Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Pro-repeal of policy

Gary Gates
Williams Distinguished Scholar, Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; 2:00 PM

President Obama's top defense officials will tell the Senate on Tuesday that the military will no longer aggressively pursue disciplinary action against gay service members whose orientation is revealed against their will by third parties, sources say.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen also are expected to announce the creation of a group to assess how to carry out a full repeal of the decades-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which requires gay soldiers to keep their sexual orientation secret

Gary Gates, a distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute at UCLA's School of Law, was online Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss why he is in favor of repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.


Gary Gates: Hello. I'm Gary Gates, Williams Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. We are a research center that studies sexual orientation law and public policy.

As a demographer/economist, I've published estimates of how many LGB people are serving in the military and have studied how much the "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy has cost taxpayers. You can find our most recent estimates at

Today's hearing was very interesting and I'm happy to be here to discuss details and take any questions you may have.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Is there any good data on the attitudes of active duty service members towards serving with lesbians, gay men and bisexuals?

Gary Gates: There have been surveys and they find that, just like in the general population, attitudes are changing and vary by age. Younger persons report being more open and accepting while older individuals still show some reluctance. In general, however, all of the existing evidence (especially from other militaries that have allowed open service by LGB people) suggests that gay people can serve openly without any significant problems.


I don't get it: I'm only in my 20s, so my public school education has always had shout-outs to the merits of diversity and inclusiveness and community. This seems disconnected from the military position. What "exactly" are the military's concerns with whether one is gay or lesbian or hetero and serving together?

Gary Gates: The primary objections involve concerns about what is called "unit cohesion". Proponents of DADT believe that having openly gay people around will negatively affect how soldiers interact with each other and that will, in turn, compromise unit trust and cohesion. All of the evidence that we have suggests that this is not actually the case.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you really think the DADT policy will be repealed and if it is, to what do you attribute the change in climate?

Gary Gates: I suspect that this is indeed the beginning of the end of the DADT policy, but it may die a pretty slow death. The change is largely associated with broader social acceptance of the LGBT people. Most polls now find that the vast majority of Americans believe LGBT people should be allowed to serve openly in the military.


Washington, D.C.: How do you expect the new policy will treat same-sex spouses? Can it draw a distinction between married and non-married spouses without running afoul of the Defense of Marriage Act?

Gary Gates: That's definitely a TBD decision. Some recent changes in federal human resources policies (like those adopted by the State Department) suggest some lee way in providing domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. In theory, DoMA does not prohibit recognition of domestic partnership, just marriage. So I think they could get around that issue.


Southern Maryland: Have there been any studies on how the military's policy on gays has affected women in uniform as compared with men? I mean not just the current "don't ask, don't tell" but also the outright ban that existed before. I've heard stories about women being discharged through retaliation from male comrades or superior officers, after the woman either refuses to sleep with the man or after she files charges of sexual harassment.

Gary Gates: I'm not aware of any studies to that regard. However, women do represent a larger proportion of DADT discharges than their proportion in the military as a whole. That may be in part due to situations like you suggest but could also be because most evidence suggests that women represent a much higher proportion of LGB people in the military than in the general military population.


Arlington Va.: If DADT is repealed, what would happen to those who have already been removed from service? Would they have an opportunity to reenlist? Would their discharge status be amended somehow?

Gary Gates: That's a good question. Many (though not all) individuals discharged under DADT received an honorable discharge. I'm not sure if there is any process in place to amend a prior discharge status.


Seattle, Wash.: In this city where many people are active or previously serving military, it appears to us that the only people who have any real problem with removing DADT are the really old folks in the senior officer level -- most people who are NCOs or junior officers just think DADT is a waste of time and should be cancelled because it's out of date. At least that's my opinion as a former sergeant.

Is this in concurrence with your observations?

Gary Gates: Yes. Most evidence suggests that resistance to LGB people serving openly increases with age.


Anonymous: Why the Change: the DADT seems to be working, why the need to change it now? I disagree with you that Unit Cohesion is not affected by this move. The military has traditional values, you will be opening up a huge can of worms it this is lifted. What is next, gay marriages on base? And the country gets to pay for that too?

