POLITICS MARCH 3, 2010
On February 2, at the first Senate hearings on gays in the military since 1993, Admiral Mike Mullen became the only sitting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. He said the “institutional integrity” of the armed forces demands that they stop forcing gay service members to lie in order to serve their country. The current policy of “don't ask, don't tell” (DADT), Mullen argued, ends up needlessly “devaluing” a critical segment of the military population.
But the endorsement of DADT’s repeal by the top military leadership--Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he backs the plan, which President Obama has pledged to work with Congress to implement--was tempered by concerns that a quick timetable would be unwise. Gates said he wants a study period to “help inform the legislative process of some facts about the attitudes of our men and women in uniform, what they think about a change in the law, [and] what their families think.” He added, “The truth is, we don't have any facts.”
But is that true? While taking time to study the transition may seem reasonable at first blush, the reality is that the government, the military, and independent researchers have been studying this issue for decades. And all of their findings point to the same truth: Openly gay service does not impair military effectiveness. What's more, existing research already shows what steps should be taken to repeal DADT. It’s far from clear what good will come from another year of study--but it's easy to see obstructionists using the window to sow fear and doubt as a tactic to kill the plan for a repeal.
Indeed, the script emerging from last month’s opening salvo at the DADT hearings is eerily similar to the one that played out in 1993, when President Bill Clinton’s effort to lift the gay ban was derailed during a six-month study period. During that window, opponents of reform, led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rallied to defend the status quo, forming a wall of military resistance that some said amounted to insubordination. They were joined by skeptical members of Congress. Ultimately, Clinton yielded to the pressure and backed away from his promise. To avoid a repeat of that debacle, it’s crucial to understand both what went wrong last time and what mountains of research already tell us about how to end discrimination against gay troops.
In his first State of the Union, Obama vowed to repeal DADT, and, at the subsequent Senate hearings, Gates said the military would take up the president’s charge. “The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change but how we best prepare for it," Gates noted. In 1993, then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin, also said he would follow the president's directive to determine how, not whether, to lift the ban. To that end, Aspin ordered two different studies--one by the RAND Corporation, an esteemed think tank with close ties to the military, the other by a “Military Working Group” (MWG) of active, high-ranking officers, who would give the military’s “independent judgment” about how to proceed. But things didn't quite go as planned.
RAND commissioned a team of 75 social scientists from its National Defense Research Institute to study the issue. They examined scientific literature on group cohesion, the experiences of foreign militaries, the theory and history of institutional change, public health concerns, the history of racial integration in the military, policies on sexuality in police and fire departments, and numerous other issues. The result was a 500-page report confirming that there was no evidence that openly gay service members posed a threat to the military, recommending that the armed forces not consider sexual orientation when determining who should serve, and outlining a clear, quick process for lifting the gay ban. But the report, which cost taxpayers $1.3 million, barely made it out of RAND's Santa Monica headquarters because, according to The New York Times, Pentagon officials tried to keep the study from going public. They ultimately never considered it when shaping policy, the Times reported, because of resistance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Precisely the same thing had happened with previous studies on gays in the military. The Navy’s 1957 Crittenden Report and the 1988 and 1989 studies from the Pentagon’s Personnel Security Research and Education Center (PERSEREC) both found that there was no basis for the gay ban, yet both were buried.)
Instead, with President Clinton’s reluctant blessing, the military opted to focus on the 15-page report written by the MWG, a panel of five senior generals and admirals. The group had undertaken its charge begrudgingly. Only when press reports revealed that no action had been taken several months after their appointment did the members even meet. Offering no proof whatsoever, the final report stated, “All homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” Going further, it cast homosexuals as dangerous: “Due to their sexual practices, active male homosexuals in the military could be expected to bring an increased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases,” including AIDS, which could create the perception of an “enemy within.”
With backlash mounting, Clinton gave up his effort to lift the gay ban and, instead, agreed to compromise by crafting a new law with Congress. In November 1993, he signed DADT, which suggested that the military stop asking recruits about their sexual orientation but also called for service members to be discharged if they said they were gay or engaged in homosexual conduct. The next month, the Pentagon, using the MWG report as a blueprint, issued its own DADT regulations, consistent with the new law. All of the evidence from the RAND study--not to mention from the Crittenden and PERSEREC reports--was simply ignored.
Seventeen years later, Gates has asked RAND to update its findings, and he has appointed another MWG. But what would an updated RAND report, much less another MWG study, add to the debate? RAND's findings remain accurate, as no new social science data has emerged that finds homosexuality to be incompatible with military service. To the contrary, post-1993 studies on gays in the military have only bolstered the RAND report and showed that another research delay mandated by the military's top brass would do no good--indeed, it might actually do harm.
