NEW YORK — When it comes to dealing with gay personnel in the ranks, the contrasts are stark among some of the world's proudest, toughest militaries — and these differing approaches are invoked by both sides as Americans renew debate over the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
In the United States, more than 12,000 service members — including dozens of highly trained Arabic linguists — have been dismissed since 1994 because it became known they were gay. Current targets for discharge include a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran, Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi, and a veteran of combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach.
In Britain, on the other hand, gay and lesbian service members marched in crisp uniforms in the annual Pride London parade July 4. Gay Australian soldiers and sailors had their own float in Sydney's Gay Mardi Gras parade. In Israel, the army magazine earlier this year featured two male soldiers on the cover, hugging one another.
America's "don't ask, don't tell" policy — which prohibits gays from serving openly in the armed forces — is the target of intensifying opposition, and President Barack Obama says he favors lifting the ban. But he wants to win over skeptics in Congress and the Pentagon, and a fierce debate lies ahead that will inevitably touch on the experiences of allied nations that have no bans.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress, has just launched a campaign for a bill to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." He observed British troops in Iraq operating smoothly with a serve-openly policy and bristles at the contention that America's armed forces would suffer morale and recruiting problems if they followed suit.
"I take it as a personal affront to our warriors," said the Pennsylvania Democrat. "To say that other countries' soldiers are professional enough to handle this and American soldiers aren't is really a slap in the face."
Those seeking to preserve the U.S. ban question whether the allies' experiences have been as smooth as advertised and depict America's military as so unique that lessons from overseas should be ignored anyway.
"We are the military leaders in the world — everybody wants to be like us," said Brian Jones, a retired sergeant major who served in the Army Rangers. "Why in the world would we try to adjust our military model to be like them?"
With such polarized views as a backdrop, Associated Press reporters took an in-depth look at how the militaries of Israel, Britain and Australia have managed with serve-openly policies, and they interviewed partisans on both sides of the debate in the United States about the relevance of those experiences.
A nation in a constant state of combat readiness, Israel has had no restrictions on military service by gays since 1993 — a policy now considered thoroughly uncontroversial.
Gays were permitted to serve even before then, but not in certain intelligence positions where, at the time, they were deemed possible security risks vulnerable to blackmail. Now, gays and lesbians — among them several senior officers — serve in all branches of the military, including combat duty.
"In this regard, Israel has one of the most liberal armies in the world," said Yagil Levy, a sociologist from the Open University of Israel.
The army recognizes the partners of gay officers as their bereaved next-of-kin after their deaths, eligible for benefits. Gay officers at promotions and other ceremonies often have their partners by their sides.
Maj. Yoni Schoenfeld, a gay officer who is the editor of the military magazine, Bamahane, said there was very little friction in the ranks related to gay soldiers.
He served as a combat soldier and as commander of a paratrooper company and said his sexual orientation — though known to fellow soldiers — was never an issue. Gay jokes would sometimes surface, usually not malicious, he said, while receptiveness to gays in combat units could vary.
"If you're gay and live in the 'manly' world, there are no problems," he said. "Those who are more feminine in their speech and appearance have a harder time fitting in."
He sympathized with gays in the U.S. military who don't enjoy the same liberty he did.
"There shouldn't be a problem with it," he said. "It's the nature of man, and when you allow it to happen (serving openly), it's not a problem anymore."
Schoenfeld's magazine has reflected the evolving attitudes. In 2001, it was shut down briefly after featuring an interview with a retired colonel who had come out of the closet. Yet this year, there was no adverse reaction to the cover picture of two male soldiers embracing.
A gay magazine, meanwhile, named a major as its "man of the year" a few years ago; he continues to serve without harm to his career.
The military also provided the backdrop for Israel's precursor to "Brokeback Mountain" — the 2002 movie "Yossi & Jagger" about two Israeli combat soldiers who fall in love on the front lines. It was a hit with critics and the public and was even screened on military bases.
Back in 1992, Anita Van Der Meer was threatened with discharge from the Australian navy for being a lesbian. She denied the charge to save her job — and later that year the military's ban on gays and lesbians was lifted.
This spring, Van Der Meer marched proudly with more than 100 other service members in Sydney's annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade under an Australian Defense Force banner. Even a general joined the march.
Now a chief petty officer, Van Der Meer was a junior sailor in 1992 when someone reported she was engaged in a same-sex relationship.
"It was very traumatic for me, but I still had the cooperation of my supervisors and my peers," said Van Der Meer, 41. "In the end, I had more support than I expected."
Chief Petty Officer Stuart O'Brien, who joined the navy 19 years ago, said being openly gay has not been an issue, even when working alongside U.S. military personnel in Baghdad in 2006.
"They valued the work that I did and that's all that it comes down to at the end of the day," O'Brien said. "Sexuality has nothing to do with anything any more within the services."
The lifting of the ban on gays was preceded by years of heated debate, yet the change itself was relatively uneventful aside from a few unexpected coming-outs of high-profile commanders.
"Everyone said, 'Good heavens, that's a bit of a surprise' and after five minutes the conversation reverted back to football," said Neil James of the Australian Defense Association, a security think tank. "After a while it was met with a collective yawn."
Among opponents of the change at the time was Australia's main veterans group, the Returned and Services League, which has now withdrawn its objections.
The league's president, retired Maj. Gen. Bill Crews, said concerns about lowered morale and HIV transmission on the battlefield had proved ill-founded.
"I was there in the early days of it. ... I thought there'd be a continuing problem because of prejudice that exists in parts of the community," Crews said. "I don't see any evidence now that homosexuals are in any way discriminated against. ...A homosexual can be just as effective a soldier as a heterosexual."
