LONDON -- Discharged from the British military because they are gay, three men and a woman spent five years seeking justice, equality and the right to serve their country in war.
Yesterday they won a landmark case as Britain's ban on homosexuals serving in the military was ruled illegal by the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, France.
Though the ruling is not binding on Britain, Defense Secretary George Robertson said the government would accept the judgment and had suspended pending disciplinary cases against homosexuals. Unlike the United States' "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Britain has a flat ban against gays in the military.
As a last bastion of anti-gay sentiment in Britain was breached, there was rejoicing among those who brought the case after being thrown out of the military in 1993 and 1994.
"I'm utterly delighted," said Duncan Lustig-Prean, 40, a former lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy who was discharged after reporting to his superiors a blackmail attempt involving his homosexuality.
"It has been a long, hard slog, but the court has been absolutely damning of the policy, in every way," he added. "It does mean an end to the ban, and it means that people who are willing to serve loyally for the country, even to die for the country, can relax a little bit today."
But the decision was called "ridiculous" by former allied forces commander Gen. Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley.
"It is striking at the root of discipline and morale to have a policy whereby you knowingly enlist people who are homosexual into the armed forces because they have to live hugger-mugger at most times," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.
"And when they go to war people are then thrown together where the great majority do not want to be brought into contact with homosexual practices," he said.
Lustig-Prean; former Royal Air Force nurse Jeanette Smith, 32; former RAF Sgt. Graeme Grady, 36; and former navy weapons engineer John Beckett, 29, went to court after they were dismissed from their jobs when they acknowledged they are gay.
The court in Strasbourg declared that using sexuality as a bar to military service was illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights, which safeguards an individual's right to privacy.
It also found that the four service personnel were subjected to "exceptionally intrusive" interviews about their sexual behavior. It said the "absolute and general character" of the military policy to ban homosexuals without exception was "striking."
The investigation combined with the complainants' discharges "constituted especially grave interference with their private lives," the decision stated.
The British government contended that homosexuals in the armed forces would affect the morale, fighting power and effectiveness of its forces.
Faced with the court verdict, Britain's military chiefs will develop a new policy, revising a ban that led to as many as 70 discharges annually.
"The detail of this complex judgment and the practical implications are presently being studied carefully," Robertson said in a statement.
"After consulting service chiefs, ministers will be making their recommendations in a timely manner. In the meantime, cases in the system will be put on hold."
While Britain has not placed a timetable on when the ban might end, it is believed that changes could be made by the end of the year.
Britain and Turkey are the only NATO countries to maintain an absolute ban against gays serving in the military.
For three of the four who brought the suit, the changes will likely come too late to resume military careers.
"I'm probably too old to go back now even if I wanted to," said Grady, who has a successful financial career in London. "But I hope this result paves the way for others to avoid discharge or even to return if they have already been banned but are young enough to resume their service careers."
Lustig-Prean is a real estate developer. Beckett is a South Yorkshire police officer. Smith said she hopes to resume her military career as a counselor to gay men and lesbians.
"Nobody should have to suffer like I had to," Smith said.