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Learning by example.

A California think tank sets out to end "don't ask, don't tell" by studying Countries that allows gays to openly serve in the military

On May 16, Air Force second lieutenant Christopher Pristera sent a letter to his commander, a lieutenant colonel, that began, "I am a gay man who wants to continue to serve his country honorably and openly. I have made many sacrifices since entering the service and am more than willing to continue making them, but as an honest man instead of as a coward. I can no longer deal with the added stress of having to hide who I am."

The response? Immediate cancellation of Pristera's scheduled promotion to first lieutenant and a move to have him kicked out of the Air Force. "The Air Force taught me its core value, which is integrity first," Pristera says. "But by my displaying integrity first, I had adverse actions taken against me."

The Air Force's reaction to Pristera's letter neatly sums up the U.S. military's aversion to letting gay men and lesbians serve openly in the armed forces. It also explains why Aaron Belkin, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is trying to build a case through academic research against "don't ask, don't tell."

Belkin, who founded the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military in 1999, studies military organizations around the globe that have successfully lifted bans on gay men and lesbians. He and fellow researchers plan to amass enough facts to inform the debate on "don't ask, don't tell." Additionally, he wants to use his data to combat the fears promulgated by U.S. conservatives that ending the policy would lead to the deterioration of military morale, a drop in recruitment levels, an escalation of antigay violence in the ranks, and mass resignations. "[The current policy] is based on a single rationale: that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly undermines unit cohesion and undermines performance," Belkin says. "That is not based on evidence."

In each case where countries had done so, Belkin found that lifting the ban had been a nonevent. He arrived at this conclusion not by amassing statistical evidence but rather through qualitative research. For each country he exhaustively compiled secondary source material such as newspaper articles and scholarly reports written during and after the bans were lifted. He also conducted interviews with military personnel, both officers and common soldiers, gay and straight. "Even though the national cultures are different, we found the same pattern in every military we studied," Belkin says. "In no case has allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly undermined performance."

In the latest study, a September report on Australia, Belkin found that the Australian Defense Forces did not suffer any decline in recruitment levels or problems with retention after lifting its ban in 1992. Gay soldiers and gay commanders, the report points out, were recently able to successfully complete engagements in East Timor alongside their heterosexual counterparts.

In an earlier report on Canada, which also lifted its ban in 1992, Belkin interviewed dozens of members of the Canadian Force, many of whom were self-identified gays, lesbians, or transsexuals. The report says they described "good working relationships with peers in supportive institutional environments where morale and cohesion" were maintained after the ban was lifted. Additionally, not one of the nearly 1,000 assault cases reported in the Canadian military between 1992 and 1995 was classified as a gay bashing or attributed to sexual orientation.

Finally, the report on Israel found that "inclusion of homosexuals in the military had neither created internal problems nor jeopardized combat units" and that awareness of homosexuality was a concern secondary to the rigors of daily military life for combat soldiers.

Not everyone agrees that Belkin's findings are relevant to the United States. Charles Moskos, a sociology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the chief architect of "don't ask, don't tell" for the Clinton administration, says the circumstances in each country are unique. Israel, for example, mandates military service for all men and women, whereas the U.S. military is a volunteer force, so lifting the ban in Israel may make more sense, he says.

However, other conservatives disagree with Moskos. Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1985, says Belkin's work has definite applications to the U.S. military and could be important in shaping future discussions about "don't ask, don't tell," a policy he says he has always opposed. "If you look at these countries, many of them share certain similarities with the U.S. military, and they share a lot of the same beliefs that we do," he says. "When you get involved in these discussions and you don't have data, it all becomes irrational opinions."

Now more than ever, gay men and lesbians who serve in the U.S. military appear to need research like Belkin's. Between 1994 and 1999, discharges under "don't ask, don't tell" increased by 70% to 1,046, according to the Washington, D.C.--based Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which assists personnel targeted under the policy. And contrary to respecting soldiers' privacy, the policy has fostered an atmosphere in which witch-hunts prevail, says Michelle Benecke, SLDN's co--executive director. In fact, violations of "don't ask, don't tell" by command officials have also skyrocketed, from 182 in 1994 to 1,685 in 1999, Benecke says.

Meanwhile, public opinion seems to be changing. A 1999 Gallup Poll showed that 70% of U.S. citizens now support allowing gay men and lesbians to serve in the military, compared with 57% in 1992.

And for people like Second Lieutenant Pristera, who had hoped to make a career of being in the Air Force, a change in the policy can't come too soon. Overturning it "would be a very positive experience for the Air Force," he says. "I am not bad for morale or discipline, and I don't think unit cohesion is affected by my being gay."

Find more on the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at

Quittner also contributes to Business Week and The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 16, 2001
Previous Article:Continental divide.
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