Unfriendly Fire Research Portal

2. What Does the Research Say about Whether Repeal is Likely to Affect Recruitment, Troop Quality, or Retention?

Some argue that there are service members who are so opposed to lifting the ban on openly gay service, that many could leave if "don't ask, don't tell" were eliminated. They point to a Military Times poll from 2008 in which 10% of respondents said they would not remain in the military if the ban were lifted, and another 14% said they would consider leaving if such a step were taken.1

While the outcome of a given policy change is never certain, research can help policymakers assess whether the likely impact of repeal on troop strength would be negative or positive. There are several reasons to conclude that the opinions expressed in such polls are not cause for alarm about a mass exodus of service members.

In a 1985 survey of 6,500 male soldiers, the Canadian Department of National Defence found that 62 percent of male service members would refuse to share showers, undress, or sleep in the same room as a gay soldier, and that 45 percent would refuse to work with gays. A 1996 survey of 13,500 British service members reported that more than two-thirds of male respondents would not willingly serve in the military if gays and lesbians were allowed to serve. Yet when Canada and Britain subsequently lifted their gay bans, these dire predictions were not confirmed.2

What this phenomenon reflects is the fact that the attitudes people express about homosexuality frequently do not predict how they will actually behave. This discrepancy is consistent with social science data that show a poor correlation between stated intentions and actual behavior in military and paramilitary organizations. Polls on attitudes toward gays in the military show that most respondents believe their peers are less tolerant of gay service than they, themselves, are.3 Research also shows that heterosexual responses to gay service in police and fire departments were more likely to be positive when expressed privately than in front of their peers.4 These data are revealing in that they show there is a widespread belief that homosexuality is viewed negatively, but when individuals are asked their own views in private, they express a more tolerant attitude.

An article in Armed Forces and Society concludes from this data that there is a “cultural-organizational pressure within the armed forces to appear as though one is either uncomfortable or intolerant of homosexuality” and indeed to “pretend to be uncomfortable” with gays, but which belies greater actual comfort than what is stated.5 Opinion polls sometimes say more about perceived norms than about likely behavior, and they often serve primarily as opportunities to register approval or disapproval.  Biased attitudes may not translate into discriminatory behavior.  More to the point, the biases may be held “in the background,” and not represent strongly held beliefs that would rise to the level of giving up a career or commitment to service based simply on a change in policy.

The public opinion polls on the issue of openly gay service are also reassuring. Polls consistently show that three quarters or more of the public favor openly gay service, and that young people, including young military members, are even more tolerant of homosexuality than their older counterparts. Given this data, there appears to be little basis to conclude that a mass exodus from the military is a likely result of repeal.

Whether or not some service members decline to reenlist as a result of repeal, there is strong evidence that lifting the ban would improve recruitment and retention, as gay people who currently decline to enlist or reenlist decide to serve after the ban is lifted. According to research at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, the military could see nearly 50,000 new recruits as a result of lifting the ban, and 4,000 service members each year might decide to remain in service instead of leaving the force at the end of their contract as they do now, due to the policy.6

The current policy also exacts significant costs in the military’s ability to recruit and retain qualified personnel. In 2005, in response to troop shortfalls which were being exacerbated by gay discharges, the army increased by nearly 50 percent the number of new recruits to whom it granted “moral waivers,” the opportunity to enlist despite a prior record of criminal activity or substance abuse that would normally prohibit entry. Between 2003 and 2006, 4,230 convicted felons, 43,977 individuals convicted of serious misdemeanors, including assault, and 58,561 illegal drug abusers were allowed to enlist.7

Recruitment of qualified personnel has been made tougher by the banning of recruiters on campuses that oppose discrimination, and by harm to the military’s reputation as a result of this opposition, both of which widen a “civil-military” gap that concerns experts across the board. Since DADT was implemented, more than two thousand high schools have sought to deny military recruiters access to students or student information largely as a result of opposition to the discriminatory policy.  The Pentagon acknowledged that in just one year, high schools barred military officials from recruiting on campus more than 19,000 times. The military’s constrained ability to recruit on campuses made it harder to fill shortfalls and contributed to the reduced standards of incoming troops.  The results, as described in a House Armed Services Committee report, were “higher operational risks, reduced readiness, and increased stress on both deployed and non-deployed forces.”  The services, the report said, “are not able to attract sufficient high quality recruits to maintain the quality force so critical to readiness.”  The committee concluded that “further reductions to recruit quality standards present a very costly and dangerous risk to military readiness.”8

Finally, the historical record from episodes of social change in the U.S. military are also instructive. According to research by David Segal, the renowned military sociologist at the University of Maryland, resistance to the admission of women at the service academies in the 1970s was expressed with threats to resign, but the fears were not borne out. Segal told the Military Times recently that officers who resisted “were expressing a strongly held attitude. But when women were admitted to West Point, there was not anything near [the predicted] kind of exodus from the service.”9

  1. Brendan McGarry, “Troops Oppose Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask,’; But Most Troops Would Stay In if Ban Ends,” Military Times, December 29, 2008.
  2. Aaron Belkin, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Is the Gay Ban Based on Military Necessity,” Parameters, Summer 2003, 108-119.
  3. John W. Bicknell, Jr., "Study of Naval Officers' Attitudes Toward Homosexuals in the Military" (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, March, 2000).
  4. Rand, Sexual Orientation, 1993.
  5. Aaron Belkin, “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: Does the Gay Ban Undermine the Military’s Reputation?” Armed Forces and Society (2007): 12.
  6. Williams Institute, “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual men and women in the US military: Updated estimates,” 2010; Williams Institute, “Effects of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on Retention among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Military Personnel,” 2007.
  7. Michael Boucai, “Balancing Your Strengths Against Your Felonies: Considerations for Military Recruitment of Ex-Offenders,” white paper, Palm Center, University of California, Santa Barbara, September 2007.
  8. Nathaniel Frank, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009); House Committee on Armed Services, Report of the House Committee on Armed Services, National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2000, 106th Cong., 1st Sess., May 24, 1999.
  9. Brendan McGarry, “Troops Oppose Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask,’; But Most Troops Would Stay In if Ban Ends,” Military Times, December 29, 2008.
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