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Survey Says: Poll of Military Personnel Shows Openness to Gays... But Does It Matter?

By L.K. Regan

A Pentagon working group charged with surveying military attitudes toward a Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal has finished its work. The 256-page report shows a large majority of personnel amenable to serving with gays and lesbians. But what to make of that stubborn minority, and its influence?

It's all in how you look at it—or how it's spun. Some 70% of the over 150,000 servicemembers and their families who responded to the survey think that repealing DADT would have either no or little impact on unit effectiveness. Of course, that means nearly a third think there could be substantial problems from allowing gay people to serve. And the media response has been equally mixed: to either see the overwhelming support for repeal, or warn of an obstinate and entrenched minority that refuses to work with gays.

But there's reason to believe these numbers are even more gay-favorable than they seem. First, as study co-author Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson told the press in a prepared statement, "The reality is that there are gay men and lesbians already serving in today's U.S. military, and most servicemembers recognize this." In fact, some 84% of Marine combat arms units—widely reported to be the branch most resistant to serving with gays—who said that they believed they had at some time worked with gay servicemembers said they found the experience somewhere on the spectrum between very good and neutral. Johnson continued in his statement, "Further, in the course of our assessment, it became apparent to us that, aside from the moral and religious objections to homosexuality, much of the concern about 'openly' gay servicemembers is driven by misperceptions and stereotypes."

In other words, as much of a minority as the remaining resistance to DADT repeal is, it is itself dependent on a lot of abstract thinking—of the kind that collapses when pressure is applied to it. The study's authors specifically describe this kind of thinking: "More are left to only imagine what service with an openly gay person would be like—the circumstances in which misperceptions and stereotypes fill the void, for lack of actual experience." And abstract thinking has implications for how one thinks about the numbers in the survey. For instance, some 30% of respondents said that they believed a DADT repeal would have a negative impact on their unit's ability to train together. But, as blogger Kevin Drum points out, the number is in truth probably considerably lower. That is, only 10% of respondents thought their own readiness would be impacted—rather, they are mostly making assumptions about how they think other people will negatively react. And that, in turn, means that the number of real hold-outs who will be unable to train in the presence of gays is much smaller than anyone, including members of the military, believe.

This is far from the first survey of the military on its feelings about a troop integration, but it may be the most favorable to change. In the 1940s, the military was surveyed about its feelings on serving with African-Americans, who at that time served in segregated units. In a 1947 study, some four out of five enlisted personnel said they opposed serving with African-Americans—a near-reverse of the DADT numbers. And that resistance remained even if they were offered the prospect of separate living and dining facilities. Only 7% of respondents wanted to see a fully integrated military. Despite this opposition, in 1948, President Harry Truman issued an order fully integrating the U.S. military, and insisting on equal treatment.

Time for a Truman Moment.