February 22, 2005
New Course by Royal Navy: A Campaign to Recruit Gays
By SARAH LYALL
ONDON, Feb. 21 - Five years after Britain lifted its ban on gays in the military, the Royal Navy has begun actively encouraging them to enlist and has pledged to make life easier when they do.
The navy announced Monday that it had asked Stonewall, a group that lobbies for gay rights, to help it develop better strategies for recruiting and retaining gay men and lesbians. It said, too, that one strategy may be to advertise for recruits in gay magazines and newspapers.
Commodore Paul Docherty, director of naval life management, said the service wanted to change the atmosphere so that gays would feel comfortable working there.
"While some gays were confident to come out, others didn't feel that the environment was necessarily accepting of them," Commodore Docherty said in an interview.
The partnership with Stonewall, Commodore Docherty said, will help "make more steps toward improving the culture and attitude within the service as a whole, so gays who are still in the closet feel that much more comfortable about coming out."
Gays in Britain have benefited from a number of new laws, including one that makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of workers' sexuality.
Last year, Parliament passed the Civil Partnership Act, which gives marriage-style rights to British gays who have registered as couples. The entire military is subject to the legislation, and starting in the fall, gay couples in the military who have registered under the act will be allowed to apply for housing in quarters previously reserved for married couples.
The new effort continues a pattern of changing official attitudes in the navy - once derided as running on rum, sodomy and the lash, in a phrase usually attributed to Winston Churchill. And while most European militaries have lifted bans on gays, none have been as active as the Royal Navy in encouraging their service.
Until a European court ruled in 1999 that Britain's ban on gays in the military violated European human-rights laws, the navy, along with the rest of the country's military, followed a no-exceptions policy of dismissing service men and women who were found to be gay, often after long and intrusive investigations.
The military had agonized for years over the issue, in the way the United States has, and always concluded that allowing gays and lesbians to serve would prove prohibitively disruptive and would ruin discipline and cohesion.
But after the court ruling, it had no choice but to reverse its policy. Beginning in 2000, the military said gays would no longer be prohibited from serving. It also stopped monitoring its recruits' sex lives, saying that sexuality, as long as it did not intrude into the workplace, should not be an issue one way or another.
Recently, gay men and women in the British services have lived and fought in Iraq alongside heterosexuals without problems, according to military officials.
"I would say that before the European court ruling, it was difficult to see this policy happening or working," said Lt. Cmdr. Craig Jones, a gay naval officer who often speaks publicly, with the navy's approval, on gay rights issues.
"People were quite hot under the collar about it; the admirals, generals and air marshals were really concerned," he added. "I'm quite sure that these folks look now and think, 'What was all that fuss about?' "
Most European countries, including France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Denmark, have lifted their bans on gays in the military. But Britain, and particularly the navy, has gone further, said Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"In a lot of cases what you have is a legal commitment to nondiscrimination, but a quiet continuation of previous cultural norms," Mr. Belkin said. "But here you have not only a reversal of policy and a formal commitment to nondiscrimination, but a proactive embracing of the idea that integration is good for the military and diversity is useful for recruiting from the fullest possible pool."
In Britain, Stonewall currently advises about 90 employers, some of them big companies, about how better to recruit and treat gay and lesbian workers. It is this program that the navy has signed up for.
"Increasingly, organizations are recognizing that having well-trained and highly committed staff who feel comfortable in the workplace is highly important," said Alan Wartle, a spokesman for Stonewall. "It's about having a range of policies and also about the more intangible element, the cultural change."
Commodore Docherty said one likely step for the navy would be to begin advertising in gay publications, as part of a general recruitment effort.
"We advertise in a lot of magazines," he said. "For instance, we advertise in cycling and swimming magazines - not because we're after cyclists and swimmers particularly, but because it's part of our target audience of 16-to-24-year-olds."
Gays in the British military are subject to the same rules of sexual conduct as heterosexuals: no touching, no kissing, no flaunting of sexuality. Since 1991, women have been allowed to serve with men on ships, which operate under strict "no sex" rules, and sailors in such close quarters have relied on what one naval official said was "common sense and good manners."
Despite the change in policy, relatively few gay men and lesbians in the military - whether because of fear of being intimidated, or because of personal choice - have come out. The services do not keep statistics on the number of gays, holding by the principle, Commander Jones said, that "sexuality is a private matter for the individual."
He called the announcement by the navy on Monday "a huge step forward."
"You get folks like me who choose to be out, and there are others who don't - it's up to them," he said. "We've come a very, very long way in five years, but we don't want to be complacent."
Commodore Docherty said the navy was trying to send a clear message.
"The fact that we are making this high-level commitment will hopefully show people that it's not just empty words when we talk about diversity and opportunity," he said, "but are actually taking action to do something about it."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Compan