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‘R um, sodomy and the lash” are the words Winston Churchill is popularly credited with using to sum up the traditions of Britain’s Royal Navy. (A former assistant has said that Churchill never uttered the famous phrase but wished he had.) Either way, the idea that Her Majesty’s naval forces have always been a hotbed of homosexual activity is hardly new. The only thing that has changed over the years is the official response to such activity, which has ranged from a blind eye, to strictly enforced prohibition, to reluctant tolerance and now — in possibly a worldwide first — caring solicitude. It’s a startling but also a welcome development that one hopes will have a ripple effect in other places.

In 2000, following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, Britain lifted a longtime ban on gays in any branch of its military. Despite the navy’s historic reputation for liveliness, however, gays did not flock to sign up — to be fair, they did not flock to sign up anywhere, doubtless deterred by the headlines like everyone else — so last week the senior service took a step further. It announced a new approach under which it will not only actively encourage gay men and lesbians to enlist but will also strive to help them feel “accepted” when they do, so that they will stay on.

To that end, it has asked a gay-rights lobbying group for advice on how to change the atmosphere in the service “so gays who are still in the closet feel that much more comfortable about coming out.” The phrase “royal treatment” just took on a whole new meaning, at least for British sailors.

It’s nice to think the war in Iraq may end up having positive consequences for somebody. Still, the young British gays whom the navy now says it wants must be asking themselves two questions: Will this sudden interest in their services and concern for their well-being last? What happens when the war is over and flat-line recruiting levels return to normal? And can the policy of building social acceptance work? (It’s one thing to mandate an end to prejudice and ostracism; it’s another to enforce it.)

Only time will tell, on both counts. But on a broader front, there is reason for even cynics to believe navy officials when they portray the new policy not as a pragmatic ploy to boost slumping enlistment but as a recognition, however belated, that workplace culture is changing throughout Europe. It is simply time the British military caught up with it. Other European militaries accept gays, although they may not be rolling out the pink carpet quite as far as the British. In Britain, civil partnership legislation passed last year will require all the services to provide the same housing for gay couples as they do for married couples.

In other words, the war may have pushed the navy to actively woo gays, just as it is wooing all 16-to-24-year-olds, be they male, female, white, black, brown, tall or short, but treating them with dignity once they had signed up was happening anyway. As a gay naval officer said last week, the big change for the British military really occurred in 2000 with the end of the ban and the intrusive surveillance it entailed: “I’m quite sure these [admirals, generals and air marshals] look back now and think, ‘What was all that fuss about?’ ” Obviously, too, the lifting of the ban has undercut the motivation for blackmail and other forms of social pressure.

The issue is not directly relevant to Japan, both because homosexuals are not technically banned from the Self-Defense Forces (a gay rights activist said a few years ago that, as far as he knew, no openly gay or lesbian people had ever tried to join) and because the SDF, as a noncombat organization, does not have to deal with drastic wartime recruitment slumps. Still, it would be encouraging if SDF officials were to study and even consider emulating the British navy’s approach, which is now to treat all its members the same way: strictly no sex on the job and respect for privacy off it.

The big contrast, of course, is between that enlightened policy and the situation in the United States, where the military clings to an unenforceable and destructive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, even as recruitment plummets. Even more irrationally, the policy has resulted in the firing of badly needed military linguists.

It was reported recently that 20 Arabic and six Farsi speakers were discharged for being gay or lesbian between 1998 and 2004, half of them after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As a defense lawyer for one of them put it, that is “illogical in any language.” There is hope for America, though. Five years ago, the British would have done the same. And just look how far they’ve come.

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