Wednesday, 21 September 2011

DADT repeal: US joins the Western world

Yesterday America's infamous Don't Ask, Don't Tell ban on gays in the military was officially repealed. It was a hard-fought battle for the Democratic Party, and the Obama administration was keen to publicize the fulfillment of one of the president's key campaign promises. It wasn't easy, and the past three years have been met with opposition and setbacks.

The level of jubilation from Democrats was incredible, but understandable considering how long they have fought to end this ban. But looking at the situation in a global context, the excitement over a rather small policy change might seem strange. After all, until Tuesday the United States was the only country in the developed world that still had a ban on gays serving in the military.

Barring gays from military service is illegal under European law, and no such ban exists in any EU state - even in ultra-Catholic Poland or Italy. In fact the only country in all of Europe to have a ban on gays in the military is Serbia. In Latin America, the only countries to have bans on gays in the military are Cuba and Venezuela. As can be seen in the map above, the divide between gay bans (in red) and no gay bans (in blue and gray) mirrors the divide between the developed and developing world. Gay service bans are common in Africa and the Middle East.

It's a testament to just how much of an anomaly the United States is in the Western world that it has been, for so long now, the only one to maintain its ban. But these sort of cultural issues have an importance in American politics which is almost unparallelled in the rest of the West. Until yesterday, the map for global gay service bans closely resembled the map for global capital punishment.

It was Bill Clinton who first promised to end the ban on gays in the military, but in 1993 he had to settle for a merely semantic change to the policy after not getting enough political support. 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' was always a misnomer for the compromise policy because the military did ask, even if people didn't tell. In fact the number of investigations and dismissals of gay people actually rose after DADT was put into place in 1993.

Following president Obama's election, the Republicans fought tooth and nail to resist the change. Former presidential contender John McCain led a filibuster in the senate that was only resisted when three Republicans broke ranks. The reasons expressed today were the same expressed back in 1993 - allowing gays to serve will affect military readiness and reduce the capabilities of the army.

Considering that the rest of the Western world scrapped their gay bans years ago, those cases would have been helpful to look at during this debate. Of course given ideas about American exceptionalism, foreign experiences are rarely brought up in US political discourse. After all, this is a real army we're talking about here, not some rag-tag European military. But despite the fact that the foreign experiences were rarely brought up during the discussion (even as openly gay British troops served alongside American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan), they're still helpful to look at in thinking about what comes next.

The British experience

Obviously there are a wealth of examples to choose from, but the experience of Britain might be the most relevant. Not many people in the UK talk about this, but it was actually the European Court of Human Rights that forced them to end their ban. In 1999 four people who had been discharged from the British military for being gay took their case to the European court. The court ruled that investigations by the military into a person's sexuality breaches their right to privacy. The British government then lifted the ban, followed by all the countries in the EU which had a ban. Some European countries had never had a ban to begin with, while several others had ended theirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Netherlands was the first European country to end their ban in 1972.

At the time of the repeal in 2000, polls indicated that 70% of the British public supported the decision to end the ban. But one senior military officer quit his post, saying it would lead to disorder among the troops. None of this came to pass. According to the British Ministry of Defence, no cases of discord, blackmail or an erosion of unit cohesion or military effectiveness as a result of the end of the ban has ever been recorded. In fact the biggest news about the now 10-year-old policy is that there is no news.

The British military now actively recruits gays and lesbians, sending recruiters to gay pride events and advertising in gay magazines. The Royal Navy has even allowed gay soldiers to hold civil partnership ceremonies on board ships. Since civil partnerships are the law of the land in Britain, the military grants the same rights to civil partners as they do to husbands and wives.

That being said, the military has also reported that the rate of openly gay service members is assumed to be far lower than that of the general population. Despite the end of the ban, there are likely still many gay military personnel who choose to still keep their sexuality a private matter.


The end of the bans did leave many European countries with an odd reality. Several countries in Europe still have compulsory military service. In fact Germany only ended their draft this year. In two of these countries, Greece and Switzerland, one can get out of military service by saying they are gay (the idea being that they would face harassment in the military). So in these countries, one cannot be excluded from military service because they are gay, but they can get out of compulsory service if they say they are gay and because of this they do not want to be in the army.

One wonders what the American policy would be on this if the draft were ever re-instated in the United States.

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