Gays in Military Succeeds Abroad

Print Date: 
February 19, 2001
The Detroit News
Deb Price

In country after country, the idea of allowing gay people to serve openly in the armed forces triggers dire warnings from military leaders. But once a gay ban is lifted, those same leaders are shocked and relieved to find that nothing bad happens: The seemingly explosive issue is, in reality, a dud — a bomb that never goes off.

“We find literally the same thing again and again, which is people report the lifting of a gay ban as a non-event,” says political scientist Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“It has no effect on unit cohesion. It has no effect on military performance. It has no effect on recruitment. It has no effect on any of the indicators of military capability,” adds Belkin, whose center has thoroughly studied the impact of having lifted the gay bans in Britain, Israel, Canada and Australia.

With President George W. Bush on record favoring the gay ban, those landmark studies — available at — ought to be required reading for him and for Pentagon and congressional leaders mouthing warnings that should have been mothballed years ago.

Unlike what U.S. advocates of forcing gay soldiers to remain hidden argue, our country would not be marching into dangerously uncharted territory by lifting the gay ban. Rather, it’s terrain that other militaries have crossed easily, virtually without incident. In all, 23 nations — including every longtime North Atlnatic Treaty Organization country except the United States and Turkey — welcome gay people to serve openly.

As the Santa Barbara center found, what’s happened in countries whose militaries have stopped their overt anti-gay discrimination is fascinating:

Britain: In 1995, two-thirds of the men in Britain’s all-volunteer armed forces said they would not be willing to serve if the gay ban were lifted. The gay ban ended in January 2000, and a grand total of three people actually resigned. With recruitment levels “buoyant,” the policy change is “hailed as a solid achievement” by the Ministry of Defense.

"I think it has caused less of a ruffle than the issue of women at sea did 10 years ago,” observes Rear Admiral James Burnell-Nugent.

Canada: For a year after Canada lifted its ban in 1992, there was “not a single ... case of resignation, harassment or violence because of the change in policy,” the center says. “The issue ... has all but disappeared from public and internal military debates.”

Sexual harassment of service women fell 46 percent when the gay ban disappeared. Would-be harassers realized women were now “free to report assaults without fear that they would be accused of and subsequently discharged for being a lesbian,” the center found.

*Israel: In 1983, Israel opened its military, except for intelligence posts, to gay people. A decade later, that final restriction was dropped. “...Allowing gays and lesbians to serve without any official restrictions strengthened morale” by showing that the military helps unify a diverse society, says Lee Walzer, author of Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through Today’s Changing Israel.

Australia: When the Aussies lifted their ban, “We were waiting for problems ... we were ready. Nothing happened,” recalls military personnel chief Bronwen Grey.

Meanwhile, just last month the German Army issued guidelines designed to ensure gay soldiers’ fair treatment. And here at home, old prejudices are melting. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. Army men “strongly” opposed gay soldiers in 1992. By 1997, only 36 percent were, Elizabeth Kier reported in the journal International Security.

Eventually, U.S. military policy must be based on modern-day realities, not ancient fears. Our allies are leading the way.