Don’t Make a Big Deal of Ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: Lessons from U.S. Military Allies on Allowing Homosexuals to Serve

Lt. Col. Charles McLean and Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

May 27, 2010

The military’s classic axiom of “hurry up and wait” may now have to be applied to the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Congressional Democrats recently brokered a compromise agreement with the White House and the Pentagon that may see the policy formally scrapped before November, but delayed in its final repeal until President Obama and Pentagon leadership sign off on the findings of an ongoing military review due by year’s end.

What is noteworthy amidst all the backroom political maneuvering and now public talk show debate is that we actually have a reservoir of very real lessons learned to draw from. Since the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993, the militaries of over 25 of our allied nations, including many of who are participating in combat operations with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, have transitioned to allow open service. This creates an important opportunity for how to implement the policy in a smart and effective manner, learning from the experiences of others.

Secretary Gates acknowledged this during congressional testimony saying, “We need to talk to those countries’ militaries in a more informal and in-depth way about their experience.” It was with this in mind that on May 19 Brookings’s 21st Century Defense Initiative and the University of California Santa Barbara’s Palm Center did just that by hosting military officers and experts from Australia, Britain, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, and Sweden to explore their militaries’ experiences in implementing inclusive policies. Over the course of the daylong conference several key insights stood out on how exactly their militaries transitioned to allowing openly gay service:

  • The Debate is a Huge Distraction from What Matters. Many of our allies went through similarly heated and public debates about whether to transition to open service, debates which they now look back on with a bit of chagrin. As Lieutenant Commander Craig Jones (ret.) of the British Royal Navy put it, “I’m not sure what we talked about in the military before we lifted the gay ban, but life afterwards became really, really dull, and we started talking about whether we should have more aircraft carriers and better equipment to deal with on the front line.”
  • For all the Heated Debate Beforehand, the Actual Implementation is Likely to be Quite Dull. The allied officers and experts discussed how there were similar passionate debates, with serious worries about the effect on retention, officers claiming they would leave in droves if the policy changed, etc., all of which turned out not to happen. As Major General Simon Willis (ret.) of the Australian Defense Forces (ADF), who served in Vietnam and later led ADF personnel policy put it, “…lifting of the homosexual ban in the ADF was a bit like the Y2K issue. There is a lot of bluster and screaming and yelling and plans, and everyone had an opinion about it, but it came and went, and that was it, nothing more was heard about it. It was a non-event and it continues to be a non-event in Australia.” Similarly noted, Major-General Walter Semianiw, who commanded Canadian Forces (CF) in Afghanistan and is now in charge of CF personnel matters, “In hindsight, there was little, if any, obstruction. People didn’t leave the Canadian military; they just got on with the new policy.”
  • Leadership is the Key to Success. If the ban is lifted, servicemen and women will be looking to their superior officers for guidance. How leaders conduct themselves and communicate to their subordinates, even if they personally opposed the ban, will be key to the success of the policy change, but also the overall health of the force. Told Major-General Semianiw of the lessons he drew from Canada’s shift, “…As pedestrian as it sounds, it’s all about leadership. As in all things human resources or personal management, I do that, I command 17,000 men and women in uniform to run this HR system. Leaders set the direction, they set the tone and ensure that policy is, indeed, respected and practiced. To ensure that policy is useful, remember, it has to be enforced and it has to be seen to be enforced, that is the role of leadership, one of the key pieces that we learned from that experience.”
  • Don’t Expect Cohesion to be Jeopardized. Every one of the officers in attendance discussed how, while there were concerns about cohesion before their transition, none faced actual problems with it after implementation. As Captain Alan Okros (ret.) of the Canadian Navy and now a scholar at the Canadian Forces College, put it: “Cohesion is important in the military. Militaries have known for about 3,000 years how to generate high levels of cohesion amongst groups of people that come from very, very different backgrounds. Anybody that wants to say that a military’s cohesion is going to be affected by having open service of gays is making a public statement of a failure of leadership. It is as simple as that. It’s a leadership issue, and militaries know exactly how to do this stuff.”

    The panelists also focused on how cohesion is often misunderstood, that the key to cohesion was a shared sense of mission, not social bonding. Noted Victoria Basham, who has studied the issue for the British military, “UK Armed Forces bond through shared commitments to tasks and to shared practices, not because of the interpersonal relationships.” Even more, research that Dr. Danny Kaplan did with the Israeli Defense Forces found that “…There was no correlation between knowledge of a gay peer and social cohesion.” Rather, even social bonding came about more from shared experiences; units that had been in combat, for instance, were more likely to be closer bonded, regardless of whether someone in the unit was gay or not.