According to the original RAND study, two of the most important factors in a personnel policy transition like the repeal of DADT are decisive leadership and a single code of conduct for all personnel. But RAND also found that a successful new policy must be “decided upon and implemented as quickly as possible” to avoid anxiety and uncertainty. "[F]ast and pervasive change will signal commitment to the [new] policy," and “any waiting period also permits restraining forces to consolidate." These findings are supported by decades of research on institutional change, public policy implementation, and cohesion theory. Much of that literature has focused on leadership and institutional culture. In their 1983 book, Implementation and Public Policy, for instance, Daniel Mazmanian and Paul Sabatier note the importance of, as the RAND report described, “committed implementers as driving forces for policy change.” And, in their 1986 book, The Political Hand, Barbara Ferman and Martin Levin explain that the key to effective change is having leaders communicate that a new policy is now consistent with the institutional identity of a group.
Such research has been borne out in foreign militaries that have lifted their own gay bans. Last week, the Palm Center, where I work, released the largest study in history assessing the experiences of other countries with openly gay service. The study, of which I am the principal author, details the implementation process in Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Israel, five of the 25 countries that have moved to let gays serve openly. Central to these five cases were swift, simple implementation of new policies (usually in under four months) under the guidance of strong leadership. Despite some substantial grumbling at first, the new policies enjoyed wide acceptance throughout the countries’ armed forces in a relatively short amount of time.
Another Palm Center study that I coauthored, which will appear in a book published this spring by an Air Force publishing arm (and which is already available on the Palm Center’s website), details specific regulations and organizational changes that would be required to repeal DADT in the United States. The number of necessary changes would be quite small, as existing military regulations already address interpersonal issues such as sexual harassment, fraternization, romantic relationships, and public displays of affection, which are frequently raised in discussions about lifting the ban. Even those changes that would be required would not involve any new bureaucratic apparatus, as the military already has in place a process for the periodic revising, reissuing, or cancelling of its regulations.
And yet, while research clearly shows that the process of allowing gays to serve openly would be straightforward, harmless, and most effective if done quickly and confidently, its opponents have continued to cast it as too fragile to tackle. Using an approach that might be called the “thorny questions” strategy, they have sought to fill the airwaves with unjustified doubts about whether and how quickly the ban could be lifted. It was a plan that worked in 1993. That January, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, a Democrat who led the charge for DADT, said on the Senate floor, “Too many times, we in the political world send down edicts and don’t think about the implications of the things that have to follow.” Nunn then served up dozens of “thorny questions” in quick, and rather angry, succession:
What would be the impact of changing the current policy on recruiting, retention, morale, discipline, as well as military effectiveness? … Should there be restrictions on homosexual acts with other military personnel, or only with non-military personnel? … If discrimination is prohibited, how would a non-discriminatory policy affect pay and benefits and entitlements? Should homosexual couples receive the same benefits as legally married couples? … If homosexual couples are given such benefits, will they also have to be granted to unmarried heterosexual couples?
On and on Nunn went, despite the fact that the bulk of his questions had already been answered, and would be summed up in the neglected RAND report. Nunn insisted that the military get to “study this for whatever time they’d like, and we’re going to have the time to ask the key questions over here in Senate hearings, and most of all--most fundamentally--to hear from the men and women in uniform.”
Today, we are hearing the same argument. Representative Buck McKeon of California, a Republican, has said that changing the law in Congress before the Pentagon’s new Working Group conducts research would “[place] the cart before the horse.” (The research is due just after the Democrats are expected to lose seats in mid-term elections in November.) And, despite the evidence undercutting their concerns, naysayers are again employing the "thorny questions" strategy. Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, said at the February 2 hearings that military life restricts many behaviors, including “alcohol use, adultery, fraternization, and body art.” He asked, “If we change this rule of ‘don’t ask, don't tell,’ what are we going to do with these other issues?” Another of the questioners’ favorite fear-mongering strategies is tying the repeal of DADT to the contentious issue of gay marriage. A worry tract penned by a retired colonel on a military news website asked, “Will gay couples be afforded all the rights and privileges of married couples when assigned to states where gay marriages are recognized?" But we already know the answer: The Defense of Marriage Act prevents the federal government, including the military, from recognizing any same-sex marriages performed in those few states that allow them. Indeed, there is little prospect that the military will grant special privileges to gay couples--much less lift the ban on full-sleeve tattoos.
When the answers are so clear, anyone still asking “thorny questions” is willfully ignoring evidence--either because he doesn't want to believe it, or because he personally can't stand the ideas of gays in the military. Obama's top military leaders have asked for more time to research repealing DADT. But time won't reveal anything new--it will only threaten to derail the repeal of a discriminatory policy our country, and military, should not tolerate.
It’s not time for more study; it's time to just do it.
Nathaniel Frank is a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America.