Pentagon report should quell fears on ending 'don't ask, don't tell'

Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 8:08 PM

The results are in: 70 percent of service members say that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would have a positive, mixed or negligible impact on the effectiveness of the armed forces. The views from roughly 115,000 respondents in a Pentagon report released Tuesday should ease any remaining anxiety about ending the counterproductive "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The report is remarkable not just for its conclusions but for its honest, thorough and respectful handling of a delicate subject. It offers a clear-eyed, careful, conservative approach to implementing policy change. It doesn't play down the hurdles or denigrate the opposition. It is, in short, a document to be taken seriously, especially by those who may have lingering doubts about allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.

The challenges of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" are not trivial. Some 30 percent of those surveyed say they believe open service would harm the military; that number is higher still in the Marines and among those serving in combat units. Some are concerned that gay service members would flaunt their sexuality or engage in inappropriate behavior if "don't ask, don't tell" is rescinded. The report deals sensitively with such concerns and urges military leaders to send a "message to those who oppose open service on well-founded moral or religious grounds that their views and beliefs are not rejected and that leaders have not turned their backs on them."

But the report also notes that existing policies already prohibit inappropriate sexual relationships and behavior; these are grounds for punishment regardless of sexual orientation. And many of the fears are based on stereotypes that are refuted by actual experience. The report notes, for example, that 92 percent of those who served with someone they believed to be gay said their unit's "ability to work together" was "very good, good or neither good nor poor."

Military leaders have enough confidence in their institution, in other words, to affirm that it can integrate gays just as it did blacks and women. Service members will be entitled to their own personal values and beliefs, but all must abide by any new directive - including of mutual respect in service.

President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support repeal, but some on Capitol Hill continue to be uncomfortable with a possible change. They should heed Mr. Gates's warnings about the significant disruption that is likely to occur if the courts - rather than lawmakers and military officials - take the lead in dismantling the policy. More important, they should listen to the service members themselves.

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