say that it was OK for soldiers to shag each other without fear of being disciplined? Who is calling whom a propagandist here?
The anti-gay lobby sounds increasingly unconvincing, with its lurid talk of shower room rapes and of “predatory older homosexuals” preying on vulnerable new recruits. Colonel Bob Stewart (described as a “Bosnia Chief”) came up with a new slant on the “men would be uncomfortable in the showers” angle when he told The Mirror: “We have situations where soldiers have to be locked into personnel carriers. Women are not allowed into these units because bodily functions have to be carried out next to someone. Now we will have instances where those are done next to someone who is not of the same sexual persuasion.” Bodily functions? Could he possibly mean taking a crap?
Oh dear, can you imagine — van-loads of squaddies constipated because they daren’t go to the lav in case a woofter sees their willy?
John Keegan, The Daily Telegraph’s defence correspondent, made a more cogent point when he suggested that life in the army for an open homosexual would be extremely difficult. “Historically, any tendency to homosexuality has been viewed in the ranks as a negation of manliness, something to be mocked, scorned and, ultimately, attacked if detected. To be accused, in the barracks, of homosexual tendencies is the deepest of insults, demanding expiation in violence…Time is not going to make the homosexual victim accepted. If self-proclaimed, as Stonewall wants, his life will be a misery from the start. If unself-proclaimed, but detected, his lot will be no better, perhaps worse.”
This may be true in some cases. Bullying, grotesque racism and sexism are rife in the armed services, something which the resisters of progress seem quite content with. They seem to think that living within a culture of violent, sub-human bigotry is somehow good for young men, and that attempts to introduce civilisation would compromise fighting power.
Besides, there is plenty of evidence that gay people can be integrated successfully into service life. Richard Young, an ex-Royal Navy chef, who has found a sad fame as the “last gay man to be fired from the forces”, is evidence of this. Although he was subjected to the usual witch-hunt, he told The Guardian: “The two men I shared a cabin with already knew, the whole galley knew. They didn’t give a damn.”
The paper said that although his shipmates all supported him, they were “warned that they would be sent to a military jail unless they signed statements against him.”
Is this kind of malignant persecution supposed to be honourable? Is this the kind of legalised thuggery that the Colonel Bigot-Smythes of this world want to see continued?
To be fair, not all the military oppose lifting the ban, and a few enlightened souls were prepared to put their heads above the parapet and say so. Lt-Col Anthony Slessor gave a dressing-down to the dozens of outraged officers who had written in grossly homophobic terms to The Daily Telegraph.
“The bulk of your letters on the subject of homosexuality in the forces were bigoted tosh,” he began. “As a regimental commanding officer, I don’t give a fig about the sexual orientation of my soldiers. What I do care about is that they are uncompromising in their professionalism and that the adhesive of mutual respect binds the regimental family across all ranks. In 25 years of service, I have encountered heterosexuals and homosexuals who sign up to these values and I’ve also met those of both persuasions whose behaviour has been intolerable. It is behaviour that matters, not sexual orientation.”
Surely this is the point? I don’t think anyone is saying that gay soldiers should be treated differently from straight soldiers or sailors. If shagging on a mixed-sex ship is forbidden between men and women, the same rule should apply to same-sex couplings. It’s as simple as that. But people should not be stopped from joining up simply because of their homosexual orientation. It is this simple fact that the dinosaurs can’t, or don’t want to, grasp. It’s inevitable, they say, that once homosexuals are in barracks or on the poop deck, they will start to “recruit”. There were several horror stories recounted in last month’s papers about the effects of supposed homosexual predation on young soldiers.
Lieut E C Coleman wrote to The Telegraph: “I have a vivid memory of one 16-year-old weeping with fear after being invited to go on a ‘run ashore’ by a petty officer known to be homosexual.
“I have also known several young sailors who would only go to the bathroom in the early hours of the morning to have a shower, in order to avoid the attentions of predatory homosexuals. I have seen a teenager fall into the grip of ship-borne homosexuals and be reduced from a bright, cheerful young man to a diseased, dull-eyed, shambling wreck who, eventually, had to be ejected from the service.”
Leaving aside the exaggeration that exudes from that letter, we return to the point that the kind of exploitation that Lieut Coleman describes is unacceptable in any situation, whether in the services or in civilian life. My question is: why did he do nothing to protect these young people? Why didn’t he report this grotesque bullying? Surely, with his silence, he was complicit in these outrages — that’s if they ever took place. I would not for a moment support the lifting of the ban if I thought it would legitimise such activities. But the whole point is that disciplinary action would still be taken against anyone who broke the rules — whether those rules applied to sexual activity or to violence against minorities.
As Philip Hensher wrote in The Independent: “Heterosexual sex in the armed forces, after all, is controlled between serving personnel; otherwise it is acceptable. If a soldier has a male partner who is not a member of the armed forces, there is obviously nothing wrong with that; if his partner is in the armed forces, then it’s probably right that the forces be aware of the relationship.”
Naturally, those who have to give up the privileges they’ve enjoyed for generations will resist change, but change has to come, despite their bleatings. The next big battle will be the civilising of Britain’s armed forces so that anyone who is of able body and sound mind can serve his or her county, safe in the knowledge that they will not be harmed by their own comrades.
That will be a much harder battle. As Henry Thoreau once said: “Reasoning with prejudice is like fighting a shadow, it exhausts the reasoner without visibly affecting the prejudice.”
Yet we have no option but to try.