  • Don’t Drag the Policy Out. Multiple times, the foreign officers were asked whether, based on their experiences, a policy change should be handled slowly, in order to let the military acclimatize or to resolve details of implementation. Their answers repeatedly emphasized that once the decision had been made, to get it done as rapidly as possible. As Major General Willis of the ADF said, “I would recommend that the key decision is whether or not you’re going to go that way and the rest of it is just support to it. And if you can get the support wrapped up in it more quickly, I think it’s much better.”
  • But Do Expect a Slow Process of Coming Out. “There were concerns in the late ’90s of gay men walking across the gangplank in feather boas and high heels,” said retired Lt. Cmdr. Craig Jones of the British Royal Navy. “That just did not happen.” Rather, the numbers after the policy changed were initially quite small and usually done in a quiet and often private manner. As Major General Simon Willis of the ADF noted, in fact, “…when we removed the ban, no one came out, and I think it was quite some time before people put their hand up…” Similarly noted Major General Semianiw, “…If you consider coming out, as mentioned by a number of the panelists here, as people all of a sudden yelling from the top of some steeple, you know, that they’re homosexual, they’re gay, it just doesn’t happen.”
  • Those that Do Come Out Will Tend to Respect Military Culture and Traditions. Explained Lt. Commander Jones, “I think among service personnel, we recruit from a particular pool of the wider population, people who have an understanding or at least develop an understanding of the services which we serve in. And you develop an innate sense of what’s appropriate and what’s right and what’s wrong.”
  • The Current Policy is Presently Being Ignored by Many. As Lieutenant Commander Craig Jones noted, “I’m quite sure that there are lots of gay service men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces who have confided in their colleagues and have, therefore, gone through—broken down some of the mental barriers about the fact that they will eventually come out.” Jones’s individual experience was matched by many of the other officers who have had similar experiences while serving with U.S. units, and by a survey of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in which 23% said they knew that someone in their unit was gay, with 59% of them being told about the person’s sexual orientation by the individual themselves. Similarly, at the policy level, the secretary of the U.S. Army, John M. McHugh, said he was effectively ignoring “don’t ask, don’t tell” and had no intention of pursuing discharges of active duty service members who have told him they are gay.
  • Don’t Single Gays Out; Apply the Same Standards to All. Lieutenant Colonel Mick King, an officer of the Australian Army who served on deployments in East Timor and the Middle East, explained, “…the issue is not about a particular group. As a commander, what we are trying to do is create an environment that is open for all, and so, therefore, the policy needs to apply to all. So if there is something that occurs, you know, inappropriate conduct for a particular organization, we will all be treated exactly the same as everybody else, so that all servicemen, women, soldiers, sailors, marines and the like, they know that it applies to them. And, therefore, that develops that trust in the chain of command that everybody will be looked after and treated the same. And so the policy that needs to be set to support commanders needs to apply to everybody, not to a particular group.”
  • Focus on Behavior. Much as promotion or discipline is not to be decided by one’s race or religion, so should it be with one’s sexual orientation. As Major General Willis noted, in the Australian military, “…our concern was based around inappropriate behavior, not about sexual orientation. It wasn’t about groups of people, it was about behavior. We kept it simple … Like if a soldier drank far too much or was acting inappropriately, it was seen as inappropriate behavior and dealt with that way.”
  • The Privacy Concerns Are Overblown. The event had officers whose backgrounds ranged from behind the battle lines roles of logistics and intelligence to the close quarters of small infantry units and service on submarines. All noted that privacy concerns were not the massive problems sometimes cited and were found to be manageable. “If you’re going to join the military, you’re going to serve under certain circumstances, certain conditions. You’re going expected to do very difficult, arduous work in very complex situations. If privacy is something that is really, really important to you, you probably don’t belong to the club,” said Captain Okros. Similarly described, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Grimshaw, who served as an infantry company commander as part of Task Force Orion, the first Canadian Battle Group in Kandahar, Afghanistan, “An infantry soldier shouldn’t expect to receive a whole lot of privacy, especially in operations, so you have to understand what you’re getting into, male, female, straight or gay, it doesn’t matter, privacy is something that is not necessarily in abundance in an infantry unit on operations.”
  • Don’t Expect a Major Rise in Incidents of Sexual Aggression, Violence, Etc. When directly asked, none of the officers or experts from Australia, Great Britain, Israel, the Netherlands, and Sweden cited any significant rise in violence or harassment. As Major General Willis put it, “In answer to the question on violence and harassment, no, none that we’re aware of.”
  • Don’t Expect Chaplains To Be a Major Problem. While concerns are sometimes raised by chaplains who might object to homosexuality for religious reasons and either preach against or leave the force because of gay soldiers, the opposite proved to be the case. As Major General Semianiw described, the chaplaincy who serve the military come from all sorts of faiths and beliefs, but still “…provide support to any man or woman and soldier regardless of sexual orientation, race, creed, color, whatever it might be. The key is providing support to someone who needs it, and it has not been an issue, haven’t seen it.”
  • The Change in Policy Will likely Make Joint Appointments Easier. A number of the foreign officers noted that the current U.S. policy had raised issues in joint training and appointments for allied military officers in the U.S., a crucial concern beyond the policy given the importance of such programs to U.S. strategy as outlined in the 2010 QDR. As Captain Luc Cassivi, who commanded 3 submarines and a frigate in the Canadian navy, noted, “I do have sailors who have been offered foreign posting in the U.S., for example, and have decided to not go because of sexual orientation, because they didn’t want to feel like they would need to go back into the closet or they didn’t feel they could be as open as they are in Canada about who they are and decided to opt out of their posting.”
  • We May Be Undervaluing the Stress that the Current Policy is Placing on Service Members in the Closet. In an era in which the military is rightly concerned about PTSD and other forms of stress and fatigue, the foreign officers and experts noted that allowing open service will likely take away a key stressor for those presently in the closet, which might manifest itself in other ways. “ … ’Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ forces people to be loners. It forces people not to be accepted and seen as much of a joiner in the group as if they were able to talk more openly about who they are,” said Captain Okros. “… By forcing them to have to constantly censor themselves, to regulate their behavior, to pretend to be somebody they’re not is putting people at risk in a workday setting …”
  • Do the Survey on Options, Not Approval. The military is a tool of democracy; it is not a democracy where policy is made via survey. Thus, the foreign officers and experts consistently advised that the current DoD study focus on implementation options, not conduct a survey on whether service members like or dislike a certain policy, as often described in the media of the upcoming survey. Noted Dr. Victoria Bashram, who has studied the issue for the British military, “What are we fundamentally interested in? Are we interested in military readiness, military effectiveness? I think so. That is the bottom line, and I think if those are the things that are concentrated on and focused in on in surveys in terms of, you know, how closely soldiers invest in core values and standards and ideas around, you know, behavior rather than attitudes, and I think that is the way to go. That’s the way forward.” Linking back to the point on not creating a policy just for gays versus other groups and minorities, they also advised that the survey place the issue within broader military personnel issues, rather than an exclusive focus on gay service. As Dr. Danny Kaplan, who has conducted research on the issue within the Israeli Defense Forces noted, “One thing I recommend not to do: to write a survey on which the title is “Homosexuality in the American Military,” which is what almost all services have done.”

