In March 2015, in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and in accordance with amendments to laws on military obligation, 3500 young people were drafted into compulsory military service. National LGBT* rights organization LGL received a number of inquiries regarding gay and transgender eligibility for service, submitted by those fearing potential discrimination in the military.
According to Eurobarometer’s most recent survey data, 44% of Lithuanians would feel uncomfortable having to work with a lesbian, gay or bisexual colleague, while 49% would be uncomfortable working with a transgender person. A study presented in 2013 by the Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of Lithuania found that service members in the Lithuanian army were even less tolerant of gay people than Lithuanians as a whole. The number of respondents who would not want gay coworkers increases from 44% among the general population, to 70% in the military. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that prevailing intolerant attitudes in the military cause LGBT* people considering service to fear discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Discrimination Left Unaddressed
In April 2015, LGL appealed to the Ministry of National Defense requesting information on what the Ministry is doing to ensure the protection of persons in compulsory military service from violence and all forms of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. In their letter, the organization emphasized that an individual’s sexual orientation, if it became known to other service members, could bring social difficulties or leave them open to mockery, harassment or defamation. LGL noted that the wording of the Code of Conduct for Lithuanian Service Members did not guarantee protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, putting LGBT* individuals in a more vulnerable and disadvantaged position than other service members.
The Ministry of National Defense responded that the wording of the Code of Conduct for Lithuanian Service Members “fully defends the service member’s human dignity and private life, guarantees protection against all discrimination (thereby including discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity) during compulsory military service, and obliges persons working in the national defense system to ensure compliance with legal acts, with procedures established in the Disciplinary Statute taken in cases of non-compliance.”
Although the Equal Opportunity Ombudsperson, having received a complaint that the Code of Conduct for Lithuanian Service Members did not provide protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, had already recommended in 2011 that the Ministry of National Defense more clearly define its non-discrimination principles, the Ministry did not address the need to include sexual orientation and gender identity among grounds for protection against discrimination when it replied to LGL’s inquiry.
Gay People “Unfit” for Service?
In spring of 2015, an LGBT* community symbol – the rainbow flag – was used to illustrate an editorial about propaganda in the military magazine “Karys”. Two illustrations accompanied the article “A Brief Propagandist’s Primer” about the impact of propagandistic information warfare on people: one depiction of a Soviet people’s parade, and the other, of a LGBT* pride march. Darius Varanavičius, the magazine’s editor, argued that the article didn’t contain a single word about LGBT* people, therefore the illustration comparing these marches should be interpreted as “dark opportunities for propaganda, in which there are no taboos”.
In February 2015, the online portal “Klaipėdos diena” published the article “No gays in the Lithuanian military”, in which conscripts told stories of showing up to interviews to be surprised by psychoanalytical questions about flowers and the desire to be a woman. When journalists looked into whether the military is actually filtering out gay service members, Kęstutis Ramanauskas, a psychiatrist with multiple decades of experience at Klaipėda’s recruitment center, confirmed that this is exactly the case. When asked where the problem is with LGBT* individuals, the psychiatrist said that they are unfit for military service. “That’s why I write them off. Although it’s said that it isn’t a disease, it certainly is. Psychosocial disorders are not an orientation. Though others may think differently. Either way, such a person would be subject to bullying in the military and wouldn’t be able to serve the full nine months,” said psychiatrist K. Ramanauskas.
Dr. Adriana Vinklerytė, Deputy Head of the military medical examination commission at J. Basanavičius Military Medical Service, maintained that homosexuality is not a disease. However, the specialist also emphasized that “if a person has identified adult behavior and personality disorders which, according to international classification, include gender identity disorder and paraphilias [author’s emphasis] among other disorders, a person may be deemed unfit for military service, just as they would be for other mental and behavioral disorders.”
The news portal’s uncovering of these discriminatory selection procedures in the Lithuanian military prompted media attention, as well as that of Minister of National Defense Juozas Olekas. The politician said that national law contains “no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” “Heterosexuals and homosexuals can serve in the military, we do not exclude anyone fit to serve in the Lithuanian Armed Forces on such a principle (sexual orientation),” Olekas assured journalists gathered in Parliament.
Unexpected Change of Opinion
A few months later in 2015, still not having reviewed measures in the Code of Conduct for Lithuanian Service Members to ensure protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, the Ministry of National Defense unexpectedly changed its position. In August, Minister of National Defense Juozas Olekas established a special law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Code of Conduct for Lithuanian Service Members.
The Code of Conduct currently in effect states that service members, when carrying out their duties, must “respect and protect the dignity and fundamental rights and freedoms of every person regardless of their gender, race, nationality, language, origin, social status, belief, convictions and views, age, sexual orientation [author’s emphasis], disability, ethnicity or religion.” The Code also imposes an obligation on service members “not to restrict another’s rights and not to grant privileges on the grounds of gender, race, nationality, language, origin, social status, belief, convictions and views, age, sexual orientation [author’s emphasis], disability, ethnicity or religion.”
When LGL inquired about the circumstances that prompted the Ministry of National Defense to change its position on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in military service, the Ministry declined to comment. The question also remains why the Code of Ethics still does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender identity, leaving transgender service members with no recourse in the event of discrimination.
Looking East, or West?
Although many Western countries have now long allowed LGBT* individuals to speak openly about their sexual orientation while serving in the armed forces, the military still remains one of the most conservative institutions in any country. According to The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies’ index of conditions for LGBT* people in the military, 49 countries currently allow openly LGB people to serve in the armed forces, while 17 (including Estonia) allow transgender people to carry out military service without restrictions.
However, formal legal measures do not in any way guarantee that LGBT* service members will not be subjected to discrimination. 2,500 American troops are likely to be discharged following US President Donald Trump’s declaration via Twitter that transgender persons would be barred from serving “in any capacity” due to “tremendous medical costs and disruption” incurred by their service.
After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
….Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming….. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
In 2011, US President Barack Obama ended the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which allowed LGB people to serve in the military so long as their sexual orientation remained secret. Belarus currently takes a similar approach.
No Gay Service Members in Belarus?
The Belarusian Ministry of Defense does not recognize the World Health Organization’s finding that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. The Belarusian armed forces, much like the country’s larger society, are dominated by intolerance, violence and aggression against LGBT* people. For these reasons, gay people can serve in the military only under the condition that they hide their sexual orientation.
Oleg Rozhkov, of the Belarusian organization “Journalists for tolerance”, confirms that homosexuality remains taboo in the armed forces. Due to the prevalence of the now-disproven belief that homosexuality is a “mental disorder”, gay individuals hide their sexual orientation. Those who speak openly about their sexual identity are likely to face violence, harassment and aggression.
One Belarusian human rights activist says that if a young man conscripting in the army is “suspected” of homosexuality, he may be referred for a psychiatric examination and found “unfit to serve”.
“The Belarusian armed forces have adopted internal recommendations for the exclusion of gay service members. Official complaints about discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation just don’t occur because gay service members wishing to remain in service are forced to hide their orientation,” Rozhkov elaborated.
This article is produced and published with the support of the Nordic Council of Ministers, under the project “Sharing Expertise and Fostering LGBT Human Rights in Belarus”.