Ten years ago, Great Britain lifted its ban on gay and lesbian people serving in its armed services. This week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered a pointed set of remarks to American lawmakers currently debating an end to DADT, even as U.S. generals testified on Capitol Hill about their reservations with regard to ending the policy.
Speaking Wednesday night at a reception to celebrate LGBT History Month in Britain, Brown directly addressed gay members of the British Army, Navy and Air Force who attended the event in uniform. "You are the pride of our country and we thank you very much," Brown said. Speaking of "a debt of gratitude we can never fully repay," he referred to current events in Washington, D.C.: ”We know this debate continues in America today. I would say to people who still favor ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, look at our experience in Britain."
Clearly, Brown was making his remarks against the backdrop of this week's congressional testimony by the head of the Marine Corps and the Chief of Naval Operations, both of whom broke with Obama administration policy and voiced their resistance to ending DADT. Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway was objecting in particular to discussion in Congress of issuing a moratorium on discharging gay military personnel while congressional panels study the implementation of a repeal of the policy. "There's an expression we have, keep it simple," he said. "I would encourage you either to change the law or not, but in the process half measures, I think, will only be confusing in the end."
Ultimately, however, both Conway and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, who also testified, don't think there's any reason to make the change. "My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary, and to the president would be to keep the law such as it is," Conway said to House members on Tuesday. And on Wednesday he elaborated on these ideas before a Senate committee: "My personal opinion is that unless we can strip away the emotion, the agendas, and the politics and ask, at least in my case, do we somehow enhance the war fighting capabilities of the United States Marine Corps by allowing homosexuals to openly serve? And we haven't addressed it from the correct perspective. And at this point I think that the current policy works."
It was against this backdrop that Brown made his remarks at 10 Downing this week. So, to put it in perspective, what was the effect on the British armed services of dropping that country's gay ban? In short, none. Before the ban was lifted, two-thirds of British service members said they would refuse to serve with gays. Before Canada repealed its ban in 1992, over 60 percent of soldiers said the same. Despite these numbers, follow-up research has shown in both cases that allowing gays and lesbians to serve has had no discernible impact on personnel retention—or recruitment or discipline or performance. And the American military has good reason to know this, given that almost all of the NATO allies allow gays in their militaries. That's not just Great Britain: think Germany, France, Italy, Lithuania, the Czech Republic—in fact, most of the rest of Europe—not to mention Israel, Australia and the Philippines. Many of these are forces currently serving directly alongside American forces in Afghanistan, where U.S. commanders can closely observe the lack of a problem that is having a gay-integrated military.
So when Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this week that further study was needed before any change could be implemented, he neglected the real-world study going on before his eyes. Far better that military chiefs should take a page from Gordon Brown's book: “I promise you that no one need walk the road to equality alone again."