There's that classic Franklin Delano Roosevelt line about how the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself." That might deserve an update for 2010, and if the advice of a bunch of international military officials is heeded, it might be rewritten to say, "There's nothing to fear about openly gay and lesbian soldiers, except fear itself."
The debate over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is at fever pitch this week, in the lead up to a vote on compromise legislation in Congress that would approve the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but hand over the timetable for that repeal to the White House and the Pentagon, upon the completion of a Pentagon-initiated study on how to accommodate gay and lesbian troops. Activists are all over the map on this one, with a number of LGBT groups supporting it, and a number of them not so thrilled about it. Proving that this issue is going to keep showing up at the White House's front door, Kip Williams, a founding member of the LGBT group GetEQUAL, was arrested last night after heckling the President at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer. "Move faster on repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'," was Williams' message, before security carted him out of the room.
The reluctance of the White House and the Pentagon to move swiftly on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is somewhat lost on a group of international military members — soldiers from allied countries of the United States that allow gay and lesbian troops to serve in their militaries. These folks, who participated in a panel discussion in Washington at the request of the Palm Center and the Brookings Institute, were on hand to let military leaders and President Obama know that there's nothing to fear from gay troops. Worries about unit cohesion, recruitment, and troop retention are hollow, according to these international troops. Suggesting that there will be a brouhaha over the integration of gay and lesbian troops is a fallacy.
"I must say the lifting of the homosexual ban in the Australian Defense Forces was a bit like the Y2K issue," said General Simon Willis, from (you guessed it) Australia. "There’s 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."
How much you want to bet that we're saying the same thing years from now, assuming that we get "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repealed this year?
Of course, don't take Australia's word for it. Take our neighbor to the north, Canada. As General Walter Semianiw said during this panel, allowing openly gay and lesbian troops to serve in Canada's military has had no operational effect whatsoever on troop performance.
"I state this unequivocally here, there is no negative impact on operational effectiveness. There has been no impact to reflect on operational effectiveness by having men and women of any sexual orientation fighting together, be it in Afghanistan, from what we’ve seen, be it in Iraq, be it on many key peacekeeping missions over the many, many years," General Semianiw said.
Opponents of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (here's looking at you, Sen. John McCain) believe that allowing openly gay and lesbian troops the chance to serve in the military will result in straight folks abandoning military service. "Who wants to serve with those icky queer people," the common rhetoric seems to say when it comes to opponents of lifting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
International troops say that there was similar concern in their countries, too, about allowing gay and lesbian troops the right to serve, and how straight troops — especially straight troops that morally oppose homosexuality due to religious reasons — would react. But these troops, as this article in Politico notes, found that there's just no punch behind this line of thought.
"Many Americans seem to believe that ending anti-gay discrimination in European and Israeli militaries faced no resistance because our cultures are more tolerant," a group of military members from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Sweden write. "In fact, our polls, rhetoric and even threats of mass resignations were quite similar to the continuing resistance in America. Yet none of the doomsday scenarios came true."
But much like Y2K, or much like doomsday scenarios of years past (my favorite: that during the Month of May in the year 1000, the body of Charlemagne would rise from the dead to battle the anti-Christ), the apocalyptic rhetoric of opponents of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has no basis in reality. Years from now, I've no doubt we'll look back on this month over drinks and think, "Wait, we really wasted all this energy opposing gay soldiers, while the Gulf of Mexico turned into sludge and two wars raged on abroad? What were we thinking?"