Three out members of Sweden’s armed forces visit Washington
For 26-year-old 1st Lt. Ulrika Hansson, joining the military had been a dream since she was a little girl. As a Swedish citizen, the fact that she is also a lesbian was never really an impediment to her service. Her country’s ban on gays and lesbians openly serving in the armed forces was lifted in 1979.
“I’m out to my commander and most of my colleagues, and I’ve never had a problem.” Hansson said during an interview in Washington, D.C.
Hansson, Capt. Krister Fahlstedt, and Military Intelligence Analyst Leif Ohlson were in Washington last week as part of a fact-finding tour on how the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy might impact Swedish troops serving alongside American forces.
Currently, Swedish and American forces jointly operate in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Korea, as well as in combined training exercises in other parts of the world.
Their trip culminated in an information-sharing stop at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a group advocating for DADT’s overturn.
“The U.S. is increasingly isolated in its policy on gays in the military,” said C. Dixon Osburn, SLDN’s executive director. “We’re one of just a handful of countries that continues to ban gays in the military. Yet, we’re serving next to our allies who allow them to serve openly.”
This was not the first meeting between gay members of the Swedish military and SLDN. In 2002, Ohlson, who is also head of HoF, the Swedish organization for gay and lesbian service members, contacted SLDN about exchanging information regarding the contrasting policies toward gay soldiers in the American and Swedish armed forces. Ohlson and Osburn have spoken together on panels at meetings about gay service members, and last year SLDN’s law and policy director, Sharra Greer, attended Stockholm’s Gay Pride at HoF’s invitation.
The practical upshot of this partnership is that SLDN has gathered valuable information to bolster the two avenues it is pursuing in getting the ban repealed.
Last December, SLDN filed suit in federal court on behalf of 12 former service members discharged from the U.S. military for being gay.
“We will present to that court information about the experiences of our allies so that the court will understand that all arguments our government puts forward supporting the ban just are not true,” said Osburn.
Also, as part of the lobbying process for the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a bill to overturn the U.S. military’s gay ban, introduced in March by Rep. Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, SLDN presents to lawmakers a fact sheet on the number of U.S. allies that have lifted their ban and also currently serve with American troops. The purpose is to demonstrate that gay soldiers can and have operated with the U.S. military and have not undermined its capabilities.
Dozens of foreign armies allow open service by gays and lesbians. This includes every member of NATO, except for Turkey and the U.S. Osburn pointed out that if and when Turkey joins the European Union, it will be required to remove its ban on gay service members.
A surprising fact SLDN learned from America’s allies is that the ban’s overturn will not suddenly make the armed forces a more gay-friendly place, nor will gay service members rush to out themselves to their commanders and colleagues.
“People are very careful to whom they come out to,” Osburn said. “Obviously, you’re not going to tell someone who’s going to make your life hell. The fear in America is that if you lift the ban, the closet doors swing wide open and a flood of people come out won’t be the reality.”
This has been the experience of the Swedish military.
“We lifted the ban in 1979 in Sweden and about 70 percent of gays and lesbians within the armed forces do not feel of safe enough to be open with their sexual orientation,” Fahlstedt explained.
In other words, unit cohesion, that shibboleth of those opposed to openly gay soldiers, is less at risk than some might assume. Individual gays and lesbians only reveal themselves when they feel their presence will not disturb other service members.
As Hansson put it, “I can count on one hand the number of open lesbians in the Swedish military.”
However, her military is so concerned that more of its soldiers have not come out that as part of an education project, “All Clear,” launched in conjunction with the Church of Sweden and the Swedish National Police Board, it is trying to improve the working conditions for gay members in each of these institutions.
“There is still everyday homophobia in our armed forces, but it’s more the result of ignorance rather than anything else,” Fahlstedt said. “And we have made great progress in the last three to four years.”
That progress has come not only through awareness programs, and soldiers like Fahlstedt, Hansson and Ohlson coming out, but also from actions such a pledge made by the Swedish military’s supreme commander that he fully supports gay service members.
Fahlstedt said his country’s progressive attitude is also the result of a long tradition in Sweden of standing up for human rights.
“The purpose of our armed forces is to defend democracy and human rights, and therefore it is essential to stand up for basic human rights within the organization as well,” Fahstedt said. “This way of arguing has been quite successful.”
And although Hansson, Ohlson and Fahlstedt said they were not in the U.S. to criticize DADT, they did have a message.
“It works to be openly gay in the armed forces,” Ohlson explained. “If you are doing your job well, sexual orientation makes no difference between a good officer and a bad officer.”