'Don't ask, don't tell' survey shows ambivalence to gays in the military

The Pentagon's report on 'don't ask, don't tell' suggests that the ban on openly gay members can be repealed safely. But significant resistance remains in some quarters, including the Marines.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (l.) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen hold a media briefing at the Pentagon in Washington Tuesday.

The results of the Pentagon’s highly anticipated "don’t ask, don’t tell" survey, released Tuesday, confirmed what many suspected based on earlier Pentagon leaks: that within most of the US military, repeal of the ban on openly gay service members serving “would not be the wrenching dramatic change that many have feared and predicted,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

Mr. Gates urged Congress to pass the repeal before the US courts do it “by judicial fiat,” an event that Gates called “my greatest fear.”

In a briefing Tuesday afternoon, Gates also told reporters that he believes repealing the ban is the right thing to do. “One of the things that is most important to me is personal integrity,” Gates said. “And a policy or a law that in effect requires people to lie gives me a problem.”

More than two-thirds of troops surveyed – in what senior Pentagon officials called the largest, most comprehensive review of a policy matter that the military has ever conducted – said they would not object to gays and lesbians serving openly in uniform. Half of US troops think a repeal of the policy will have mixed or no effect, while another 15 to 20 percent said that the repeal’s effect would be “positive,” according to the survey.

Now Gates and the military’s top officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen – who has also expressed his personal support for the repeal – must defend the survey when they testify Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where they are likely to face tough questions from Republican lawmakers.

Did the survey ask the right question?

Sen. John McCain, the committee’s ranking member, has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the study. He has complained, in comments likely to foreshadow the line of questioning Pentagon officials will face later this week, that the survey explored the question of “how” to implement the repeal, rather than “whether” the repeal should be implemented in the first place.

Gates pushed back on Sen. McCain’s criticisms Tuesday. “I obviously have a lot of admiration and respect for Senator McCain. But in this respect I think he’s mistaken. This report does provide a sound basis for making decisions on this law.”

The study’s authors, Gen. Carter Ham, who now heads the US European Command, and Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, also sought to head off this criticism with a new argument that they introduced during briefings Tuesday, and that Mullen and Gates will likely emphasize in their congressional testimony later this week.

True, the survey did not ask whether the repeal should move forward, they acknowledged. That “would in effect, have been a referendum, and it is not the Department of Defense’s practice to make military policy decisions by a referendum to service members,” the authors noted.

Gates emphasized this point during the press briefing, too. “The very idea of asking the force to vote” in such a matter, he said “is antithetical” to the armed forces and would have been “without precedent in the long history of our military.”

That said, the study noted that “if the impact of repeal was predominantly negative, that would have revealed itself in the course of our review.” That, General Ham and Mr. Johnson said, did not happen. “We are both convinced that our military can do this, even during this time of war.”

Reservations among some troops

Not everyone was sanguine about serving with openly gay troops. Critics will be closely watching Friday morning when the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines also go before Congress. The Marine Corps chief, Gen. James Amos, has expressed qualms with lifting the ban, as have troops throughout the various branches of the military.

“To be sure, these survey results reveal a significant minority – around 30 percent overall” who believe that there would be negative effects of repealing DADT, according to the survey. That number was higher among Marines, at 43 percent overall.

The vast majority, 70 percent of US troops, predicted that having a gay or lesbian service member in their unit would have a “positive, mixed, or no effect” on the unit’s ability to “work together to get the job done.”

An equal number of service members reported that they had worked in a unit with a coworker they believed to be homosexual. In those cases, 92 percent said that the unit’s “ability to work together” was “very good, good, or neither good nor poor.”

Despite the earlier leaks, there were some surprises in the study, which took a strong stand against separate bathroom facilities for gay troops, for example. Not only would they be “a logistical nightmare, expensive, and impossible to administer,” these facilities would also “stigmatize gay and lesbian service members in a manner reminiscent of ‘Separate but Equal’ facilities for blacks prior to the 1960s.”

The study delved into the logistics of benefits, and recommended, in the words of Johnson, that those who are “not in a federally recognized marriage should be treated as single” for the purposes of benefits for the time being.

How soon any repeal could be implemented remains an open question. “The answer is not fast, but not drawn-out either,” Johnson said. President Obama will be watching carefully,” Gates added, in the event the repeal is implemented to “ensure that we don’t dawdle – or try to slow-roll this.”

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