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LGBTQ military service members at higher risk of sexual harassment, assault, stalking

Military leaders and health care providers should be more educated about identifying victimization experiences and providing supports that are inclusive of LGBTQ people who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or stalking. With an increased understanding of those experiences, leaders can pinpoint targets for intervention to help stop sexual violence before it happens.

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A recent study found that LGBTQ service members face an elevated risk of sexual victimization including harassment, assault and stalking while in the military than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.

The study, one of the first funded by the Department of Defense (DND) in the US to look specifically at LGBTQ victimization in the military, aims to inform future polices that will identify vulnerable populations and appropriate interventions to help prevent such experiences going forward.

Previous research has found that experiencing sexual harassment and assault during military service can lead to negative health outcomes including PTSD, depression, substance use and suicidal behavior, all of which are often reported at higher rates among LGBTQ veterans than in the straight cisgender population.

“We’re really trying to understand the experiences and well-being of LGBTQ service members and help the military learn how they can improve those experiences,” said lead author Ashley Schuyler, a Ph.D. student in OSU’S College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Our findings suggest that LGBTQ service members do experience an elevated risk of sexual and stalking victimization, even in this post-‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ era.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was the official US policy on military service by gays, bisexuals and lesbians. The term was coined after former US Pres. Bill Clinton signed a law (consisting of statute, regulations and policy memoranda) directing that military personnel “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, and don’t harass.” When DADT went into effect on October 1, 1993, the policy (in theory) lifted the ban on homosexual service that had been instituted during World War II; but (in effect) it continued a statutory ban.

In December 2010 both the US House of Representatives and Senate voted to repeal the policy, with former US Pres. Barack Obama signing the legislation on December 22. The policy officially ended on September 20, 2011.

Published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the newer study surveyed 544 active-duty service members, ages 18-54, including about 41% who identified as LGBTQ and roughly 10% who identified as trans or gender-nonconforming.

DADT, the law that barred openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the military, was repealed in 2011, but “it seems like some of those effects could linger, including sexual prejudice and discrimination, which may elevate victimization risk,” Schuyler said.

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The researchers considered that the culture of the military, with a high value placed on “masculine” ideals such as dominance, aggression and self-sufficiency, may compel some individuals to act out toward people they see as weaker to prove their masculinity to others.

That environment may explain a disparity between men and women in the study: Female service members were more likely to experience sexual harassment than male service members, but the risk of harassment did not increase among women who identified as lesbian or bisexual. Among male service members, however, gay and bisexual men were significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment than straight men.

“Our conclusion was that female service members have such an elevated risk of sexual harassment in general, that being bi or lesbian doesn’t increase that risk,” Schuyler said.

Among all service members in the sample, those identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual had an increased risk of sexual harassment, stalking and sexual assault compared to heterosexual service members.

More research is needed on how stalking manifests in the military, Schuyler said. It may look different on board a ship with service members confined in close quarters for months at a time, for example.

“Something the military has started to acknowledge is this idea of a continuum of harm, where if you experience sexual harassment or gender discrimination behaviors, you’re at higher risk of more severe encounters down the road, like assault,” she said. “We’re trying to understand where stalking fits into that spectrum of experiences, so we can intervene to help people who we know experience harassment or stalking and prevent potential assault in the future.”

The researchers recommend further investigation into victimization in the military, especially as the policies governing LGBTQ service continue to change. Such research was not possible during the DADT era.

The Philippines is no better than the US, of course.

For instance, as noted by a UNDP report, in 2009, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) stated that the Philippines has zero tolerance for discrimination within the military ranks. Nonetheless, the AFP Code of Ethics has provisions that can be used to discriminate against lesbian and gay members of the military. An example is Article 5 (Military Professionalism) Section 4.3 (Unethical Acts) of the AFP Code of Ethics, which states:

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Military personnel shall likewise be recommended for discharge/separation for reason of unsuitability due to all acts or omissions which deviate from established and accepted ethical and moral standards of behavior and performance as set forth in the AFP Code of Ethics. The following are examples: Fornication, Adultery, Concubinage, Homosexuality, Lesbianism, and Pedophilia.

Meanwhile, the Philippine National Police (PNP) also stated that it does not oppose members of the LGBTQIA community from becoming law enforcers, even if there is still a need to cite the biological gender of the applicants in the application forms.

Schuyler said they’d like to see military leaders and health care providers be more educated about identifying victimization experiences and providing supports that are inclusive of LGBTQ people who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or stalking. With an increased understanding of those experiences, leaders can pinpoint targets for intervention to help stop sexual violence before it happens.

Co-authors on the study were Cary Klemmer, Mary Mamey, Sheree Schrager, Jeremy Goldbach, Ian Holloway and Carl Castro from the University of Southern California.


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