TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

For the past 17 years, gays and lesbians have been allowed to serve in the military only if their sexual orientation remains a secret. Last month, the Pentagon released a report concluding that repealing the law and allowing gays to serve openly would present only a low risk to the military's effectiveness, even during wartime.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a matter of urgency because if Congress doesn't act, a court decision could impose immediate repeal, leaving the military no time for preparation.

But yesterday, Gates expressed skepticism that the lame-duck Congress would bring the issue to a vote.

My guest, Nathaniel Frank, is a historian who wrote a report earlier this year on why and how five countries changed their policies to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military: Britain, Israel, Canada, South Africa and Australia. His report was published by the Palm Center of the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he was the senior research fellow. He's also the author of a book about the impact of Don't Ask, Don't Tell called "Unfriendly Fire."

Nathaniel Frank, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. NATHANIEL FRANK (Author, "Unfriendly Fire"): Good to be here.

GROSS: Would you give us an overview of which countries have militaries that don't allow gays and lesbians to serve and which do?

Mr. FRANK: Sure. Most of the countries in Western Europe now allow gays to serve, including the United Kingdom, our closest ally and probably the best analogy for the U.S.; France; Italy; Spain; also some that might be surprising: South Africa; Uruguay; in other parts of the world.

In Asia and Africa, there are often no policies at all. And they are either because homosexuality is so often unspoken about or because there are civilian laws against it, and there you can assume that it's not allowed.

GROSS: And what about if you're just looking at NATO?

Mr. FRANK: Within NATO, there are about 35 countries that appear to let gays and lesbians serve. It just depends on whether you're looking for an outright policy allowing it or simply the lack of a policy banning it. So there are at least 25 countries that researchers have confirmed allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. And that number goes to about 35 if you look at simply which countries don't have a ban.

GROSS: Is there any other country in the world that has a policy like Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

Mr. FRANK: No, there really isn't. Historically, there had been policies that in practice were similar, so that there might be something where you would be denied security clearance if you were suspected to be gay or lesbian, but it wasn't a written-down policy. Or there would be euphemisms, you know, carnal and unnatural behavior in the old days, something about morality, under which commanders would discharge you.

In Israel for a period of time, if you said you were gay, or you were suspected of being gay, you would be referred to a mandatory psychiatric evaluation. And in some cases, that could lead to a discharge.

So there have been similar kinds of policies in practice, but there's nothing that's been codified into a law in any other part of the world that actually said: We will allow gays to serve if they pretend, in a sense, that they're not gay.

GROSS: So let's look at Britain. Now, one of the concerns that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, have said is that they fear that the court challenge making its way through the system now will end up reversing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and if it happens through the courts, the military is concerned that they won't be able to do it in their own timely fashion.

Mr. FRANK: Right, in an orderly fashion is the phrase that they've been using. That's right. It's very rare that this kind of a change comes about by military personnel simply standing up and saying we would like to now allow gays. It almost always comes through pressure of some kind or another, in many cases mirroring where the culture is at that time. But of course, there's lags, and there are gaps sometimes.

In Britain, there was a court case brought in the early 1990s that made its way through the British court and actually lost. So the ban remained. But the court warned the military that although we are upholding your right to have a ban, the European Court of Human Rights is not likely to find this okay. And so that triggered a series of events where the military created a commission - similar to the one that the U.S. created and just gave its report recently - to assess their policy.

Now, even that commission actually recommended retaining the ban, but as is often the case with many other countries and is also playing out here in the U.S., there was a court case. It didn't win, but it raised concern that the ban was on its last legs, and the military ordered a relaxation of enforcement.

So in many, many cases, the actual end of a gay ban is preceded by a court case and a relaxation of enforcement. And then, sure enough, when that case wound its way up to and through the European Court of Human Rights in 1999, that court struck it down. And just four months later, the military lifted the ban and accepted the court case.

GROSS: So the military is basically forced to change in England.

Mr. FRANK: That's right. It was.

GROSS: So once it was forced to change, how did it go about figuring out what the new policy was going to be and how gays and lesbians in the military were going to be treated?

Mr. FRANK: Well, that's the question that so many people have been asking. And what's kind of funny about it is that it's largely been much ado about nothing. There isn't very much to do.

You know, people are talking here about years of training and education and what will the policy be. Some people have said, well, Don't Ask, Don't Tell ought to go, but what on Earth would we replace it with.

This is not like racial integration where you actually have - in some senses, it is, but this is not like racial integration in that you're moving massive amounts of personnel around. All it really means, to minimize it for a moment, is that you stop kicking out gay people, that you let them serve.

There's already gay people, in other words, in these militaries. It's about whether you acknowledge it, whether you allow it, whether you allow gay and lesbian people to be honest. And so in Britain, it was three and a half months after the court case, and they simply issued regulations saying this was now allowed.

