Gates asks gays in military to respond to 'don't ask' survey

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favor repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but not until a study recommends how to make the change.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favor repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but not until a study recommends how to make the change. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday urged gay members of the military to complete a questionnaire distributed this week to active-duty and reserve troops regarding a potential repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, as a leading gay rights group warned that troops could be outed by the survey.

"I strongly encourage gays and lesbians who are in the military to fill out these forms," Gates told reporters. "We organized this in a way to protect their privacy and the confidentiality of their responses through a third party, and it's important that we hear from them as well as everybody else."

The Pentagon is studying the potential impact of repealing the ban on gay men and lesbians openly serving in uniform, and about 200,000 active-duty troops and 200,000 reserve troops this week were e-mailed a link to the survey with more than 100 questions. The questionnaire should take no more than 30 minutes to complete and is due by Aug. 15, the Pentagon said. An additional 150,000 family members of troops will receive a separate survey in early August.

The survey asks service members about their general experiences in the military, about experiences serving with people they think are gay and for opinions on how repealing the ban might affect retention, referrals, unit cohesion, privacy and military family life, the Pentagon said. Results will be included in a final report due to President Obama, Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen by Dec. 1.

Troops may also provide extended comments to a "confidential online dialogue" established by the Defense Department. Service members will be given a personal identification number code to access the program, which is being operated by independent research firm Westat, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. The code has no personal identifying data, and program moderators will delete the name of any service member who shares it, she said. Troops who do not receive a survey can provide comments to the online dialogue at.

But the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonpartisan legal services organization providing counsel to service members discharged under the gay ban, reminded troops that the military is still enforcing the ban and said completing the survey could result in a discharge.

"While the surveys are apparently designed to protect the individual's privacy, there is no guarantee of privacy and DOD has not agreed to provide immunity to service members whose privacy may be inadvertently violated or who inadvertently outs himself or herself," Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said Thursday. "If a service member still wishes to participate, he or she should only do so in a manner that does not reveal sexual orientation."

Other groups are urging troops to participate.

"The Pentagon made clear that the survey is not a referendum on open service but rather is meant to identify problems so that when open service begins, they can have strategies developed to address them," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman with the Human Rights Campaign. "Based on that understanding, we would encourage gay and lesbian service members to take the survey."

Aaron Belkin, director of the University of California's Palm Center, which studies gays in the military, said his think tank will closely scrutinize the process.

"Because service members are just now being educated about the ramifications of ending the policy, we anticipate that the survey results will not be supportive of repeal," Belkin said.

The White House in May brokered a deal between lawmakers and gay rights groups that would repeal the Clinton-era policy while ensuring that any change would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes its study. The House approved the measure as part of the annual defense spending bill, and the Senate is expected to approve it this year.

Republican lawmakers said passing a repeal before completion of the Pentagon study would deter service members and their families from participating. Gates provided only tepid support for the agreement and later reminded troops that repeal is months away.

But a federal court case could end the policy sooner. A California federal judge on Tuesday issued a written order denying a government request to dismiss a suit filed by the Log Cabin Republicans that challenges the constitutionality of "don't ask, don't tell." The case is set to start Tuesday in Riverside, Calif.

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