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Connotations by Denny Meyer:
conference notes on


Sexual Orientation and Military Preparedness
An International Perspective
Conference at Georgetown University Law Center


Stuart O'Brien (Au), Patrick Lyster-Tidd, (UK), Michelle Douglas (Canada),  Avner Evan-Zohar( Israel), Mike Rankin (US)

On March 12th, 2008, several hundred people gathered at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington DC to hear an international panel of active and former service members from some of America's allied nations where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens serve openly in their militaries.  In addition to local law students and policymakers, the audience included many former and currently active American officers and enlisted NCOs, yet not a uniform was in sight.  The purpose of the conference was to impart how successfully the transition to full inclusion of openly gay service was made in allied armed forces.

A summary of the panel's presentations follows, briefly outlining the process, in each nation represented, of how they transitioned to fully affirming the right of their LGBT citizens to serve.  In future issues of Gay Military Signal, additional articles will detail each nation's progression and how that affected the lives of the speakers on the panel.  In brief, compared to the ongoing perverse Don't Ask Don't Tell policy in the US -now entering its 15th year-, these other nations had relatively swift straightforward shifts to open service along with legal recognition of the rights of their LGBT patriotic volunteers.

OVERVIEW: Beginning in the early 1990s, in the allied nations described below (Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom), the respective parliaments took into consideration their own national and or international Human Rights laws and progressive societal perspectives on the rights of homosexuals, women, and minorities.  After studies and or and hearings and court cases in each country, the parliaments, prime ministers, or military leaders determined that there was no longer any justification for continuing to ban or limit the service of homosexuals in their armed forces.  Following that determination, the bans on homosexual service in those countries were lifted, essentially without the necessity of any major legislation.  Although respective senior military personnel and some religious leaders did raise objections, the subsequent experiences in these countries proved that concerns about privacy, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention, preparedness, and operational readiness were overwhelmingly unfounded.  The relatively calm transition to open service by homosexual and transgender volunteers in the militaries in these allied countries is in stark contrast to the situation in the United States where political ideology continues to prevent the logical conclusion and transition that those nations began to successfully put into practice nearly two decades ago.

In Israel, a nation surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction, being gay was never an excuse in that every single able adult citizen is needed in its defense force.  According to Capt. Avner Evan-Zohar (left), gay service members were considered a security risk during the 1980s due to the concern that they could be blackmailed; so the policy at that time limited them to lower rank and security clearances during their mandatory service.  In 1993, amidst parliamentary hearings on gay rights, poignant testimony was heard from a former officer and research scientist who had been a principle contributor in Israel's most top secret national security project.  Under suspicion of homosexuality, he'd been demoted to sergeant and his security clearance was revoked.  Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin realized the absurdity of dishonoring one of the nation's heroes. He essentially;
 ordered an end to the policy telling his top military commanders that if  they could not bring themselves to follow orders to fully integrate openly homosexual service members,  he'd find others who would.  Rabin had been the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army during the Six Day War and was previously the Commander of Israel's elite Northern Command; and thus the commanders of Israel's military had to respect his authority and carry out the change.  It was noted that Israel was able to make this transition despite being a conservative country where religion and state are interlaced, with a battle-hardened military responsible for guarding a nation under constant attack.

In Canada, in 1989, Second Lieutenant Michelle Douglas (left) was honorably dismissed due to homosexuality.  She subsequently sued based on Canadian law which protects the rights of its LGBT citizens.  The military settled the case by ending its discriminatory policy. Ms. Douglas is, thus, essentially single handedly responsible for the entire change of policy regarding LGBT service in Canada.  The policy recognizes the rights of transgender volunteers as well; and encompasses perhaps the world's most thoroughly inclusive armed force affirmation of rights.  In Canada, it seems, there are no caveats or exceptions nor pragmatic excuses or arguments for exclusion.  The military has ongoing training regarding respect and dignity and a policy of zero tolerance for harassment.  It is the first nation to have held a same sex wedding of uniformed military personnel.

Lieutenant Commander Patrick Lyster-Todd, Royal Navy, retired, who served on active sea-duty and shore-based assignments, described the five year campaign to lift the ban on open gay service in the United Kingdom.  According to his account, in the 1990s the Labor Government had determined that there was no justification for continuing to exclude homosexuals from open service, but did not act on that conclusion.  The government allowed a case to run its course through to the final decision by the European Union Court which required an end to the discrimination.  In 2000 the Defence Secretary lifted the ban, without any legislation, as the last element of a series of reforms which prohibited racism, bullying, hazing, and sexism, and affirmed the rights of transgender and women volunteers. There had been the usual sort of opposition to change from retired senior officers and others.  However, their concerns about unit cohesion, 
retention, preparedness and operational readiness were demonstrated to have been unfounded.  When the issue of showers and privacy are raised, Patrick Lyster-Todd notes the military's new ethic that today's volunteers risk their lives for the sake of their country and freedom; their professionalism and training do away with any discriminatory inference that sexual orientation implies a shortfall of integrity and decency.  He concluded by quoting Admiral Adrian John, Second Sea Lord and the head of the United Kingdom's Naval Personnel, who said that it is unhealthy to lead a secret life.  Personnel need to be nurtured to give their best and then be rewarded for their efforts.  Nurture includes the freedom to be themselves.  The mission is to break down the barriers of discrimination, prejudice, fear and misunderstanding.

