Desperately seeking gays

The British navy joins forces with an advocacy group to recruit and retain more homosexual sailors.

Published February 22, 2005 3:32PM (EST)

It is a liaison that would once have turned many military top brass purple with rage. Five years after the ban on homosexuality in the armed forces was lifted, Great Britain's royal navy is entering into a partnership with Stonewall and actively seeking gay recruits by advertising in the pink press.

Subject to smutty innuendo ever since Winston Churchill supposedly dismissed Britain's naval tradition as "nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash," the navy Sunday cast off centuries of repression and inhibition by seeking Stonewall's advice on the recruitment and retention of gay and lesbian sailors. In a transformation likened by activists to turning around a supertanker, the navy will pay the advocacy group for advice on curbing prejudice and ensuring gay personnel have equal rights to housing, benefits and pensions.

Despite the persistent swirl of sexual rumor around some of Britain's most celebrated war heroes, homosexuality remained the last taboo in the armed forces until 2000, when the government was forced by the European Court of Human Rights to withdraw its ban on homosexuality in the military. Then, Stonewall was the sworn enemy of many admirals and air marshals for taking the case of sacked gay servicemen to the European courts.

Openly gay soldiers and sailors have since seen active service in Iraq, but relatively few of the estimated 2,100 gay and lesbian sailors have felt sufficiently relaxed to come out since the ban was lifted. A spokesman for the navy accepted that pockets of prejudice remain and that there is "room for improvement" but said it was "committed to establishing a culture and climate where people can discuss their sexual orientation without risk of abuse or intimidation." The partnership with Stonewall "will help the lesbians and gays within the Royal Navy be more comfortable and honest about their sexuality if they wish to," said the spokesman. "But no one has to reveal their sexual orientation in the armed services. It's an entirely private matter."

There was once a "dark climate" in the navy, according to Lt. Cmdr. Craig Jones, the most senior openly gay officer across all three armed forces. But he is now comfortable taking his partner to official functions and can laugh off jokes about being posted to Baghdad to "redecorate" the city. He welcomes the link with Stonewall. "There is a historical culture of banter in the armed forces. If people are able to acknowledge my sexuality even through a little bit of well-intentioned banter, that's fine. It makes me feel they are comfortable with the fact that I am gay. It requires a certain robustness of character to be in the armed forces, but that does not mean you should tolerate anything that is quite clearly inappropriate. In the last five years I've never had to reproach anybody."

The navy's liaison with Stonewall was kept a closely guarded secret during more than 12 months of negotiations. The group hopes the army and the royal air force will follow the navy's incursion into once-forbidden territory.

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, admitted he was surprised by how far the navy's attitude to homosexuality had shifted in recent years. "I never thought when I was recruited by Stonewall that I would one day be issuing a media release featuring supportive quotes from the Second Sea Lord." He said he anticipated "upmarket saloon bar prejudice" against the partnership, but insisted the navy was not simply "ticking boxes. The navy would not engage in this process if they did not think there were real organizational benefits. They are not doing it to be touchy-feely."

Steve Johnston, chairman of the Armed Forces Lesbian and Gay Association, said he hopes the new advertising campaign and the retirement of implacably homophobic "old farts" will encourage more gay servicemen and women to be open about their sexuality. Asked to leave the army after his sexuality was investigated in 1990, Johnston called the navy's move "a major step forward" but said it would also be greeted with sadness by many veterans who needlessly lost their jobs over their sexuality in the past. "Who would have considered 10 years ago that the navy would be advertising in the pink periodicals? This is all the right moves in all the right directions. Fortunately -- and sadly -- our work now is less and less because the forces' welfare organizations are taking on our role."

By signing up with Stonewall's "diversity champions" program, the navy joins such organizations as British Airways, IBM and Sainsbury's. Exchanging ideas on equal opportunities in the workplace during "networking" sessions with such blue-chip companies is part of the partnership, which will be overseen by Vice Adm. Sir James Burnell-Nugent, the second sea lord. "I am committed to ensuring the Royal Navy has a culture in which all our people are valued for themselves and are thus able to give 100 percent to their job," he said. "I look forward to working with Stonewall to help make this happen."

Cmdr. Jones said there were "an increasing number of officers who are out and have good experiences of being gay in the armed services. There has been an enormous climate change in the armed forces over the last five years. Many of the admirals, generals and air marshals who were so concerned by this policy change must look back and think, 'What was all the fuss about?' It has been a total success. We also have hundreds of gay and lesbian personnel who might otherwise have been sacked. I do recognize there may be some who have bad experiences. I hope they have the confidence to report it. This is about building the confidence of gay men and women so they can take part in naval society."

By Patrick Barkham

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