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Military Culture: European  
 
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Attitudes and policies toward homosexuality and gay and lesbian personnel in European militaries vary widely. Several countries allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly and have granted them the same rights and privileges as their heterosexual counterparts. Other countries neither ban nor support gay and lesbian service members, and a small group continue to ban homosexual personnel outright.

The countries that have become most tolerant of homosexuality include the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway. The most restrictive include Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Countries such as Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany lie somewhere in between on the spectrum of acceptance of homosexuality in their respective military cultures.

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Great Britain is a unique case. In 2000, it lifted its long-standing ban on gay and lesbian service members, falling into line with the other Northern European countries. Yet many scholars and military officials have long characterized the British military as inhospitable to sexual minorities.

Both the British and Dutch militaries have received much critical and scholarly attention--the first for its recent and somewhat surprising decision to lift its ban, and the second for its thirty-year history of allowing openly gay and lesbian personnel to serve in its military.

Even though these countries do not represent the experiences or attitudes of all European militaries, they do suggest a trend toward ever greater integration of homosexuals in the military.

Countries that Ban Homosexuals

Greece, Turkey, and Italy explicitly ban military service by gay men and lesbians, yet each country does so for subtly different reasons. Tellingly, in each of these countries, the larger culture has yet to accept homosexuality fully.

In Italy, gay men are currently exempted from military service. Prior to 1985, the military considered homosexuality a crime and punished those who committed homosexual acts. In 1985, the law changed, and the military began to classify homosexuality as a disease or condition and to exempt gay men and lesbians from military service on those grounds.

In modern Greece, homosexuality is not culturally accepted, and its military does not tolerate openly gay personnel. Greek law explicitly bans homosexuals from serving openly, and there has been little public discussion about changing this law.

Similarly, Turkish culture is not accepting of homosexuality. Officially, the Turkish military views gay men and lesbians as threats to the armed forces and discharges them for indecency if they are discovered.

Countries with Laissez-faire Homosexual Policies

Scholars describe France and Belgium as countries that have adopted laissez-faire approaches to homosexual personnel. That is, they do not officially exclude them, but they also do not explicitly guarantee their right to serve.

In Belgium, the military accepts gay men and lesbians into service. However, if the behavior of an individual who is gay or lesbian causes problems, that individual is subject to discipline or discharge. In some cases, homosexual personnel have been transferred from their unit if they have been too open with their sexuality.

The Belgian military also continues to reserve the right to deny gay and lesbian personnel high-level security clearances, for fear they may be susceptible to blackmail.

In France, indifference characterizes the official attitude towards homosexuals in the military. Although homosexuals are not banned from French military service, it is recognized that they may face greater challenges than their heterosexual counterparts. Thus, they are allowed to opt out of military service if they wish by declaring themselves unfit because of their sexual orientation.

Commanders and psychiatrists can also discharge gay and lesbian personnel if they feel they are disrupting their units and cannot fit in.

Full Tolerance of Gay and Lesbian Personnel

The Netherlands is the most tolerant of homosexuality of the European militaries. It has integrated gays and lesbians more fully than any other country. Yet Dutch scholars and activists continue to call for even greater efforts to remedy the subtle problems that remain.

Since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, the Netherlands has been known for its general cultural tolerance of homosexuality, which has in turn influenced the military's policy on gays and lesbians.

Marion Anderson-Boers and Jan van der Meulen report that since the 1980s the Dutch people have largely come to a consensus on the issue of homosexuality. They note that polls have repeatedly shown that more than 90 percent of the public agree with the statement, "Homosexuals should have as much freedom as possible to lead their own lives."

The only exception to Dutch tolerance has been on the issue of gay adoption. In 1994, 53% of the population believed that gay and lesbian couples should not be able to adopt.

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