Post-‘don’t ask’ era can benefit from study of allies

Posted on January 18th, 2011 by Vina Tran

Suzanne B. Goldberg is clinical professor of law and director of Columbia Law School’s Gender & Sexuality Law Center. Her Sexuality & Gender Law Clinic authored “Open Service and Our Allies: A Report on the Inclusion of Openly Gay and Lesbian Servicemembers in U.S. Allies’ Armed Forces.”  Here is her op-ed piece in Stars and Stripes, published on January 17, 2011:

Lost in doom-and-gloom predictions by opponents of the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy were the stories behind the remarkably smooth transitions some of our allies had when they enacted similar policies.

How did that happen? It came down to three touch points, the most important being clarity.

As the Pentagon recognized, clear communication about the transition — at all levels of leadership — is essential. This may be the right time to employ YouTube and Twitter to complement or even supplant standard-issue memos or newsletters, like the one the Canadian military used to explain its policy change.

Regardless of the medium, however, the point must be made that gay people can and will serve on the same basis as their nongay peers. As with any policy shift, many will be indifferent or supportive. Some will chafe. Canada’s aim was to change behavior, not beliefs. The U.S. should follow suit. Allow servicemembers to hold whatever beliefs they have about the issue, but do not tolerate behavior that contradicts that rule.

The second point is parity. Repeal opponents pointed to harassment and discrimination (of straight servicemembers by gay servicemembers, and vice versa) as reasons to keep gays closeted. Yet, as we know too well, harassment and discrimination in the U.S. military are nothing new.

Since the military already has well-established programs in place to deal with such situations, no new bureaucracy is needed to handle the transition from “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Instead, problems related to open service can be dealt with by policies and practices in place for other, similar difficulties.

In the United Kingdom, which admitted openly gay and lesbian servicemembers more than a decade ago, the military revised its code of conduct to forbid touching, displays of affection and relationships across the ranks, restricting “sex, not sexuality.” Because the focus was on inappropriate or hostile conduct, sexual orientation has not become a source of antagonism. Instead, according to one officer, expressions of hostility toward gay and lesbian servicemembers are now restricted to “the odd prat who behaves inappropriately.”

The final point relates to community. In any work environment undergoing policy change, successful transition comes not only from managerial statements and disciplinary acts, but also from the leadership’s efforts to bring former “outsiders” into the fold. The message needs to be that gay and lesbian servicemembers are now not only tolerated but welcomed as contributors.

The Australian military leadership accomplished this, in part, by reinforcing the inclusion of gay and lesbian servicemembers in events on the same basis as their nongay peers. As one Australian servicemember reported, “My partner was made most welcome at all events, dinners, and formal functions. Even my Admiral’s wife took my partner under her wing while I was working at one function.”

Admittedly, some extra effort may help ensure the transition here remains uneventful. In the U.K., the Royal Military Police put in place lesbian and gay liaison officers on all large military bases. These MPs attend training on lesbian and gay issues with civilian police and can follow up on any bullying or harassment that may warrant criminal investigation.

Ultimately, for our allies, meaningful education and training programs, strong anti-harassment policies and clear reporting measures meant that fears about lost unit cohesion and military readiness never came to pass. Even more compellingly, as our allies’ experiences show, by managing the transition with care, the open service ban’s end means the opportunity for a stronger, better-performing military.


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  3. We continue to wait for the information so that we can make an informed decision about whether gay lesbian and bisexual servicemembers should respond to the survey ..The American Forces Press Service also reports that Ham said 150 000 surveys will be mailed to military spouses by the end of the month. Although both Ham and Adm. Mike Mullen chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have discussed the importance of family input it had not previously been disclosed the specifics and the extent to which the military would be seeking spouses opinions.

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