Gary Gates: I can only speak to this from the social science literature on this subject. Going as far back at the 1993 study by Rand, there is just no evidence that unit cohesion is compromised by having idividuals be open and honest about their sexual orientation.


DADT and women in uniform: Is there some type of slippery slope argument or related discussion stemming from the DADT controversy regarding women in uniform? As I recall, a lot of arguments against having women in combat were based on unit cohesion too (along with issues over physical attributes). Is there any research showing whether acceptance of gay men in uniform is greater than women in uniform?

Gary Gates: I'm not aware of anything that directly compares attitudes about gay men v. women (though that doesn't mean such studies do not exist). However, I can say that the unit cohesion argument has always been raised when efforts toward any type of integration (race/ethnicity, sex) are made.


Washington, D.C.: Is it true that the DADT is mostly an "old school" belief/tradition with the U.S. Armed Forces and that with a new generation coming in it doesn't seem to matter as much? Can it be explained this easily, like a generational thing?

Gary Gates: I'm not sure it's quite that easy. Age is one factor but hardly the only one. There's no question that social acceptance of LGB people has increased among nearly all demographic groups in the population (whether you cut it by age, race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc.).


Washington, D.C.: Very few of the posts that I've read against eliminating "don't ask, don't tell" have cited unit cohesion. Most say it's logistically costly. One person said he didn't want to bunk in a room with a homosexual. If gays and lesbians are granted a right to express their individual sexuality while serving, will the military respect the soldier that does not wish to room with another soldier who may develop a sexual interest in him or her?

Gary Gates: Allowing LGB people to serve openly does not imply that they will be allowed to express themselves sexually within a unit. The military has a host of rules about the sexual conduct of soldiers and all men and women (regardless of sexual orientation) would be expected to adhere to those rules. There's no reason to believe that LGB people would be somehow unable to do that.


Re those who threaten to leave the military: Given the high unemployment rates, I imagine that those who are threatening to leave the military if gays are openly admitted will think twice about their job prospects, and that most will have to stay in the military and obey their superiors. After all, didn't most of the whites who threatened to leave when President Truman integrated the armed forces wind up staying in the service and living with the situation?

Gary Gates: In general, most studies show that the racial/ethnic integration of the military went relatively well...but that is a very big and complex topic.

Among other militaries (UK, Canada, Israel, for example) that have allowed LGB people to serve openly, there has been no evidence of mass exodus (or even a minor exodus) of heterosexuals who objected to the policy.


Central Virginia: My husband was an FT on a fast attack sub out of Norfolk. Said there was a certain amount of hostile talk against gays in the military -- until the best cook on-board was discovered to be gay and discharged. Talk about a sudden change of attitude! They didn't care what he liked to do -- he'd never been any trouble -- they liked him! He was a good cook! Why did he have to go?

Gary Gates: It's hard to know the circumstances leading the discharge of the cook, but this story has been repeated frequently in the military. As we heard in today's testimony, LGB are in fact serving honorably in the military. My estimates suggest that some 13,000 are currently on active duty.


Anonymous: To the people who think that this isn't the time, or there never will be a time, or DADT is working, I would remind them that, until the recent economic downturn, the Army had grave difficulties meeting their recruitment quotas. To the point where they were accepting older and less educated who, in some cases, had criminal records. Why would we turn away members who were serving honorably, simply because they were gay, when we were forced to accept felons? It makes no sense.

Gary Gates: In a study we did of the costs of DADT, we found that, in general, those discharged under DADT had above average amounts of specialty training. It does appear that the policy has tended to discharge relatively high skilled personnel.


Washington, DC: I support the repeal of the ban, but I am concerned that conservative politicians and others will attempt to fan any flames of bigotry in the ranks and hamper the orderly change. Do you know if this happened when blacks were integrated into the Armed Forces? How can the military best handle this if it does happen?

Gary Gates: The 1993 Rand study clearly stated the effective lifting of a gay ban would have to be accompanied by support at all levels of the military. That was true regarding racial integration and it will no doubt be true if DADT is lifted.


Harrisburg, Pa.: This is not for you, but maybe you can comment? Why do people care who is gay? Why do they want to see their co-workers suffer and lose their jobs for what they do in private? What really is the problem with having gays working in the military?

