US catches up with allies by lifting military gay ban
When President Obama signed a historic law repealing a ban on gays serving openly in the military, the United States was largely catching up with the rest of its Western allies.London -- Clad in his dress uniform with a medal pinned to his chest, James Wharton made history last year when he appeared on the cover of the official British armed forces magazine next to the word "Pride".
Wharton, then a 22-year-old trooper with the Household Cavalry Regiment, was the first openly gay soldier to appear on the front page of Soldier magazine, nearly 10 years after Britain allowed gay men and women to serve in the military without hiding their sexuality.
An Iraq war veteran, Wharton made history again last March when he was married to an air steward in the first same-sex wedding to be held in the regiment's prestigious London barracks.
Asked when he posed for the magazine whether he was accepted by his fellow soldiers, Wharton said: "I would say whoever goes on a tour to a place like Iraq can't really be described as a pansy -- so the gay stereotype doesn't really apply."
When President Barack Obama signed a historic law Wednesday repealing a ban on gays serving openly in the military, the United States was largely catching up with the rest of its Western allies, where gay men and women have been openly serving for years.
Outside the West, however, discrimination remains the norm, with gay soldiers most often hiding their sexuality -- sometimes out of fear for their lives.
In recent years, the British army has even embraced the decision, with advertisements for recruits placed in gay-friendly media and the head of the British army making a historic address to a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender conference.
Most of Washington's NATO allies, including Canada, France and Germany have allowed gays to serve openly in the military for years. Australia also lifted a ban in 1992.
European militaries that allow openly gay soldiers have insisted it has had no effect on military performance. Earlier this year ex-US general John Sheehan was forced to apologise after saying that Dutch UN troops had failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war partly because their ranks included openly gay soldiers.
Rights groups say gay soldiers continue to face some discrimination in Europe. In Germany, where openly gay soldiers were barred from becoming officers until 2000, activists have complained that the partners of gay soldiers cannot obtain the same benefits as heterosexual partners.
In Italy, rights campaigners say that homophobia is widespread in the military and that gay officers do not have the same career opportunities as heterosexual ones. Carlo Giovanardi, a junior minister in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, sparked outrage this month when he spoke out in favour of the US army's ban and likened homosexuality to polygamy.
In much of the rest of the world, gay soldiers have little choice but to remain in the closet.
In Latin America, few countries have legal barriers to gays serving in the military but activists said traditional attitudes and widespread homophobia make it all but impossible for soldiers to be openly homosexual.
In the conservative Middle East, only Israel allows gay soldiers to serve openly.
Beijing has no formal policy about gays serving in the military but homosexuals face crushing social and family pressure to remain in the closet in China, where homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 2001.
Russia also has no official ban, but activists said it is impossible for soldiers to be openly gay in the deeply homophobic country and that most homosexuals are more concerned with staying out of the army.
"In the West gays fight for the right to serve and in Russia they fight for the right not to serve" by asking not to be drafted into the country's conscript army, said gay activist Nikolai Alekseyev.
"Those who are drafted anyway try to conceal it because being gay in the Russian army can be a risk to one's life," he said.
burs-mm/jj / AFP / Expatica