In reflecting on these lessons learned, what was perhaps the most striking observation was the commonality of the responses from our allies, who came from varied nationalities, ranks, specialties, and experiences. Far from merely conducting parades, as some have erroneously and maliciously argued about our allies, the officers of these allied militaries had served with the United States in deployments as far back as the Vietnam war, to the 1990s deployments into the Balkans, and now in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the various other demands placed on today’s military, such as peacekeeping operations, drug interdiction in the Caribbean, or naval presence patrols in the Middle East. But for each of them, gay and lesbian service simply turned out not to be a major issue. Others, such as the IDF, have not gone to war alongside U.S. troops, but have certainly been just as active in tough circumstances during this period.

While some may argue that the U.S. experience and culture is unique, the diversity of these militaries, as well as the other 20 or so arguably dissimilar countries that have also had no problems integrating gays and lesbians, is powerful. Indeed, the differences between the Swedish and Israeli military experiences of the last decade may be a greater distance than that between the British and U.S. military. This diversity holds even more promise for showing how these lessons could help repeal successfully unfold in the U.S. military. While not perfect analogies, these countries are certainly the closest examples from which U.S. policymakers can draw upon. Accordingly, there is tremendous value in holding these frank objective discussions with our allies. We may find in the end that their experiences are not as foreign as we may think.