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Expelling homosexuals from the military in wartime, or any other time, is rank stupidity. But that's what the United States military is doing when, under its "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it learns that one of its members is gay. More than 650 gay service members were kicked out last year forno other reason than their sexual preference.

The expulsion of gay personnel is a reminder that prejudice harms the society that insists on keeping it alive. Human Rights Watch reports that more than $200-million (U.S.) has been spent on recruiting and retraining replacements for the roughly 10,000 gay service members discharged since 1994. It seems reasonable to surmise that some were excellent soldiers, pilots or seamen. Imagine: Since 1998,the armed forces have even expelled 20 Arabic speakers, of whom they have precious few.

As Canadians debate a federal bill that would legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, it may seem that Canada is light years removed from "don't ask, don't tell." But it's not. In fact, the momentum that has built so inexorably toward gay marriage in Canada owes much to a gay pilot's relatively recent fight against discrimination in the air force.

Joshua Birch, a former air-force captain, was pushed out of the military after revealing his sexual orientation in 1989. Canadian Forces policy said that gay members who refused to leave the service would receive no security clearances. Even the Canadian Human Rights Act discriminated at that time; it didn't protect homosexuals.

So Mr. Birch challenged the rights act's legitimacy under the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1992, the Ontario Court of Appeal "read in" protection of homosexuals. Just three months later, the federal government agreed to end the military's discriminatory policy, and paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a 28-year-old lesbian who had finished second in a class of 85 in military-police training, and who had then been denied a security clearance. The foundation for gay rights was set.

Why keep gays out of the military? The old rationale was that homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail. If true, it was only because their presence wasn't tolerated; it was a kind of tautology. The new rationale is that gay soldiers are a disruptive presence. This rationale panders to prejudice every bit as much as the old.

Britain dropped its exclusionary policy five years ago, and the Royal Air Force now hunts for recruits in the gay community. A gay right that once seemed unthinkable is now commonplace. Perhaps gay marriage will some day seem that way, too.