PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Gay Soldiers Serve Openly Around The World

The Pentagon on Nov. 30 released its long-awaited study on "don't ask, don't tell," which showed little risk in allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the military. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says repealing the policy would not produce the "wrenching, dramatic change that many have feared and predicted."

The change is not unprecedented. In February, historian Nathaniel Frank authored a comprehensive study of five U.S. allies that have successfully lifted bans or other restrictions on gays openly serving in the military -- Britain, Israel, Canada, South Africa and Australia.

"In many of those countries, debate before the policy changes was highly pitched," Frank wrote in his study, titled "Gays in Foreign Militaries 2010: A Global Primer." "Many people both inside and outside the military predicted major disruptions. ... Research has uniformly shown that transitions to policies of equal treatment without regard to sexual orientation have been highly successful and have had no negative impact on morale, recruitment, retention, readiness or overall combat effectiveness."


In a conversation about his findings with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Frank explains that the United States is the only country in the world with a procedure like don't ask, don't tell:

"There's nothing that's been codified in any other part of the world that actually said, 'We will allow gays to serve if they pretend that they're not gay,' " he says. "Most of the countries in Western Europe now allow gays to serve, including the United Kingdom, our closest ally and probably the best analogy for the U.S., [as well as] France, Italy [and] Spain."

Case Study: Great Britain

In Great Britain, gay service members were banned from the military throughout the 20th century. But in the early 1990s, a court case challenging the ban made its way through the British court system and lost -- so the ban remained. But after that case, the British High Court warned the military that although it could continue to enforce the ban, the policy was unlikely to survive a challenge in the European Convention on Human Rights.

"The military [then] ordered a relaxation of enforcement," says Frank. "So in many, many cases the actual end of a gay ban is preceded by a court case and a relaxation of enforcement. And when that [British] case wound its way up to and through the European Court of Human Rights in 1999, that court struck it down. Just four months later, the military lifted the ban and accepted the court case."

Frank says the quick change in England shows that concerns over implementing a repeal are unwarranted.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates listens to a reporter's question during a news briefing about gays in the military Tuesday at the Pentagon.
Charles Dharapak / AP
Defense Secretary Robert Gates listens to a reporter's question during a news briefing about gays in the military Tuesday at the Pentagon.

"This isn't like racial integration in that you're moving massive amounts of personnel around," he says. "All it really means is that you stop kicking out gay people: that you let them serve. There's already gay people, in other words, in these militaries. It's about whether you allow it, whether you acknowledge it and whether you allow gay and lesbian people to be honest. In Britain, they simply issued regulations saying this is now allowed. There was a minimal amount of training. There were sessions with leaders to make it absolutely clear that they would have buy-in. There were certainly steps taken. But there isn't an enormous amount that needs to be done or that has been done in these other countries beyond ceasing to fire people and making clear that gay people will be allowed and be respected."

Case Study: Israel

In Israel, military service is compulsory for men and women. And for many years, the Israel Defense Forces limited service by openly gay members of the military by requiring service members to undergo psychiatric evaluations, which would often trigger a discharge. Gay people were also banned from top secret positions in the military.

In 1983, the ban on gays in top secret positions was relaxed. In the early 1990s, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said, "I don't see any reason to discriminate against homosexuals," a review committee in parliament recommended dropping the ban.

As Frank notes, there are real differences between the United States and Israel. Because Israel is so small in area, many service members go home at the end of their workday. And men and women openly serve together.

"Some of these differences have been used by people to say this case is not instructive," says Frank. "But the fears were exactly the same. The opposition to letting gays serve was the same. The language of mental instability and unsuitability and concerns about intimacy were all very much the same."

The new Israeli policy says "there is no limit on the induction of homosexuals to the army, and their induction is according to the criteria that apply to all candidates to the army."


Frank says all five countries he studied -- Britain, Israel, Canada, South Africa and Australia -- had major concerns about the potential effect on military effectiveness and recruitment patterns before their bans were dropped. But all five countries quickly implemented changes. And, Frank says, they experienced no wide-scale problems after the bans were repealed.

"So many different sources have conducted research since the early 1990s -- before, during and after transitions," says Frank. "There simply is no evidence showing problems, and there's overwhelming evidence showing that these transitions are a non-event and they can occur."

Interview Highlights

On gay service members in Africa and Asia

"In parts of Asia and Africa, there are often no policies at all, either because homosexuality is not spoken about or because there are civilian laws against it and there you can assume it's not allowed."

On gay service members within NATO organizations

"Within NATO, there are about 35 countries that appear to let gays and lesbians serve. It just depends on whether you're looking for an outright policy allowing it or the lack of a policy banning it. There are at least 25 countries that researchers confirmed allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. And that number goes to 35 if you go to countries that don't have a ban."

On the concern that the ban shouldn't be lifted while the U.S. is at war

"If you actually look at what the Air Force chief said, in terms of this political moment, he said he would like to delay repeal for another year or so, but he does think the legislation should move forward so that the military has control over that.

"But again, when you look at the evidence, the research, what the courts have said, and now what the military has said, it becomes harder and harder in court to defend the existing policy. It becomes harder and harder to say, 'This policy has a rational basis' when all of the research, including the military's own research and many of its top leaders, are saying this policy is compromising our effectiveness, our integrity and our talent pool. Even the courts' tradition of deferring to the military [is] thrown into question."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.