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Message to gay soldiers: It's your army too

As the U.S. military prepares for the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT), policymakers are looking to other military bodies around the world that have successfully integrated gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) soldiers into military service. Now a new study from Tel Aviv University suggests that an integrated support and education dimension is essential to the successful assimilation of these soldiers into the U.S. armed forces.

Dr. Guy Shilo of TAU's Bob Shapell School of Social Work has completed the only quantitative study detailing the LGB experience in the military. While the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) technically maintain an open-door policy to service by LGB soldiers, soldiers continue to experience anxiety and harassment surrounding their sexual orientation, Dr. Shilo found. The best solution is an educational system for all service people across the military spectrum, he concludes.

Dr. Shilo's original research was contained in a report to the Pentagon about the repeal of DADT. This year's study, a follow-up to Dr. Shilo's 2006 report on the situation of LGB soldiers in the IDF, was commissioned by and presented to the Israeli Gay Youth Organization.

Harassment in the field

Until the 1990's, outwardly gay soldiers were subject to several restrictions on their military service in Israel. They were frequently discharged from service, prohibited from serving in high security positions, or sent to mental health officers to determine their fitness to serve, Dr. Shilo explains. And while such official restrictions have since been abolished, LGB soldiers still report that they are treated with intolerance.

After hearing word of continued harassment and stress in openly-gay soldiers, Dr. Shilo and his fellow researchers developed a quantitative study, designed to survey the experience of LGB soldiers. They used the same parameters as those defined for female soldiers in the military and sexual minorities in other populations, such as at school and work. The criteria included verbal, sexual and physical harassment. Questionnaires were administered in person and online, and participants included LGB soldiers from a wide variety of positions including combat, intelligence and administrative staff.

Most participants reported experiencing verbal abuse, either indirect or specific. There were also reports of physical and sexual abuse based on sexual orientation. Many participants claimed that while they had already come out to family and friends in their civilian life, fear of discrimination pushed them back into the closet in their military lives. Leading this double existence can create massive strain, Dr. Shilo explains.

After first presenting the IDF with the statistics in 2006, this year's follow-up revealed that despite the military's now official support of LGB soldiers, there has been very little change in the field harassment and stress levels remain high. "Despite the publicity of the research, there was little change," Dr. Shilo says. The military environment is one of "macho" attitudes and strict hierarchy, he adds. This environment has a negative impact on the LGB experience.

Sending a positive message to LGB soldiers

In the quest to repeal DADT, the American military has much to learn from the IDF's experiences, says Dr. Shilo. The successful repeal of DADT depends not only on a change of policy, but a correction of perception, attitude, and behavior towards openly gay service people. "Most debate on repealing DADT revolves around its predicted impact on military performance and the cohesion of individual units," he says. "But it is imperative to think about the impact on LGB soldiers themselves, and to ensure that they have equal opportunities." Moving forward, American officials should never underestimate the power of education, he counsels.

The IDF offers optional sensitivity training geared towards sexual orientation, but this has had little effect. The training should be mandatory, much like sensitivity training towards religious or racial minorities and female soldiers, Dr. Shilo suggests. And if commanders are going to ask soldiers about their sexual orientation, the soldiers must feel confident that the information will be used to ensure their safety rather than expose them to harm and harrassment.

In Europe, says Dr. Shilo, some militaries actively recruit for new soldiers among the LGB community. The Netherlands, for example, runs an advertising campaign dedicated to attracting LGB youth by highlighting their equal capabilities in a military setting. This kind of campaign forces an about-face in terms of the message it sends to potential LGB recruits, he explains. The message is not, "You can serve in our army." Instead, it should be translated into the more positive "It's your army too."


Contact: George Hunka
American Friends of Tel Aviv University

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