Don't ask, don't tell: How do other countries treat gay soldiers?

Don't ask, don't tell doesn't fly with NATO members, except Turkey and the US. NATO nations now allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. But 53 nations, including North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria, ban homosexuals from military service.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Lt. Dan Choi, stands alone after handcuffing himself to the fence outside the White House during a protest for gay-rights in Washington in April. Turkey is the only other NATO country that allows anti-gay laws like 'don't ask, don't tell.'

The US Congress appears poised to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. That would take the US off the same list as Iran and North Korea, countries that also bar homosexuals from fighting for their country.

“Is that where we as a country want to be? I think not,” says Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is lobbying for a repeal to the "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) ban.

More than 25 countries specifically allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military, including all original NATO signatories except the US and Turkey.

Some 16 countries – including Pakistan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen – bar open homosexuals from serving in the military. Across Africa, 37 countries declare homosexuality outright illegal – inside the military or out. Last week, two civilian men in Malawi were convicted and sentenced to serve 14 years in prison for homosexuality.

In the US, more than 13,000 American service members have been discharged under DADT, which was implemented in 1993.

The ban continues despite numerous studies over the past two decades that have shown no negative impact from allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military.

According to a February report (pdf download) from the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, allowing homosexuals to serve contributes to improving the command climate in foreign militaries, decreasing harassment, retaining critical personnel, and enhancing respect for privacy.

US military leaders say they're aware of precedent in other countries. Adm. Mike Mullen, during a Congressional hearing on Feb. 2, 2010, said he had spoken to his counterparts in countries that lifted the bans and they told him there had been “no impact on military effectiveness” as a result, and that he was aware of no studies showing that ending DADT would harm unit cohesion.

US allies allow homosexuals to serve

Already, US service members serve alongside gays and lesbians. The Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, has estimated that some 66,000 gay and lesbian troops serve (pdf download) in the US forces today. And Britain, a key ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, has allowed homosexuals to openly serve in its military for a decade.

Canada and Australia lifted their bans in 1992, followed by Israel in 1993, and South Africa in 1998. The lift on bans did not result in a mass “coming out,” the Palm Center found, nor were there instances of increased harassment of or by gay people.

When Britain looked to repeal its ban, its military initially considered DADT. But they found it was a “disaster,” which “hadn’t worked,” was “unworkable” and was “hypocritical,” according to the Palm Center’s report, "Gays in Foreign Militaries 2010: A Global Primer."

Instead, the British military based its regulations on the Australian model, which simply ban public displays of affection, harassment and inappropriate relationships – regardless of whether the couple was gay or straight. In 2002, the British Ministry of Defense reconfirmed that “there has been no discernible impact on operational effectiveness” as a result of ending the gay ban and that “no further review of the Armed Forces policy on homosexuality” was necessary.

US concerns unfounded: studies

Concern that the repeal of DADT will reduce the number of volunteers is unfounded, according to Dr. Nathaniel Frank, primary author of the Palm Center Report. In Britain and Canada, roughly two-thirds of the military said it would refuse to serve with open gays, but in reality no more than three people in each country actually resigned, according to the report.

The US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences studied the situation in Canada in 1994. It concluded that “negative consequences predicted in the areas of recruitment, employment, attrition, retention, and cohesion and morale have not occurred” since Canada's policy was changed.

If the US does repeal DADT, then precedent from other countries says that a change in policy should be implemented firmly and swiftly. A 1993 Rand report (pdf download) said “fast and pervasive change will signal commitment to the [new] policy,” while “incremental changes would likely be viewed as experimental” and weaken compliance.

Concerns remain in US

But upcoming mid-term elections have Democrats and Republicans worried about losing votes, even though a new CNN poll shows that 78 percent of Americans support repeal of the policy. A recent Gallop Poll shows that views have shifted generally on homosexual relations in the past decade. The percentage of Americans calling these relations "morally wrong" dropped to 43 percent, down from 55 percent n 2002.

Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, who once backed the ban, came out against it in February. "Attitudes and circumstances have changed," Powell told the Washington Post. "It's been a whole generation" since the legislation was adopted, and there is increased "acceptance of gays and lesbians in society," he said. "Society is always reflected in the military. It's where we get our soldiers from."

But Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, said he opposes efforts to change the policy now.

“This 'don’t ask, don’t tell' issue, they’re going to try to jam that through without even trying to figure out what the impact on battle effectiveness would be,” Senator McCain said this week on Arizona’s KBLU radio. In February, Mr. McCain said DADT "has helped to balance a potentially disruptive tension between the desires of a minority and the broader Interests of our all volunteer force.”

Mr. Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has legally represented military personnel discharged under DADT, roundly rejects this.

“That suggestion is an insult to our service members. And in it is implied that they are not professionals,” he says, likening the current push to repeal DADT to President Harry Truman’s 1948 order to end discrimination in the military.

“The record is the record. Open service in the countries talked about does not have the dire consequences that Sen. McCain asserts.”


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