There was a minimal amount of training. There were sessions with leaders to make it absolutely clear that they would have buy-in. So certainly there were steps taken. But there isn't an enormous amount that needs to be done or that has been done in these other countries beyond ceasing to fire people and making clear that the new policy is that gay people will be allowed, that they'll be respected, and in some cases, there is an additional code of conduct that is promulgated in order to make those regulations clear.

GROSS: Now, let's look at Canada. Canada relaxed its ban on gays in the military in 1988. When did it actually lift it?

Mr. FRANK: In 1992. So Canada, like Britain, did start by relaxing its ban. It had a charter of rights and freedoms that it adopted in 1985. And in 1986, amidst some pressure, it also, like Britain, created a commission to study its policy on gays and lesbians.

Interestingly, in both cases, these surveys, these studies, similar to the one in the U.S., surveyed service members to ask them their attitudes, their feelings, their views about lifting the ban.

In both cases, in Britain and Canada, and these are very large surveys, majorities said that they would not support serving with gays and lesbians. Some actually said, large percentages said, that they would refuse to serve, that they would leave, that they wouldn't work with gays and lesbians. And yet when the transitions were actually made, almost no one left. So there's a big gap between what people say and what actually happens.

Partly because of these surveys, both in Britain and Canada, the commissions recommended against lifting the ban because they were taking too seriously, I think, these stated concerns based on opinion surveys that don't actually measure the likely impact on cohesion of repealing a policy. They are really just opinion polls.

And so Canada also recommended against repeal, but the court case went through, and the military lost at a lower level, and the military actually settled because they knew they wouldn't win.

GROSS: So was Canada as swift in implementing the end of the gay ban as England was? England did it within four months of the court case.

Mr. FRANK: Actually, Canada was quicker, and so was Australia, and so was Israel. Australia and Israel didn't go through court cases. But taking three and a half months for Britain between the court ruling and the implementation was among the longest of the countries that researchers have looked at.

In many cases, the change was literally done overnight or within a week. There was a court decision, and the gay ban was over. Or there was a decision made by some other government department, and the ban was over. Again, this is because gay people are already serving in these militaries, and although there are useful analogies to integrating women in combat or racial integration, the difference is that this is more about acknowledging something that's already there than actually moving personnel around.

And so there's less of an argument for taking so much time, notwithstanding that's what we see here in the U.S. is that the military seems to want to have time to make the change.

(Break)

GROSS: Let's look at Israel, one of the other countries that you studied. Israel is acknowledged to have a very strong military. Service is compulsory for men and women. Was there a ban on gays in the military?

Mr. FRANK: Israel did limit service by gays and lesbians, but it limited it by requiring a psychiatric evaluation, which would often trigger a discharge based on some kind of euphemism, you know, that you were mentally unfit, or service was inappropriate, or you were unsuitable.

In an earlier era, earlier in the 20th century, that was almost universal. By the 1970s and '80s, that was more discretionary. So some people would be discharged, and some people wouldn't.

In 1983, the ban was relaxed but also formalized in another way, and that often happens. A lot of these countries, actually their bans were short-lived and that they were ironically developed just as civilian laws and customs about homosexuality were relaxing.

And so the military felt that since it could no longer rely on civilian laws to root out gays, they would have to develop their own policies. And so some of them were very short-lived.

Israel is a very instructive case because it is a combat-tested ally, although there are important differences between Israel and the U.S. Such a small country, people often go home at the end of the day. There is conscription. It's not a volunteer force. There are men and women. And some of these differences have been used by people to say that that case is not instructive. And yet the fears were exactly the same.

The opposition to letting gays serve were the same. The language of mental instability and unsuitability and concerns about intimacy and that sort of thing were all very much the same, and ultimately, the research on Israel and Britain and Canada and Australia and South Africa has been very uniform that despite concerns in all of these countries, there have been no overall problems.

So in other words, there would be isolated disruptions here or there, which are equivalent to any other number of personnel conflicts, you know, individuals not getting along, someone maybe asking for a transfer or something like that.

So it doesn't mean that all resistance evaporated, but at the level of unit cohesion, at the level of recruitment and retention and readiness and battle effectiveness, all of the criteria people use rightly to assess whether there is harm caused by lifting a gay ban, there has been nothing. It's been impossible to find an example of overall cohesion suffering from lifting a ban.

Again, it doesn't mean that there aren't people who resisted. In some cases, the reinstatement of a gay person amidst media spotlights may have caused a kind of ruckus, and some people say look, this is what happens when you let gays serve. But of course, that's really something that happens when you make a fight out of it in the first place. The fact of being gay or lesbian and serving openly in these countries has caused no overall harm.

GROSS: You said that there really weren't any major problems in the five countries that you studied when they ended their bans on gays and lesbians in the military.

