Tue, Feb 22, 2005 - Page 6 News List

British navy hires gay rights group

THE GUARDIAN , London

The Royal Navy is actively seeking gay recruits by advertising in the homosexual 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 yesterday cast off centuries of repression and inhibition by seeking the advice of the gay activist group Stonewall's on the recruitment and retention of gay and lesbian sailors.

In a transformation likened by activists to turning round a supertanker, the navy will pay the pressure 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 UK 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 remained and that there was "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 Lieutenant Commander Craig Jones, the most senior openly gay officer across all three armed forces. But he was now comfortable taking his partner to official functions and could laugh off jokes about being posted to Baghdad to "redecorate" the city.

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