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Successful Open Service Requires Leadership

Allowing open gays in the services will lead to mass resignations, a downturn in recruitment and damage to readiness by destroying unit cohesion. Sound familiar? These were the predictions of disaster by senior members of the military and conservative members of Parliament when the United Kingdom was forced by the European Court to permit open service in 2000. So what happened?

I traveled to London last week at the invitation of the Royal Navy to observe the 5th annual Joint Service Conference on LGBT’s in the Military to find out how things were going. The conference title was “Out and in: Recruiting LGBT personnel in the Armed Services.” To my surprise, I was not the only American observer but was joined by a representative of the Pentagon who was on orders to attend. There were 120 participants in the two-day conference representing all three services (the Royal Marines are part of the Navy). This year the conference was organized by the Navy, so the program reflected the sea services.

Among the many speakers was the Director General Human Resources from the Ministry of Defense, the Service Complaints Commissioner for the Armed Forces and the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Sir Alan Massey.

When not one word was mentioned about resignations by any of these distinguished speakers, I decided to ask around. Not surprisingly, I found out there were no resignations. January 10, 2000, the day the ban was lifted, was called “a non event.”

No discernable impact on retention. The same is true today, nine years later.

What about recruitment? A whole hour was dedicated to discuss the efforts to recruit personnel, especially LGBT young people. Recruiting booths are set up at Pride events. The British military is the largest single employer of LGBT people in the UK (a fact confirmed by the man from the Pentagon). All three services now march in the London Pride Parade in uniform!

Other then meeting the out and proud young professionals who attended the conference, the responses to questions from these service members to VADM Massey were most inspiring. He is the number two officer in the Navy and in charge of Personnel. First, he admitted excluding LGBT citizens from the service had been wrong. He apologized and went on to say, “It is immoral for us not to be representative of the society we are defending.” He continued to say such a discriminatory policy is unsustainable. I think my friend from the Pentagon heard this loud and clear.

And the impact on unit cohesion? Nothing negative. Many of those I met were out on the job and reported no limitation on assignments or promotion. Their units paid for them to attend the conference. They were all fully accepted by their peers and command. Although a few admitted experiencing some bantering, something we would call horse play, they understood that their “mates would only banter with us if they liked us.” There was also a clear procedure in place to report bullying, to us harassment, both up the chain of command and through a parallel civilian structure. It was reported that thus far in 2009 there have been 270 complaints through the civilian structure and only three involved issues around sexual orientation.

Many people I spoke to had served with Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Our soldiers and Marines knew these individuals were gay and had no problem fighting alongside them and even accepting some of them into American units.

It is clear from my discussions with these British service members that this change did not occur in a vacuum. The officials of the government, and particularly the senior officers and noncommissioned officers, exerted leadership to make open service a success.

Our President has stated over and over that he wants DADT repealed, and the Congress is moving to meet the President’s stated position by enacting legislation. All we need is a demonstration of leadership from across the Potomac. If our British cousins are up to the task, shouldn’t we be?