But it seems a little hard to imagine that the transition would be so smooth, especially, like, when you consider when women started going to West Point. There were stories about rape and unfair treatment and, you know, harassment, all kinds of things that they had, that the women had to deal with. And obviously, some of the men had a real hard time dealing with women.

So was there nothing comparable that you found in the five countries when gays and lesbians could openly serve?

Mr. FRANK: Well, I understand the skepticism when you say that uniformly there were no problems. And it's important to make clear that there were isolated incidents of people grumbling, of interpersonal conflicts, of someone perhaps requesting that they can change a room or a unit.

But I've been studying this for 10 years, and the military itself and universities and government, Congressional Research Service, has also been studying this for years. And it's one of the things that drew me to this policy as a research topic was that the evidence is overwhelming, that there actually have not been overall problems to cohesion, retention, recruitment and battle effectiveness, and yet the culture and the political landscape continues to retain the ban.

Now, I think some of what makes this different from women in combat or racial integration is that you have to remember that gays have already been in the military, in many cases even serving openly, notwithstanding the policy because it's not enforced well, and it's unenforceable in some senses.

So this is unlike a situation where you have a new group show up at the door. It's more about acknowledging something that most people know already exists.

And as far as harassment or something like that, there's already a level of harassment against all kinds of people, gays and lesbians included, but it makes sense that that harassment would actually be alleviated once you can talk about this, once this comes aboveground. Because the ban on saying that you're gay actually leads to further harassment because it doesn't allow people to report it without worrying that they'll come under scrutiny.

So there are many unanticipated benefits of lifting a ban. In Canada, when their ban was lifted, harassment against women went down by 60-some percent. Now, we can't say that's all because of the ban being lifted because you don't want to make that kind of correlation without knowing why it happened, but it's suggestive of the fact that driving something like this underground actually makes things worse, and when you simply say people can be open and honest, and they can report harassment, it may make things better.

GROSS: So if you look at all five countries that you studied, so we're talking about Canada, Britain, South Africa, Israel and Australia, things they have in common include: Once the military decided or was forced to change, you know, reverse its ban on gays in the military, they implemented the change swiftly. And as far as you can tell, there weren't any problems, major problems, and also there were no separate quarters, no separate facilities, no separate policies for gays and lesbians.

Mr. FRANK: That's right, and it's not just as far as I can tell. I mean, so many different sources have conducted research since the early 1990s, before, during and after transitions: The Rand Corporation, which has again been hired to do a study, as it did in 1993 for the Clinton-era effort to lift the ban. And the Rand Corporation was...

GROSS: Hired by the military.

Mr. FRANK: Hired by the military, and the Rand Corporation was started by military officers after World War II. So it has close ties to the military. Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress but also the military itself, its own research arms, as well as the Government Accountability Office and the Palm Center and other academic think tanks have all done studies to assess - and now the Pentagon Working Group - what has happened in other countries. And there simply is no evidence showing problems, and there's overwhelming evidence showing that these transitions are a non-event and that they can occur.

So the similarities are manifold, and they are that there were major concerns about disruptions to effectiveness and recruitment and retention and that none of them came true on any wide scale.

GROSS: One of the surprises in your chapter on Britain, a surprise to me, is that the Royal Air Force created a relationship with the gay rights group Stonewall. What was that relationship about?

Mr. FRANK: The military found that it was an employer of first resort to gay and lesbian people, that there had been longstanding interest by gay and lesbian people at serving in the military. They had always been there and that when the military does something - and this is a feature of military culture -it does it wholeheartedly. And it found that it was a very appealing employer and quickly made it on the - a list of gay rights groups' top 100 employers for gay and lesbian people.

And so it capitalized on that, and it went to gay pride parades in London and throughout Britain.

GROSS: The military did?

Mr. FRANK: The military did. You know, it took a few years, and it varied by service branch. But the ban was lifted in 2000, and by 2006 and '07, the military was having a presence at gay rights parades, gay pride parades, and was liaisoning very deliberately with these groups.

And it's a recognition, I think, of how wholeheartedly the military really embraced what it was doing, which was that equality was good for the military and that it was a better command climate when you didn't have people snooping and wondering about rumors and suspicions and when you said every team member is going to excel because every team member is going to be treated as a team member.

And I think going out and saying, you know, we're not just doing this because we were ordered to by a court, but we're doing this because we recognize that this is actually good for the command climate, was part of what was happening when they developed formal ties with gay rights groups in order to say we are actually going to engage with the gay community in hopes that they will feel 100 percent welcome in the military.

(Break)

GROSS: Now, what interested you most or surprised you most in America's Pentagon study on gays in the military that was recently released?

Mr. FRANK: Well, in some ways the Pentagon's recent study has mirrored what decades of other research into the question of gay service have said, which is that openly gay service works and it works well. And so that wasn't surprising, although I think people were heartened that the study was done with good faith and done effectively and that it mirrored other academic research. I think what was surprising is just how positive a climate it found in terms of openness to openly gay service.