Gary Gates: As I've already indicated, attitudes toward LGB people have been changing. There are a variety of reasons why people are uncomfortable about same-sex sexual orientations, not the least of which is that many religious traditions believe such behavior is sinful. However, of the various LGBT-related public policy issues currently debated (e.g. marriage, parenting, employment discrimination, DADT) Americans in numbers approaching 80% reject the idea that employers should be permitted to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Similarly, large majorities support lifting DADT. Even if individuals are uncomfortable with gay people, most believe that LGBT people should be allowed to work without hassle.


Out of curiosity?: Why would "Anonymous" care about gay marriages on base, or the country/taxpayer paying for spouses? I can't think of anyone I know who is entirely happy with absolutely everything his taxes pay for -- I, for one, would love to dictate that my taxes don't go in the least to abstinence-only education, for example. But that's not how things work. What I care about is that we have a fully functioning military that isn't hamstrung by discriminatory policies that don't work and that do, in fact, harm its ability to fulfill its mission(s). How many Arabic translators have been discharged under DADT?

Gary Gates: I don't recall the exact number of Arabic translators discharged, but it was several dozen.


Alexandria, Va.: I understand US troops serve alongside coalition forces that have openly gay personnel. Is unit cohesion a problem in that situation? Personally, I think the 'unit cohesion' argument is a smokescreen for rank bigotry.

Gary Gates: I am not aware of any reported problems created by US forces serving along side LGB people from a coalition partner.

_______________________ Live Blog: Don't ask, don't tell (Federal Eye, Feb. 2)


Philadelphia, Pa.: Who are some of the people who have been dismissed from the military for being gay? In this era when we need more people in the military, who is the military now missing due to these dismissals?

Gary Gates: Those discharged under DADT represent a wide cross-section of the military. They have been officers and enlisted and from all branches. As I mentioned, there is evidence that they are relatively highly skilled.


Washington, D.C.: Just as female soldiers do not want male heterosexual soldiers viewing their naked bodies, I do not want a homosexual soldier viewing my naked body. Just as female soldiers are guaranteed physical safety from sexual attack while they sleep, I do not want to be sexually attacked by another soldier while I sleep. Will the military respect me as they do female soldiers?

Gary Gates: You raise a difficult issue and one that can only be resolved with trust. There is no evidence to suggest that LGB people are any more or less likely than anyone else to be sexually inappropriate. All I can say is that this issue has just not been a serious problem in other militaries and there's no reason to believe it would pose challenges to the US if DADT were to be lifted.


Saddle Brook, N.J.: I'm just curious how showering in a combat unit could be handled in a combat unit that had openly gay soldiers in it.

Gary Gates: Again, the issue here is one of trust. The experience of other militaries has been that allowing LGB people to serve openly does not undermine trust and unit cohesion. There's no reason to believe that LGB people cannot be trusted to behave appropriately.


Woodbridge, Va.: My husband has been an Army Reservist for 20 years, heading shortly on his 2nd deployment.

He's not crazy about having homosexuals in his unit, but he's even less so about females. When he went to Iraq in 2002-03, there was a number of women who did their fair share of whining to go back to Kuwait (while in the middle of the Iraqi desert) so they could pick up their "monthly" supplies. He also said they were not capable of doing the literally heavy lifting that is required of his job (bridge building).

As a woman, I want to be supportive of other women, but I can also understand his frustration. If you are part of a team doing a specific job, then you are supposed to be capable of doing that job.

Sometimes I don't believe diversity is the solution it's cracked up to be. How do we reconcile all these disparate interests?

Gary Gates: Diversity, whether in the corporate world or in the military, has both its advantages and challenges. Most evidence shows that diverse workforces are more innovative as differing perspectives encourage independent thinking. However, as you point out, it also creates challenges since sometimes divergent views and opinions are not easily resolved. I've already said this several times, but all of the evidence shows that units that develop strong levels of trust and cohesion (and studies suggest that LGB people do not undermine this possibility) manage to work through the difficulties.


Gary Gates: Apologies all but I have to sign off now. Thanks to all for a lively discussion about this very important issue.


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