December 20, 2006
In an interview with the Washington Post yesterday, President Bush disclosed his plans to increase the US military’s troop strength “to meet the challenges of a long-term global struggle against terrorists.”
In light of this proposal, it’s appropriate to ask (yet again) whether excluding sexual minorities from the US armed forces makes any sense.
The Pentagon has repeatedly predicted that the presence of openly gay and lesbian personnel would reduce the military’s morale and effectiveness and would deter heterosexuals from enlisting. As I’ve detailed in previous postings, empirical support for those claims has always been lacking. Now data from a new survey cast fresh doubts on their validity.
The survey was conducted by Zogby International for the Michael D. Palm Center (formerly the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military), located at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It measured the opinions of 545 current and former military personnel, all of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan or in combat support roles directly related to those operations.
A detailed report of the survey results can be downloaded from the Michael D. Palm Center. Here are four key findings.
1. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is not strongly supported by combat personnel and veterans.
Only a minority (37%) supported DADT, saying they disagree “with allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.” The remainder agreed with allowing openly gay service members (26%), were neutral (32%), or weren’t sure (5%).
2. Many military personnel know or suspect that their unit includes gay or lesbian members.
Nearly one fourth (23%) of the respondents knew for certain that at least one member of their unit was gay or lesbian. A larger proportion (45%) suspected their unit included a gay or lesbian member. Of those who knew for certain, 55% said the presence of homosexual personnel in the unit was well known by others. Most of them (59%) had been told directly by the gay or lesbian individual.
3. Personnel who know their unit includes gay or lesbian members generally don’t perceive damage to morale.
About two thirds of those who knew for certain that their unit included one or more gay members did not believe that the latter’s presence affected either the respondent’s personal morale (66%) or the morale of the unit (64%). Only 28% believed it had a negative effect on their own morale, and 27% perceived a negative effect on their unit’s morale. By contrast, among respondents who neither knew nor suspected that a member of their unit was gay or lesbian, 58% expected that an openly gay or lesbian member would have a negative impact on their unit’s morale.
4. Allowing openly gay and lesbian personnel to serve is unlikely to reduce reenlistment or impair future recruitment.
The vast majority of respondents (78%) said their decision to join the military was based on their sense of duty and a desire to serve their country. A substantial proportion also said their decision was influenced by non-wage benefits, such as retirement or health care (62%), and by the prospect of receiving funds for college tuition (54%). Only 2% acknowledged “knowing that gays are not allowed to serve openly” as a factor in their decision. In a separate question, only 10% of respondents said they would not have joined the military if gay and lesbian personnel were allowed to serve openly.
* * * * *
In recent years, opinion polls of US civilian samples have shown strong support for allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. The new Palm Center poll indicates that DADT isn’t strongly supported by combat personnel and doesn’t appear to play a significant role in enlistment decisions. Moreover, fears that the presence of openly gay personnel will damage morale are much greater among those who haven’t actually had any lesbians or gay men in their unit (insofar as they know) than among those who knew their unit included at least one sexual minority member.
In response to the survey, Congressman Marty Meehan (D-MA) said, “It is long past time to strike down ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and create a new policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve openly.”
Let’s hope the new Congress will consider data such as these and follow Mr. Meehan’s lead.