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Continue to Ask, Pray Tell

• February 17, 2010 • 12:42 PM

While the Pentagon gathers new information to support repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, academics say there’s plenty out there already.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month to endorse a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, he cautioned that the military first would undertake a favorite Washington pastime: studying the topic long and hard, probably for about a year.

A special “high-level working group,” he said, will try to ferret out the true views of military personnel, understand the impact of repeal and its effect on unit cohesion, and plan ahead for logistical policy changes in arenas like housing and fraternization. The department is also asking the RAND Corporation to update a 1993 assessment of the same issues.

Gates’ proposal suggests that much unknown lies ahead, and in the most literal sense that’s true; the U.S. military has never openly integrated gays before, and so empirical evidence of what will happen is in short supply. There are two extensive sets of research, though, indicating the transition will be considerably less disruptive than critics of repeal suggest.

“Neither of them, of course, are really direct because it would be impossible to have research on lesbian, gay and bisexual peoples’ performance in the U.S. military because of the policy that we have,” said Clinton Anderson, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office with the American Psychological Association.

But according to the APA, the related research is convincing enough to render a new military study a waste of time and a disappointing delay in overturning the policy. (For the full APA position, click here). The same sentiment has been echoed by the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Palm Center.

The first set of existing research speaks more broadly to issues of morale, unit cohesion and team building within the kind of small fighting units that define military life for most service members on the ground. Officers who talk of “unit cohesion” are referring not to a consensus across the entire military, but to the ability of these much smaller units to function. And research has repeatedly found that people who don’t particularly like each other still can work together effectively, subordinating their personal feelings in a goal- and task-oriented environment precisely like the military. They’re bound not by social cohesion, but by task cohesion.

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THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

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Additionally, evidence outside of the military in society suggests that knowing a gay, lesbian or bisexual person reduces prejudice toward the group.

The second body of relevant literature analyzes the experiences of other countries, such as Canada, Israel and Great Britain, which have integrated gays into the military with little adverse effect. And while the U.S. military has never done exactly that, it has had relevant experience folding women and ethnic minorities into the ranks.

“I don’t think anyone has shown there are any very large problems that have arisen,” Anderson said.

Which makes the military’s plea for new information in a vacuum seem either ill-informed or disingenuous. The plan for a full year of study also reverses the process by which most new laws are enacted. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell must be overturned not by the Department of Defense, but by Congress. Typically, Congress passes a law, and federal agencies then have to figure out how to implement it.

Many members of Congress, though, and particularly those who’ve historically opposed repeal, have said they’ll defer to the judgment of top military officers, staking out a position that offers both political cover and reason to keep the topic off the docket just a little while longer.

“I think the military and the administration are trying to provide something that will allow Congress to feel good about acting because Congress obviously defers very strongly to the military,” Anderson said. “If that’s what has to happen, that’s what has to happen, but we don’t see any justification for it. The evidence from our perspective is clear: It’s a bad policy, it should be repealed, and we don’t see any justification for delaying it.”

Anderson also points to a third — and perhaps most influential — body of evidence: recent polls showing the majority of Americans favor repealing the law as well. The rest of the relevant research may be buried in academic journals and professional association policy papers, but this evidence has lately been headlining newspapers across the country.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll, 70 percent of people supported allowing “gay men and lesbians” to serve openly (although the percentage was lower when using the phrase “homosexuals”). A Washington Post/ABC poll pegged the number at 75 percent, and The Pew Research Center at 61 percent.

Given historic trends, those figures likely will be higher by the time the DoD finishes trying to figure out what everyone thinks — by which time, according to the APA, only more harm will be done.

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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