A federal judge's order that the US military must stop enforcing its "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy that requires gay service members to be discharged when their sexual preference is discovered by their superiors is unlikely to have a major impact in the short term, since President Obama's justice department could still successfully appeal the ruling.
With the chance of a successful appeal – and the threat of dismissal for any soldier who "comes out" or is even found out in the interim – the status quo is likely to prevail for at least a few months. Since "don't ask, don't tell," became policy under President Bill Clinton in 1994, some 13,000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines have been discharged as a result of their sexual orientation.
But the ruling is nevertheless the latest salvo in a cultural battle that seems to be inexorably moving toward a victory for gay rights proponents, with growing numbers of Americans saying they have no problem with openly gay men and women fighting in the nation's wars.
And if US District Court Judge Virginia Philips's ruling Tuesday is the final stage of that battle, rather than a way station, the soldiers and officers currently standing post in Afghanistan will not have to look far for models of how to handle the new reality.
The US still has, by far, the largest number of troops from NATO in harm's way in Afghanistan, but the five other nations in the top six – Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada – all allow openly gay men and women to serve.
The militaries of these nations have conducted joint operations with US forces, and in the case of Germany and Britain have had security control for entire Afghan provinces, and complaints are no where to be heard from US officers over the presence of openly gay service members among them.
The Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which focuses on gays and the military, issued a report earlier this year that found the debates surrounding the integration of gays into these and other foreign militaries were much like those taking place in America now. People reported concerns that the transition would be disruptive to operations, fears that soldiers who don't approve of homosexuality would be driven away from the service, and worries about an overall decline in morale.
But in the case of the 25 foreign militaries that have made the shift – close US allies Israel and Australia also allow gays – the center found no impact on the readiness or ability of national forces.
"No consulted expert anywhere in the world concluded that lifting the ban on openly gay service caused an overall decline in the military," wrote the authors. They also argue that the change "improved the command climate in foreign militaries" and "increased focus on behavior and mission rather than identity and difference" and led to "greater respect for rules and policies that reflect the modern military, a decrease in harassment, retention of critical personnel, and enhanced respect for privacy."
That lifting the ban would likely do more good than harm is a view shared by America's military leaders. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, told the US Senate earlier this year that leaders of militaries who had lifted their bans on gays had told them the change did no harm and that he supported eventual repeal of DADT.
But he also called for more study on what the likely effects would be on the US military, and has appeared to favor a go-slow approach on the issue.