Pentagon study anticipates smooth integration of openly gay troops
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 30, 2010
WASHINGTON — The military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law can be repealed with little disruption to military missions and limited opposition from servicemembers, according to a report released by the Pentagon on Tuesday.
The document, the product of nine months of study by top Defense Department officials and thousands of interviews with troops and their families, dismisses concerns about a repeal taking place during wartime, noting that 70 percent of troops surveyed believe a repeal will have either a positive effect or no effect on their ability to complete missions.
“While a repeal of DADT will likely, in the short term, bring about some limited and isolated disruption to unit cohesion and retention, we do not believe this disruption will be widespread or long-lasting,” the report states. “We are convinced that the U.S. military can adjust and accommodate this change, just as it has others in history.”
The report’s release Tuesday coincided with the 17th anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law. Since then, more than 14,000 troops have been dismissed under the controversial policy, which bans gays from serving openly in the ranks.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the report's release to urge the Senate to take immediate action to repeal the law, noting that the result “would not be the wrenching, dramatic event that many have predicted.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said the report for the first time provides top military leaders with “more than just anecdotal evidence and hearsay to inform the advice we give our civilian leaders.”
“This is without question a complex social and cultural issue,” he said. “But at the end of the day, whatever the decision of our elected leaders may be, we in uniform have an obligation to follow orders.”
As part of the research for the report, working group members met with gay former troops and received anonymous survey responses from nearly 300 active-duty troops who identified themselves as gay.
One gay servicemember interviewed said a repeal would “take a knife out of my back. ... You have no idea what it is like to have to serve in silence.” Another said fears of “people flaunting their gayness” are overblown because “that stuff isn’t supposed to be done during duty hours regardless if you’re gay or straight.”
Of the 115,052 active troops surveyed, 69 percent believed they have already worked alongside a gay servicemember, and 92 percent of those said it had a positive impact or no impact on their working relationship.
“As one special operations force warfighter told us, ‘We have a gay guy [in the unit]. He’s big, he’s mean, and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay,’” the report said.
However, 30 percent of those surveyed said they expect a negative effect if the law is repealed. That number rose to 43 percent among Marines, and 58 percent of Marines in combat specialties. Among soldiers in combat specialties, 48 percent expected a negative effect.
Gates said those statistics drew concern among the service chiefs, but he remains confident that with better training and strong leadership those fears will be proven wrong. The report said those percentages reflect attitudes “often laden with emotion and misperception” that can be changed.
Members of the working group said a number of repeal opponents requested separate bathroom and living quarters for gay and straight troops, a suggestion they forcefully rejected.
“Even if it could be achieved and administered, separate facilities would stigmatize gay and lesbian servicemembers in a manner reminiscent of ‘separate but equal’ facilities for blacks prior to the 1960s,” the report said. “We recommend that the Department expressly prohibit berthing or billeting assignments or the designation of bathroom facilities based on sexual orientation.”
Officials recommend “strong leadership, a clear message, and proactive education” to minimize the impact of a repeal.
The authors stated that top Pentagon leaders should issue new guidance outlining that “standards of conduct apply uniformly, without regard to sexual orientation.” Individual services should “provide adequate guidance on unprofessional relationships, harassment, public displays of affection, and dress and appearance.”
But the report does not recommend any new rules and regulations regarding harassment or behavior, stating that existing laws already cover those areas. It does, however, leave open the authority of individual commanders to punish “intolerant” troops to maintain unit cohesion.
In May, the House passed a repeal of the law as part of its annual defense authorization bill. Under that plan, the Pentagon would dump the policy for good by next spring, under direction from the secretary of defense.
But Senate Republicans blocked attempts to finalize that legislation in September, and the repeal has remained stalled there since the election.
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised a vote on the issue before the end of the year, but Democrats will need at least two Republican senators to break ranks to advance the debate. So far none has publicly pledged to do so.
"With our nation at war and so many Americans serving on the front lines, our troops and their families deserve the certainty that can only come when an act of Congress ends this discriminatory policy once and for all," President Barack Obama said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. " Today I call on the Senate to act as soon as possible so I can sign this repeal into law this year and ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally."
On Tuesday, officials from the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network called the release of the working group’s findings a potentially culture-changing moment.
“This will be one of the best tools for repeal advocates to use in the Senate’s lame-duck session,” said Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN executive director. “We see this as both historic and very helpful.”
But hours before the Pentagon report went public, the conservative Family Research Council released its own poll of 10,000 active-duty and retired troops, noting that about 63 percent of individuals they surveyed opposed changing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
Officials from the Center for Security Policy, which jointly commissioned the survey, called it further evidence the military is not ready for a radical policy change.
Council president Tony Perkins said the results “should be a cause of concern for members of Congress.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee will host a pair of hearings on the report Thursday and Friday. The hearings will include testimony from the four service chiefs, who have expressed concerns in the last year over repealing the law.
Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this report.