British Spies: Licensed to Be Gay

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Susie Allnutt / Sony Pictures

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Quantum of Solace

If James Bond ever tires of working for the Secret Intelligence Service (all those tedious long-haul flights), its sister organization, MI5, responsible for Britain's domestic security, might be interested. After all, the fictional spy has kept abreast of technology, is keenly aware that failed states harbor Britain's enemies, and has even given up smoking ("I can blow someone's head off, but I can't light a good cigar," growled current Bond actor Daniel Craig). Moreover, though still a ladykiller — sometimes quite literally — the priapic secret agent has morphed from infamous misogynist to indiscriminate misanthrope. He's discovered sexual equality, and so, it appears, has MI5.

Still, Bond might face tougher competition than he did in the old days. For Britain's domestic intelligence agency, it was revealed this week, now not only welcomes but actively seeks gay applicants. "For the sort of work that MI5 is doing — not just in operations but in terms of technical support and linguistics — the caliber of people is terribly important to its effectiveness," says Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall. Sexual preference is a nonissue.

Summerskill has an unusual insight into the recruitment strategy of Britain's intensely secretive domestic intelligence agency. He was contacted "some months ago" by MI5 and asked to help encourage gay men and women to consider careers with the service and set up a network for its existing gay and lesbian employees. The move inspired punning headlines in the British press ("The Guy Who Loved Me") and raised a few eyebrows among older generations, who remember that for many years, gays and lesbians were explicitly barred from working for Britain's intelligence and diplomatic services.

That policy — instituted on the basis that gay officials might be vulnerable to blackmail — was lifted at the start of the 1990s, but perceptions of Whitehall as a place where it's better to stay in the closet have been harder to shift. "All we're doing is making sure as a prospective employer we're spreading our net as wide as possible to attract the best possible candidates who fully represent the diversity of U.K. society," says a senior Whitehall source. Summerskill suggests that gay candidates may even have an advantage over straight rivals. "If you have grown up as part of a minority community, you're probably more used to fitting in and being inconspicuous," he says. "You have a distinct skill set that is of use."

Until gay sex was decriminalized in 1967, Britain's gay community protected itself against potential prosecution by conducting conversations in a special argot, Polari, a mixture of Italian, Romany and London slang. The British security services are eager to attract candidates with good language skills, but Polari isn't on the list. Still, Summerskill is so confident that MI5's diversity policies are sincere that the agency is listed in Stonewall's latest graduate recruitment guide as a gay-friendly employer. "This wouldn't be happening if we didn't think they were taking some strenuous steps to move forward," says Summerskill. "What MI5 has realized is that if you refuse to employ gay people for decades, it takes some time before a public message is received that signals that's no longer the case."

Intelligence agencies in other parts of the world drew similar conclusions awhile ago. The CIA hosted a gay-pride celebration for its staff and colleagues from the National Security Agency back in 2000. A French counterintelligence official says that "in nearly 20 years in this business, I've never heard sexual orientation mentioned at all in discussing recruitment policies or individuals, including people whose homosexuality is a matter of virtual public record."

Security services are wary of employing anyone with "excessive habits," says the official. This could be bad news for Bond, whose sexual appetites clearly register on the high end of the scale. Perhaps he should reconsider that job move.

With reporting by Bruce Crumley / Paris