don’t ask, don’t tell

don’t ask, don’t tell

As queer cadets in U.S. Service academies look forward to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” they might look to the United Kingdom as a model for the near future.

Queer service members in Britain have just finished celebrating the tenth anniversary of open employment in the military. The United Kingdom decriminalized male homosexuality in British civil law in 1967 but maintained it as a criminal offence in military law. It was only in 1994 that homosexuality finally ceased to be a criminal offence in the military, and even then investigations into soldiers’ private lives still continued and gay service members were still discharged from the army.

The ban was finally lifted on January 12, 2000, when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled the policy violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The British Ministry of Defense argued that the negative attitudes that existed towards homosexuals among service members meant excluding lesbian, gay and bisexual people from serving openly was necessary for morale and cohesion (sound familiar?), but the ban was overturned, replaced by a new code of conduct that prohibited discrimination and harassment.

Lieutenant Commander Mandy McBain of the Royal Navy, who established the first support network for LGBT personnel in the Naval Service, was a service member at the time of the repeal. While policies such as the mandatory annual Equality and Diversity training for all soldiers changed swiftly to include homosexual examples, the cultural shift after the ban was lifted was more gradual.

“The ban was lifted and I don’t think many really noticed a change,” she said. “After all, the LGB people in the Navy had always been there. They were now just able to dedicate all of their efforts to their job, without worrying about being dismissed.”

One of the reasons little has changed after the repeal is the reluctance of lesbian, gay and bisexual service members like Mandy to come out. Many struggled to deal with the years of dishonesty the ban forced upon them and feared what might happen if they revealed their true identities to their peers.

“I had to wrestle with my own conscience, knowing that I had lied to close friends and bosses I respected and worrying just how my deceit would be accepted,” Mandy said. “It sometimes felt like a risk that I was not willing to take.”

Prior to the repeal, Mandy had told only a few of her colleagues about her sexuality because of an invasive policy that required service members to report anyone who they knew or suspected to be gay. Somewhat akin to a harsher version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” commanding officers were strongly encouraged to “ask” and to follow up on any rumours of homosexuality by using heavily criticized investigation techniques that included hours of interrogation. Troops who confessed to being gay were usually discharged from the military. Mandy herself was interrogated by her commanding officer on suspicion of homosexuality, an experience she described as uncomfortable, especially given the two had worked together for years up until then.

But, in the words of Dan Savage, it got better. After the ban was overturned, it became illegal to pressure a service member to come out and to discriminate against officers on the basis of their sexual orientation. When civil partnerships passed into law in 2004, the military immediately recognized the rights of same-sex civil partners in military service to the same allowances and benefits as their married colleagues. In 2006, Royal Navy personnel marched in the London Pride Parade, and in 2009, the front cover of Soldier, the British Army’s monthly magazine, featured an openly gay soldier for the first time.

The example of the U.K. military sheds light on what the United States can achieve now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been repealed and lends queer cadets at the academies hope for a more equal future. Now, to fully implement that repeal…

Hattie Jones, editor of the University of Cambridge LGBT magazine [no definition], contributed reporting