LONDON – Britain's domestic spy agency wants gay recruits to know: It's time to come out of the closet.
After shunning them for decades over worries of blackmail, MI5 is now asking gay and lesbian people to consider a career as a spy, promising the chance to fight terrorists, protect their country — and earn a decent salary, plus benefits.
As part of an ongoing recruitment drive, MI5 is already wooing women, minorities and people with language skills. The fact that they're now reaching out to Britain's gay community is long overdue, said Peter Tatchell, a London-based gay rights activist.
"Until a decade ago, gay people were seen as a security threat, and as recently as two decades ago, they were being witch hunted and sacked from the security services," he said Monday.
"It was part of the Cold War mentality that saw security threats, traitors, and spies everywhere," he said. "Gay people were regarded as vulnerable to blackmail, even if they were open and out about their sexuality."
The spy agency is shaking off its clubby image and becoming more representative of the community it serves, said Ben Summerskill, chief executive officer the gay rights group Stonewall, which publishes a job hunting guide that includes the spy agency as a prospective employer.
"My recent experience of them is that they're not John le Carre, Graham Greene — it's not that sort of tableau anymore," Summerskill said Monday.
Stonewall also is working with MI5 to create a workplace environment that is supportive of gay people.
Currently, MI5 has about 3,500 staff, twice what it had in 2001. The new drive comes two years after MI5 began publicly targeting women for recruitment, placing posters in gyms and advertisements in sports magazines that featured a black woman.
MI6, which collects Britain's foreign intelligence, also is looking for new hires, and in particular is encouraging applications from women and minorities.
According to MI5's Web site, intelligence officers earn a starting salary of about $45,000 plus benefits. Applicants have to be British citizens, and must pass a lengthy vetting process.
"As an intelligence officer at MI5, you'll be faced with some of the most challenging issues affecting national security today," the site says. "The decisions you make will play a major part in our efforts to counterterrorism, espionage, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and in protecting the U.K.'s critical national infrastructure."
Garry Hindle, the head of security and counterintelligence at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said MI5's inclusion in the gay and lesbian job guide is about inclusion, but it's also about image.
"They're trying to portray themselves as an open, inclusive organization that's working for the good of the community," Hindle said. But "it does need diverse members of society to be able to access the diverse members of society that they may have interest in."
The agency would say only that "the service seeks to reflect the broad range of U.K. society which it serves."
Available jobs include translators, computer specialists and surveillance officers.