No Big News Here: Gay Britons Serve in Military With Little Fuss

By Sarah Lyall

The British military’s policy to allow homosexuals to serve in the armed forces has for the most part become a nonissue.

The officer, a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force, felt he had no choice. So he stood up in front of his squad of 30 to 40 people.

"I said, 'Right, I've got something to tell you,' " he said. " 'I believe that for us to be able to work closely together and have faith in each other, we have to be honest and open and frank. And it has to be a two-way process, and it starts with me baring my soul. You may have heard some rumors, and yes, I have a long-term partner who is a he, not a she.' "

Far from causing problems, he said, he found that coming out to his troops actually increased the unit's strength and cohesion. He had felt uneasy keeping the secret "that their boss was a poof," as he put it, from people he worked with so closely.

Since the British military began allowing homosexuals to serve in the armed forces in 2000, none of its fears -- about harassment, discord, blackmail, bullying or an erosion of unit cohesion or military effectiveness -- have come to pass, according to the Ministry of Defense, current and former members of the services and academics specializing in the military. The biggest news about the policy, they say, is that there is no news. It has for the most part become a nonissue.

The Ministry of Defense does not compile figures on how many gay men and lesbians are openly serving, and it says that the number of people who have come out publicly in the past seven years is still relatively low. But it is clearly proud of how smoothly homosexuals have been integrated and is trying to make life easier for them.

"What we're hoping to do is to, over a period of time, reinforce the message that people who are gay, lesbian and the like are welcomed in the armed forces and we don't discriminate against them in any way," a Defense Ministry official said in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with the ministry's practice.

Nonetheless, the issue is extremely delicate now. The military does not want to be seen bragging about the success of its policy when the issue can still cause so much anguished debate in the United States. This is particularly true in light of tensions between the allies after a British coroner ruled in March that a British soldier who died four years ago was unlawfully killed by an American pilot.

For this article, the Defense Ministry refused to give permission for any member of the forces to be interviewed, either on or off the record. Those who spoke did so before the ministry made its position clear.

"We're not looking to have quotes taken out of context in a way to imply that we're trying to influence the debate in the United States," the British official said. "There are some sensitivities over the timing of this. We have had communications from our counterparts in the United States, and they have asked us questions about how we've handled it and how it's gone on the ground. There does seem to be some debate going on over how long the current policy will be sustainable."

The debate in the United States was rekindled in March when Gen. Peter Pace, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the country's top-ranking military official, told The Chicago Tribune that he believed that homosexuality was immoral.

In January, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, who until his retirement in 1997 held the same post in the Clinton years, when the Pentagon adopted its "don't ask, don't tell" policy, said in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times that he now believed that the military was ready to accept gay men and lesbians. A military already stretched thin, he said, "must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job."

At least 24 countries -- many of them allies of the United States, and some of them members of the coalition forces fighting alongside Americans -- now allow gay soldiers to serve openly in their armed forces.

It is hard to avoid comparing the British and American systems, gay soldiers in the British forces say.

One major, an openly gay liaison officer in the British Territorial Army, told of an exchange he had in the southern Iraq city of Basra with an American staff sergeant, far from home and eager to confide.

"He privately let me know he was gay," the major said in an interview. "Not in a romantic way, but in a matter-of-fact way. He found it difficult, because he clearly had a whole part of his private life that he had to keep separate and distinct and couldn't discuss with people. He was in his mid-30s, with no girlfriend and no wife, and he had to use all these white lies."

Some Britons said they could not understand why the United States had not changed its policy.

"I find it strange, coming from the land of the free and freedom of speech and democracy, given the changes in the world attitude," said the gay squadron leader, who recently returned from Afghanistan. "It's just not the issue it used to be."

Until its policy changed, the British military had deep misgivings about allowing homosexuals to serve openly in its armed forces. But it had no choice. It was forced to by a European court, which ruled that its policy of excluding homosexuals violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

"There was a lot of apprehension among some senior personnel that there would be an increase in things like bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation, and some of them were almost predicting that the world was going to come to an end," the Defense Ministry official said.

Similar concerns were raised when, bowing to national antidiscrimination laws, the military began allowing gay personnel who had registered for civil partnerships to live in military housing with their same-sex partners. "But all the problems the services thought were going to come to pass really haven't materialized," the official said.

To the extent it becomes an issue, it is usually within the context of the relentlessly rough give-and-take that characterizes military life, particularly at the lower ranks, said Nathaniel Frank, a researcher at the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied the British experience.

"The military is a proving ground, and the first thing people do is find your weakness and exploit it," Mr. Frank said in an e-mail interview. "If you're gay, that's your weakness, and guys will latch on to that. But frequently this is no more significant a weakness than any other based on your accent, body type, race, religion, etc."

The British military actively recruits gay men and lesbians and punishes any instance of intolerance or bullying. The Royal Navy advertises for recruits in gay magazines and has allowed gay sailors to hold civil partnership ceremonies on board ships and, last summer, to march in full naval uniform at a gay pride rally in London. (British Army and Royal Air Force personnel could march but had to wear civilian clothes.)

Speaking at a conference sponsored by the gay advocacy group Stonewall last year, Vice Adm. Adrian Johns, the second sea lord, said that homosexuals had always served in the military but in the past had had to do it secretly.

"That's an unhealthy way to be, to try and keep a secret life in the armed services," said Admiral Johns, who as the Royal Navy's principal personnel officer is responsible for about 39,000 sailors. His speech was titled "Reaping the Rewards of a Gay-Friendly Workplace."

"Those individuals need nurturing, so that they give of their best and are, in turn, rewarded for their effort," he said of the Royal Navy's gay men and lesbians. "Nurture includes the freedom to be themselves. Our mission is to break down barriers of discrimination, prejudice, fear and misunderstanding."

Once the news is out there, the gay Royal Air Force squadron leader said, the issue gets subsumed by the job at hand and by the relentless immediacy of war.

At one point, his squad was working with a British Army unit. "I wouldn't go into a briefing room and face them and say, 'By the way, I'm gay,' " he said of his British Army counterparts. "Frankly, I don't think they were worried, because we were all focused on doing a very, very hard job."

He recalled something his commander had said, when advising him to come out to his squad:

"The boss said, 'I think you will be surprised that in this day and age it will be a complete anticlimax, because as far as I'm concerned, homosexuals in the military are yesterday's news.' "

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