July 23, 2008

From 1993 to 2008: DADT and the House Armed Services Committee

Posted at 11:02 am (Pacific Time)

Today the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee holds hearings on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The congressional hearings come as Democrats increasingly discuss repealing the policy under a new Administration, and in the wake of a July ABC News/Washington Post Poll in which 75% of respondents said  that “homosexuals who DO publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military.” (78% said those who DON’T disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve.)

The hearings also follow the recent release of a report by a team of retired senior military officers that concluded the ban on openly gay service members is counterproductive and should end, as well as a public statement signed by more than 50 retired generals and admirals that calls on Congress to repeal DADT.

With these signs of quickening movement toward eliminating the military’s discriminatory personnel policy, I’d like to be able to discuss the social science research relevant to the policy.

However, there isn’t much to say that is new.

Revisiting the Social Science Data

To be sure, new studies have been released that consider issues related to privacy, unit cohesion, and the experiences of other countries that have integrated sexual minorities into their militaries. I’ve discussed some of this work in previous posts. The Michael D. Palm Center website at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is also an excellent resource for such research.

But the conclusions of the newer research don’t differ much from those of past studies.

Thus, it seems appropriate to revisit a previous set of hearings in which the House Armed Services Committee heard about social science research relevant to military personnel policy. They were held in May of 1993 and were chaired by Rep. Ron Dellums (D-CA).

I was invited to testify before the Committee on behalf of the American Psychological Association and five other professional organizations (the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Counseling Association, the American Nursing Association, and the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States).

What follows is the bulk of my oral statement (with some introductory and background material omitted):

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you today to provide testimony on the policy implications of lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military….

My written testimony to the Committee summarizes the results of an extensive review of the relevant published research from the social and behavioral sciences. That review is lengthy. However, I can summarize its conclusions in a few words: The research data show that there is nothing about lesbians and gay men that makes them inherently unfit for military service, and there is nothing about heterosexuals that makes them inherently unable to work and live with gay people in close quarters.

….I would like to address two questions that have been raised repeatedly in the current discussion surrounding the military ban on service by gay men and lesbians. The first question is whether lesbians and gay men are inherently unfit for service. In the current debate, some consensus seems to have been reached that gay people are just as competent, just as dedicated, and just as patriotic as their heterosexual counterparts. However, questions still are raised concerning whether the presence of openly gay military personnel would create a heightened risk for sexual harassment, favoritism, or fraternization.

Obviously, data are not available to address these questions directly because the current policy has made collection of such data impossible in the military. However, based on research conducted with civilians, as well as reports from quasi-military organizations in the United States (such as police and fire departments) and the armed forces of other countries, there is no reason to expect that gay men and lesbians would be any more likely than heterosexuals to engage in sexual harassment or other prohibited conduct. We know that a homosexual orientation is not associated with impaired psychological functioning; it is not in any way a mental illness. In addition, there is no valid scientific evidence to indicate that gay men and lesbians are less able than heterosexuals to control their sexual or romantic urges, to refrain from the abuse of power, to obey rules and laws, to interact effectively with others, or to exercise good judgment in handling authority….

The second question I would like to address is whether unit cohesion and morale would be harmed if personnel known to be gay were allowed to serve. Would heterosexual personnel refuse to work and live in close quarters with lesbian or gay male service members? This question reflects a recognition that stigma leads many heterosexuals to hold false stereotypes about lesbians and gay men and unwarranted prejudices against them.

As with the first question, we do not currently have data that directly answer questions about morale and cohesion. We do know, however, that heterosexuals are fully capable of establishing close interpersonal relationships with gay people and that as many as one-third of the adult heterosexual population in the U.S. has already done so. We also know that heterosexuals who have a close ongoing relationship with a gay man or a lesbian tend to express favorable and accepting attitudes toward gay people as a group. And it appears that ongoing interpersonal contact in a supportive environment where common goals are emphasized, and prejudice is clearly unacceptable, is likely to foster positive feelings toward gay men and lesbians. Thus, the assumption that heterosexuals cannot overcome their prejudices toward gay people is a mistaken one.

In summary, neither heterosexuals nor homosexuals appear to possess any characteristics that would make them inherently incapable of functioning under a nondiscriminatory military policy. In my written testimony, I have offered a number of recommendations for implementing such a policy. I would like to mention five of the principal recommendations here.

The military should:

  • establish clear norms that sexual orientation is irrelevant to performing one’s duty and that everyone should be judged on her or his own merits;
  • eliminate false stereotypes about gay men and lesbians through education and sensitivity training for all personnel;
  • set uniform standards for public conduct that apply equally to heterosexual and homosexual personnel;
  • deal with sexual harassment as a form of conduct rather than as a characteristic of a class of people, and establish that all sexual harassment is unacceptable regardless of the genders or sexual orientations involved;
  • take a firm and highly publicized stand that violence against gay personnel is unacceptable and will be punished quickly and severely; attach stiff penalties to antigay violence perpetrated by military personnel.

Undoubtedly, implementing a new policy will involve challenges that will require careful and planned responses from the military leadership. This has been true for racial and gender integration, and it will be true for integration of open lesbians and gay men. The important point is that such challenges can be successfully met. The real question for debate is whether the military, the government, and the country as a whole are willing to meet them.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I will be happy to answer any questions that members of the Committee might have.

From 1993 to 2008

That was in 1993. Today, as then, the real question is not whether sexual minorities can be successfully integrated into the military. The social science data answered this question in the affirmative then, and do so even more clearly now.

Rather, the issue is whether the United States is willing to repudiate its current practice of antigay discrimination and address the challenges associated with a new policy.

The growing opposition to DADT among military veterans and the public indicate that we finally may be ready to take up this challenge.

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The full text of my 1993 oral statement before the House Armed Services Committee can be read on my website.

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