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Monday, September 27, 1999 Published at 18:58 GMT 19:58 UK


Gays struggle for workplace rights

Gay groups want government action for equal rights

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

The landmark judgment against discrimination of gays in the military has set the ball rolling towards equal rights.

It seems just a matter of time before the decision is enshrined into UK law.

Yet that is only half the story. A far bigger task will be overturning the bigotry that can make working life hell for many gays and lesbians.

Unlike those who suffer sex or race discrimination in the workplace, there is no specific law to protect homosexuals from prejudice.

In July, the government rejected plans to include in its Employment Relations Bill protection from harassment for gays and lesbians in the workplace.

[ image: The fire service was called institutionally homophobic]
The fire service was called institutionally homophobic
Earlier this month, a Home Office report found the fire service to be institutionally homophobic, as well as racist and sexist.

The report revealed that gay and lesbian firefighters were effectively forced to keep quiet about their sexuality.

While some who were open had been accepted by their colleagues, others had been driven out of the service by homophobic attitudes.

The police force has been dragged down in a similar way. And while strides have been made by some forces towards drawing in more homosexual recruits, the police still have a long way to go.

The result, says Dai Harris, a spokesman for Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights (Lager), is that homosexual police officers find it "extremely difficult" to be out.

"Thanks to the Stephen Lawrence case, we are seeing greater scrutiny of how the police force will treat minorities," says Mr Harris.

[ image: The Admiral Duncan bomb helped heal police relations with gays]
The Admiral Duncan bomb helped heal police relations with gays
"They are to some extent seeing that they must reflect British society in their makeup.

Police handling of the Admiral Duncan bombing in London in the spring was roundly applauded by the gay community and has built bridges between the two sides.

Yet that is what they remain: two sides; them and us.

Mr Harris says forces must reassure potential recruits that any discrimination will be taken seriously.

He says the action group also receives a disproportionately high number of complaints from those working in the postal service.

Inhibits promotion

He welcomed Monday's decision by the human rights court but says there will still be an "on-going" fight for acceptance in the armed forces.

As well as intimidation and name-calling by colleagues, prejudice also comes from on high, with the result that many homosexuals find they are passed over for promotion because of their sexuality.

Yet one man's harassment is another's definition of harmless workplace banter.

Simon Langely, a homosexual who served for 13 years in the Royal Navy, says the homophobia was tollerable, and no worse than in other work places.

But if gays are accepted into the military, he would like to see an extension of the code of conduct that governs male-female relations in the forces.

Call for law reform

Reform of the law is a cornerstone policy for Lager. "There is no legal remedy to protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals in the military," he says.

The charity hears of new cases every day, but is often powerless when it comes to taking action.

"It's rarely possible to help people. It is the exception rather than the rule to have a winnable claim," says Mr Harris.

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