Lyster-Todd noted that change is difficult and required enlightened leadership.


Out gay Australian Navy Chief Petty Officer Stuart O'Brien, who has served two voluntary tours in Iraq, described the lifting of the ban against homosexual service in the ADF.  In 1992, a government directive caused the Defence Forces to issue new rules of behavior which applied equally to heterosexuals and homosexuals which essentially removed discrimination against open service.  This was the culmination of a process begun in the 1980s when Australia adopted international human rights accords.  The military had initially resisted the change with the usual objections and had tried to use the earlier human rights legislation to exclude homosexual service in the armed forces.  Prime Minister Paul Keating's order reflected
the accepting nature of the Australian culture as well as the attitude of younger military personnel who also were willing to serve alongside gay and lesbian service members.  In the years that followed, the ADF has had an ongoing evolving process of developing enhancements  to assure monitoring, education, training, equal rights privileges such as the opening up of defence housing to same sex couples in 2001-2002, and the enabling of benefits for children of same sex couples.

CPO O'Brien has been instrumental in many of the initiatives which have led to improvement for LGBT service members, including the founding of DEFGLIS, a website of information and resources for LGBT Australian military personnel, which has been used by Defence for guidance on how to implement progressive changes.  While he served in Iraq, his office became a safe space for LGBT US troops to come and be heard.  CPO O'Brien received a US Meritorious Service Medal for his work in Baghdad.


Tom Field, the conference Moderator, an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University Law Center, is a retired US Army Colonel with 32 years service.  Introducing the panel, he noted that roughly 65,000 gay and lesbian American troops on active duty are prevented from serving openly.  Under the DADT policy, they may not say who they are; they cannot carry a photo of a same sex partner nor designate one to be notified in case they are killed or injured in combat; thereby damaging US military preparedness.  Over 12,000 troops with critical skills, have been discharged for violating the policy; the equivalent of an Army Light Division.
41,000 qualified young Americans are dissuaded from considering entering the military due to the policy.  And each year several thousand highly trained officers and NCOs, the equivalent of an Army Brigade, leave the service rather than continuing to serve under DADT.
The experiences of allied nations presented by the panel, he said, can serve as a guide for the US to enhance military preparedness in allowing gay and lesbian troops to serve openly.   

Retired US Navy Captain Michael Rankin, an openly gay advocate for the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, served as Devil's Advocate at the conference by presenting the views of those opposed to the repeal of DADT.  While those opposed to the open service of gays in the US military had been invited, no actual opponents participated in the conference.

Some of the opposing arguments are: the belief that homosexuality is a terrible sin, unit cohesion will suffer, younger men and women in the military will be unnecessarily exposed to the gay lifestyle, and the question, "how can we ask our service members to add to the stress of life on the battle field, in the barracks and on ships by having them shower with homosexuals?"

Religion and values: Describing opposition based on religion and values, Capt. Rankin quoted from parts of a homophobic sermon: Homosexuals are at it again to force our military to accept practicing homosexuals.  Having homosexuals in a barracks is like having a baby's dirty diaper on your dinner plate. Genesis, states that God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.  According to the Bible, homosexuality is an abomination.   Those in favor of letting homosexuals serve say that we should not use the Bible to make decisions about or military.  They tell us that  "your way of believing and your values are not same as those of everyone else, that all beliefs must be respected.  True, but, if they want us to respect their values, why cant they respect ours?  We battle every hour of every day against homosexuals and their allies who are powerful.

Unit cohesion:  A Marine 06 speaking on Elaine Donnelly's panel at the National Defense University in Washington, in arguing that unit cohesion is important, said that he doubted that unit cohesion was unaffected in militaries allowing gays to serve openly.  In any case, he argued, "We are the USA, our young men are not hanging out in bars in the Yorkville section of Toronto, nor in the West End theaters of London, nor prancing in women's clothing in Sydney, they are not congregating on nude beaches in Tel Aviv trying to pick up Israeli soldiers.  No, our military men are from farm the farm towns of the Central Valley of California, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Dallas, and from small cities in the South and Midwest.  And they are aghast when told that they have to sleep next to some flamer from Greenwich Village or the Castro.  They know they have to watch their backs in the showers, so they wont be assaulted.  It is stressful enough being in Iraq and Afghanistan; why don't they deserve better?"

  2008  Gay Military Signal