You know, this is a generation - younger people in the military - that has passed out of the concerns of a lot of the older people who are running the military at upper levels. And a lot of research has been saying that for a while. But now the military has seen for itself and duly reflected that evolution. So to see that 70 percent of service members think that lifting the ban would be positive or neutral, but not - you know, or mixed but not negative, that was quite something, and I think to see that in a very comprehensive study, there was a lot of research reflected about how lifting a gay ban is not just something that can be tolerated but can actually improve command climate, which is what other countries found - I think that was, you know, not something that I necessarily expected would be reflected in the report.

GROSS: Now, you've pointed out in your study that most of the five countries that you studied changed their ban - ended their ban on gays in the military because there were court cases that were going to force them to change or that did force them to change.

There's a case that's making its way through the courts now, filed by the Log Cabin Republicans, and they're saying there should be gays in the military who can serve openly. It's now in appeals and a federal court is going to hear the appeal probably in February.

How would you compare that case to the cases in the five countries? You know, in the countries that you studied?

Mr. FRANK: Well, I think the case is similar and the history is similar, in that a court case emerges that shows that the culture has come a certain distance from the past where a court case wouldn't have even made its way this far. One of the differences, though, is that we have a Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which is that there are already gay people in the military. And, of course, in these other countries there were too, but it wasn't formally acknowledged the way it is under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

But I do think that the court cases have always pressured - created pressure towards ending these policies because, you know, the Pentagon doesn't want to deal with the uncertainty of and the possibility of a judge imposing this overnight, and that is, in fact, exactly what happened in the last few months, is that a single federal judge at the district level imposed a worldwide injunction. There was some wrangling over whether she even had the authority to do that, but eventually the Pentagon accepted that she did and for eight days there was no ban. And you had military officials saying, you know, grumbling about the court case and saying this could create enormous consequences. And yet you have the evidence of at least a week of no ban without any consequences.

So that is also a political concern, that leaders who are trying to make this a gradual progress, either because of their own resistance or because they want to generate buy-in by all the stakeholders in the military, they would rather control this themselves, and that's what the current legislation in the U.S. Congress does, is it doesn't repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell immediately. It gets repeal past Congress as a hurdle, which it's been for 17 years, and puts it in the hands of the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president, to say we are now ready when they're ready, when they've been satisfied that all the preparations are in place to end the ban.

GROSS: On the other hand, the commander of the Marine Corps and the chiefs of staff of the Army and the Air Force told the - said last week that this isn't the time to change the policy because we're fighting a war. So there still is resistance at a high leadership level within the armed services.

Mr. FRANK: There's certainly divided opinion, although if you actually look at what, for instance, the Air Force chief said in terms of this political moment, he said he would like to delay repeal for another year or so, but he does think the legislation should move forward so that the military has the control over that.

But again, when you look at the evidence, you look at the research, you look at what the courts have said and now look at what the military has said, it becomes harder and harder in court to defend the existing policy. It becomes harder and harder to say this policy had or has a rational basis when all of the research, including the military's own research and many of its top leaders, though not all, are saying this policy is compromising our effectiveness, our integrity and our talent pool, and so even the courts' tradition of deferring to the military is now thrown into question.

GROSS: In conflicts that the American military has been involved with lately, there have been multinational forces, forces from NATO countries, from other countries. There was, you know, President Bush's Coalition of the Willing, in which American troops served alongside troops from all over the world. Now, many of the armies that the United States has served alongside with have policies that allow gays to serve. What has been the outcome of that? Have there been any conflicts there, serving with militaries that have openly gay people?

Mr. FRANK: Well, there certainly has been no evidence that these multinational forces that do include openly gay people have become problems at the overall level. You know, you can't say that no one has complained or that there haven't been interpersonal conflicts. But the research I've done and research others have done have looked into those cases, not just the policy on paper that allows openly gay service, but speaking to, interviewing people who have been openly gay, there have - have been - there's been an increase in the number of joint military operations in the past few decades and there are absolutely openly gay service members from other countries serving alongside, and in some cases commanding, U.S. troops in the Middle East, in Sinai, in, you know, Ethiopia, Lebanon, as well as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are documented evidence of openly gay British commanders commanding U.S. troops on ships for a period of time where it was known that these people were gay and there were no issues. And so I think that's more evidence that openly gay service works without causing overall disruptions.

GROSS: Well, Nathaniel Frank, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FRANK: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Nathaniel Frank is the chief author of the report "Gays in Foreign Militaries 2010: A Global Primer," which was published by the Palm Center of the University of California-Santa Barbara.

You can find a link to the report and read an excerpt of Frank's book, "Unfriendly Fire," about the impact of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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