U.S. military says questions about gays would help if 'don't ask' were ended

By Ed O'Keefe and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; A01

A Defense Department survey sent this week to 400,000 service members asks such provocative questions as whether its troops have shared shower facilities with a gay person or if they would be comfortable using a base commissary if their neighbors were gay.

The survey, part of what the military says is its effort to prepare for the possible integration of gays and lesbians into the armed forces, provoked immediate criticism from some human rights groups, which called the survey biased and apt to fan fears of gays in the military.

The unauthorized public disclosure of the $4.5 million survey and the fierce reaction to it also prompted the Pentagon to worry that the fallout could skew the results of the poll.

(User poll: Is the 'don't ask, don't tell survey out of line?')

Defense officials said the survey is critical to help prepare the armed forces for the likely end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gays from serving openly in the military. The policy is on the verge of being revoked by Congress and the White House.

The Defense Department began conducting the confidential survey this week. But the polling ran into trouble almost from the start when news organizations obtained copies and highlighted parts that asked service members if they had ever shared a tent with gay colleagues or how they would react if required to do so.

The Pentagon had tried to keep the survey questions a secret, saying that public disclosure could influence the outcome of the polling, which is scheduled to continue until Aug. 15.

On Friday, press secretary Geoff Morrell said the Pentagon was "discouraged" that the survey had been leaked and charged that "inflammatory" news coverage could discourage troops from participating or affect their answers. "We need this survey, and we need people to participate in this survey to get a sense of the attitudes of the force," he said.

Several gay rights groups, however, said the survey was biased. In particular, they said the wording of the questions reinforced prejudices and fanned fears that troops would be forced to bathe, room or socialize with gays and lesbians.

Servicemembers United, the nation's largest group of gay and lesbian troops and veterans, said the survey includes "derogatory and insulting wording, assumptions, and insinuations."

"The Defense Department just shot itself in the foot by releasing such a flawed survey to 400,000 servicemembers, and it did so at an outrageous cost to taxpayers," said Alexander Nicholson, the group's executive director.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonpartisan legal services group providing counsel to troops discharged under the policy, said the survey's design could yield skewed results.

"Surveying the troops is unprecedented; it did not happen in 1948 when President Truman ended segregation, and it did not happen in 1976 when the service academies opened to women," SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said. "Even when the military placed women on ships at sea, the Pentagon did not turn to a survey on how to bring about that cultural change."

The Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation's largest gay rights groups, provided tepid support for the survey.

"While surveying the troops on an issue like this is problematic from the start and the questions exhibit clear bias, the fact remains that this study exists," said HRC spokesman Michael Cole. "We urge the department to analyze the results with an understanding of the inherent bias in the questions and use it as a tool to implement open service quickly and smoothly."

Asked about criticism that the survey was biased against gays, Morrell replied: "Absolutely, unequivocally I reject it as nonsense."

He said it would be "irresponsible" not to ask troops about the potential privacy concerns of sharing quarters and showers with gays, given that the Obama administration is pushing to end the law, which has been in existence since 1993.

House lawmakers repealed the policy as part of their version of the annual defense spending bill. Observers expect the Senate to take similar action soon.

Military officials leading the survey study wrote the questions in consultation with Westat, an independent research firm based in Rockville. Half of the 400,000 service members receiving the survey, which is voluntary, will be reserve forces.

The Pentagon originally planned to survey 200,000 service members, but Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates ordered that the number be doubled. Pentagon officials said the survey is not a referendum on whether "don't ask, don't tell" should be repealed.

A copy of the survey was provided to The Washington Post and other media by the University of California's Palm Center, which studies gays in the military. The group said it obtained the questionnaire from an active-duty service member who received it.

It includes about 20 questions regarding marital status, housing, family perceptions of military service, career intentions and whether the participant socializes with members of his or her unit. The next series of questions asks about a service member's interactions with gay or lesbian colleagues, subordinates or unit leaders.

Questions include "Do you currently serve with a male or female service member you believe to be homosexual?" and "In the unit where you had a leader you believe to be gay or lesbian, about how many other unit members also believed the leader to be gay or lesbian?"

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