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Poll Says Americans Favor DADT Repeal—But it Depends on How They're Asked

By L.K. Regan

The Obama administration has promised to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), the ban on gays in the military. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense are both on board, with panels in place to research how best to smooth the transition to a gay-inclusive armed services. And now a new New York Times/CBS News poll suggests that a substantial majority of Americans are on board as well—as long as you carefully word the question.

The poll was conducted by phone (calling both land-lines and cells) using a random sample of 1,084 American adults nationwide. The results depended heavily on how the question was phrased. When asked, "Do you favor or oppose gay men and lesbians serving in the military?" fully 70 percent of respondents said they were in favor (51 percent strongly favoring, 19 percent somewhat favoring). But, replace a couple of key words, and nearly 10 percent of that support vanishes. When asked, "Do you favor or oppose homosexuals serving in the military?" only 59 percent remain in favor (34 percent strongly so, 25 percent somewhat so).

That is a pretty sad statistic. But it gets even sadder. When asked about serving openly, as opposed to merely serving, the numbers collapse yet further. When asked, "Do you favor or oppose gay men and lesbians being allowed to serve openly?" only 58 percent remain in favor, as opposed to the previous 70 percent. And if the question is about homosexuals openly serving, the majority is lost altogether, with a bare 44 percent remaining in favor.

It's no surprise that a poll that is phrased using what might be called homophobic trigger-words will weaken support for a pro-gay change in the law. But it is interesting that Democrats, typically the supporters of opening the military to gays, are far more susceptible to differences in wording. Seventy-nine percent of them support permitting "gay men and lesbians" serving openly; but only 43 percent favor "homosexuals" serving openly. Republicans in the poll were far less susceptible to wording differences—since they are far more opposed to gays in the military in any capacity.

The wording-dependent responses also indicate a general confusion about DADT itself. The point of DADT is that gays and lesbians can currently serve—just not openly. As long as they manage to keep their sexuality a secret, DADT is as good as its full name, which is "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue, don't harass." It's not clear how allowing "homosexuals" to serve, but not openly, would substantially change the status quo.