Some skepticism lingers, however.
Brig. Jim Wallace, who commanded an elite Special Air Service mechanized brigade until retiring in 2000, argues that gays and women should be barred from combat roles.
"Do you want an army which is already likely to be outnumbered wherever it fights to be fighting at its most effective or its least effective?" Wallace asks. "If you want to sacrifice fighting effectiveness for political correctness, then all right, go ahead."
He referred to the traditional 10-soldier units commonly deployed in Australian combat forces.
"Now if you introduce into that 10 men a love or lust relationship, you immediately damage the phenomenon of mateship," he said. "There is some discrimination that has to be done to maintain the effectiveness of society or the effectiveness of fighting units."
British policymakers had been wrestling for years with whether to scrap a long-standing ban on gays in the military — but the pivotal decision was made abroad, by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
The court ruled in 1999 that Britain had violated the rights of four former service members who were dismissed from the military for being gay.
King's College professor Christopher Dandeker said there had been significant opposition to the change among military officers. There were predictions — not borne out — that unit cohesion would suffer and that large numbers of personnel would leave the military if gays could serve.
Once the ban was lifted, Dandeker said, the opposition dwindled, and the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair embraced the chance to be seen as a beacon of tolerance.
Lord Alan West, former head of the Royal Navy and now Britain's terrorism minister, served before and after the ban was lifted.
"It's much better where we are now," West said in an interview at the House of Lords. "For countries that don't do that — I don't believe it's got anything to do with how efficient or capable their forces will be. It's to do with other prejudices, I'm afraid."
As for Britain's trans-Atlantic ally: "I think the Americans really need to make the move," West said.
Peter Tatchell, a London-based gay-rights activist often critical of the government, praises the military's handling of the change.
"Since the ban has been lifted, there hasn't been a word of complaint from senior military staff," he said. "They've said that having gay and lesbian people in the services has had no damaging effect at all."
Mandy McBain joined the Royal Navy at age 19 in 1986, at the most junior rank possible. Now a lieutenant commander, she remembers what it was like to serve when being a lesbian had to be a secret.
"It's exhausting," she said. "It's quite incredible to look back and see how much time and energy I spent leading a double life."
In one past assignment, she processed the paperwork of comrades being dismissed because of their sexuality. "That," she said quietly, "I found very difficult."
Military expert Amyas Godfrey of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, was serving with the British Army in Northern Ireland when the policy changed.
"I remember our commanding officer at the time called the entire battalion together and said, 'This is how it is going to be now. We are not going to discriminate. We are not going to bully. If someone in your group says that he is gay, you treat them as normal,'" Godfrey recalled.
"And that, really, was the implementation of it. For all the years I served after that, it was never an issue."
For those in the U.S. military community who oppose letting gays serve openly, there's a widely shared sentiment that America has nothing to learn from the roughly two-dozen nations that have no bans.
"Who's the only superpower military out there?" argued Maj. Brian Maue, a professor at the Air Force Academy, in a debate in June at the McCormick Freedom Museum in Chicago. "This is hardly convincing to say, 'Ah, the others are doing it. We should too.'"
Maue — who says he's been speaking out on his own, not as a military spokesman — suggests that repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would prompt straight service members to complain of privacy violations and "dignity infractions."
"An openly gay military would be the heterosexual equivalent to forcing women to constantly share bathrooms, locker rooms and bedrooms with men," he wrote in a New York Times online forum.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, another supporter of the ban, contends that some field commanders in nations that allow gays to serve openly have resorted to "tacit discrimination" — excluding them from front-line units for fear that problems would surface in rugged, close-quarters living conditions.
Maginnis also cited America's multiple overseas missions.
"You have a large part of the world with no tolerance for open homosexuality, and if we were to deploy there, it would be a serious problem," he said.
Repealing the ban would trigger the departure of some career service members who object to homosexuality and deter some people from enlisting, said Maginnis. "It doesn't matter what general population thinks — it's what the young people who have a propensity to enlist think."
Prominent advocates of open service for gays and lesbians acknowledge there would be some hitches, but they predict the overall change would be smooth and professional.
"There's been very little trouble in the nations that lifted their ban on gays," said professor David Segal, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization. "My guess is there will be slightly more in the U.S. — we have a somewhat higher level of intolerance."
However, Segal doubted the change would spur a large exodus from the military or hamper recruitment.
"There will be some gay bashing at the unit level, and that will be a problem in the short run for NCOs and junior officers," he said. "But they will deal with it, just as they dealt with racial integration and gender integration."
Nathaniel Frank, a research fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara's Palm Center and author of a book on "don't ask, don't tell," says his studies of allied nations suggest that lifting the ban in the U.S. would not impair overall military effectiveness.
"There will be some forms of de facto discrimination and prejudice — a policy change is not going to wipe that out of people's hearts and minds overnight," he said. "But more and more people in the military are seeing it doesn't serve them to have this policy in place."
There's no question, Frank said, that the U.S. military is unique — the most powerful in the world. But he said it should be embarrassing that "our allies can tell the truth about gay soldiers, and the U.S. stands with China, Iran, North Korea among the nations that can't."
The key to a smooth transition, Frank added, is emphatic direction from top commanders and the adoption of a code of conduct that would deter disciplinary problems by spelling out unacceptable behavior.
Dan Choi, the gay lieutenant facing dismissal from the Army, says the current "don't ask" policy is disruptive — forcing the gays who are serving to be furtive and dishonest.
"Closeting is what causes instability," he said. "It's the most toxic poison."
As for the U.S. being different from its allies, Choi agrees.
"We are exceptional — because we take the lead on things," he said. "To me, it's an insult to the idea of American exceptionalism to say we're somehow scared of gays."