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Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 18:24 GMT 19:24 UK

Special Report

Gays in the armed services: head-to-head

The British military's policy of refusing to allow homosexuals to serve in the armed forces is again being challenged.

The Ministry of Defence says the decision to exclude gays is not moral, but based on an assessment of the impact of homosexuality on military life.

Gay rights activists say it contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights.

We asked both sides of the divide to put their point of view.

XYZ is ??? for the gay rights group, Stonewall.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Michael Armitage is the former head of military intelligence.

XYZ: We are alone in Europe and the world in having an absolute ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces. This does seem extraordinary as we approach the millenium; as I speak, we have an army in Kosovo, serving alongside troops in the United Nations who may serve openly as homosexuals.

The armed forces exist to defend the rights and freedoms of all members of society. They need to reflect the diversity of the society they purport to defend.

Women now serve on the front line, and in ships, with none of the difficulties which the Ministry of Defence say are so much to be feared. Military personnel are, by training, highly disciplined: they are trained to enforce their own code of conduct governing sexual behaviour.

The police, the fire brigade, and the merchant navy allow gay people to serve in their ranks. Some of these forces even advertise in lesbian and gay newspapers. Their training is very similar to that of the armed forces: they live, sleep and shower together.

Our allies, too, have not experienced any of the difficulties which the Ministry of Defence fears. Israel, too, has a force which has fought hard and tough, with a reputation as an efficient fighting machine, built up over 50 years. Yet the Israeli army has women and gays serving.

If Israeli society, with all its divisions, can so capably prove its worth in combat with such a policy, I see no reason why the British forces cannot follow the example of the rest of the world.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Michael Armitage: There is no acceptance within the armed services that there should be any change in policy. A good starting point is the survey that was conducted right across the three services just four years ago, as a result of which it turned out that something like 90 or 95 percent of all those asked said they'd prefer not to serve alongside homosexuals. And it's clear from that, I think, that if the doors were opened to homosexuals, there would be a polarisation, people would be ostracised, there would be a sort of "us and them" atmosphere. I'm afraid that this would erode the unit's cohesion, the "one for all and all for one" atmosphere that's so vital to the efficiency of the fighting services.

The parallel with women in the services is nonsense. In the services, these ladies have their own accommodation, their own facilities, and so on. They live quite separately from men.

There's also a question of discipline. If homosexuals were admitted, then liaisons across ranks would become inevitable, between juniors and those in positions of authority. This would lead to accusations, whether true or not, of favouritism, unfairness, discrimination and so on. The fact is that homosexuality is inconsistent with the special nature of service life.

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