Unfriendly Fire Research Portal

6. What Has the Military Said about Openly Gay Service?

Military opinion is divided on the question of openly gay service, with a limited number of polls indicating that a plurality or slight majority of service members oppose lifting the current ban. Gauging opinion is further complicated by institutional pressure to support, rather than undercut, current policy, as explained in this research memo. In 2008, over 1000 retired officers signed a document stating their opposition to lifting the ban, reflecting longstanding hostility to homosexuality among older military members and retirees. But most of the signatories on this list, compiled by an interest group that opposes gays in the military, never served under “don't ask, don't tell,” and they did not cite any new information or lessons learned from research into whether openly gay service undercuts military readiness, instead simply asserting their personal belief that changing the policy would harm the military. To see this list, click here.

While opposition to repeal from older, retired officers is unsurprising, most analysts view as more significant the trend of support for equality by current and retired officers who have researched the issue of gay service and reversed their opposition or reaffirmed their support for lifting the ban, based on new information. This group includes a list of over 100 retired generals and admirals who favor repeal. Trends among enlisted personnel and service academies also reflect growing tolerance and shrinking opposition to openly gay service, as evidenced by service academies such as West Point Military Academy inviting pro-gay speakers to campus and awarding prizes and recognition to pro-gay research.

The growing recognition by military officials that the gay ban is not based on military necessity is reflected in a 2009 article written by an Active Duty Air Force officer in Joint Force Quarterly, the prestigious military journal published for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which concludes “there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly.” Based on this research, it concludes that “it is not time for the administration to reexamine the issue; rather it is time for the administration to examine how to implement the repeal of the ban.”1 The Pentagon has also acknowledged that the gay ban is “inherently subjective in nature” and is the result of “professional Military judgment, not scientific or sociological analysis.”2

The most relevant question when gauging military opinion is not whether service members wish to serve with known gays, since, as Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, has said, “it is not our practice to go within our military and poll our force to determine if they like the laws of the land or not.” Rather, the germane question is whether troops are capable of serving with gays, not whether they wish to do so.

For results and analysis of the four major polls of military members on openly gay service, click here.

Below are notable remarks by military officers and research data showing a significant softening of military resistance to openly gay service throughout the military leadership.

  • Between 1992 and 1998, the percentage of male soldiers who “strongly oppose” gays serving in uniform dropped nearly in half, from 67 percent to 37 percent. The percentage of army women opposed to gay troops fell from 32 to 16 percent.3
  • A 2000 study conducted at the Naval Postgraduate School found that between 1994 and 1999, the percentage of U.S. Navy officers who “feel uncomfortable in the presence of homosexuals” decreased from 57.8 to 36.4 percent.”4
  • In 2003 retired NATO commander Wesley Clark said “the temperature of the issue has changed” since 1993; “people were much more irate about this issue in the early '90s than I found in the late '90s, for whatever reason, [perhaps because of] younger people coming into the military. It just didn't seem to be the same emotional hot button issue by '98, '99, that it had been in '92, '93.”5
  • In 2003, retired Rear admiral John Hutson, who as judge advocate general of the navy had been responsible for enforcing “don't ask, don't tell,” called for the policy's repeal. In an article in The National Law Journal, Hutson called the gay ban “odious” and “virtually unworkable in the military.” The article argued that the policy was the “quintessential example of a bad compromise,” and that the “don't ask, don't tell” regulations are a “charade” that “demeans the military as an honorable institution.”6
  • An October 2004 poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey found that 42 percent of service members generally believed that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly. But for the first time, 50 percent, a statistical majority, of junior enlisted service members supported gay service.7
  • In the spring of 2005, a group of eight retired generals and admirals announced their support for the repeal bill (the Military Readiness Enhancement Act), becoming the highest-ranking military members to do so. Then, in 2007 a group of twenty-eight retired flag officers released a statement urging Congress to repeal the ban. The officers said that replacing “don't ask, don't tell” with a policy of equal treatment “would not harm, and would indeed help, our armed forces.” 8 A year later, more than 100 retired generals and admirals signed a similar statement.9
  • A 2006 Zogby poll of 545 troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq found that 72 percent of service members were personally comfortable interacting with gays and lesbians. Of those who knew of gays in their unit, the overwhelming majority stated that their presence had little or no impact on the unit's morale. The same poll also found that nearly two thirds of service members know or suspect gays in their units, suggesting that the assumption that openly gay service is disruptive is untrue.10
  • In January 2007, retired general John Shalikashvili, who succeeded Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for the end of “don't ask, don't tell.” In 1993, he had supported the compromise as “a useful speed bump that allowed temperatures to cool for a period of time while the culture continued to evolve.” But in 2007 he said it was crucial to “consider the evidence that has emerged over the last 14 years.”11
  • Alan Simpson, an army veteran and former republican senator from Wyoming, voted for “don't ask, don't tell” in 1993. But in 2007 he reversed course, writing in The Washington Post that spring that so much had changed since his 1993 vote that it had become “critical that we review—and overturn—the ban on gay service in the military.”12
  • In April 2007 Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, said that he had long believed that the policy was based more on “emotionalism than fact,” and that he thought it was time for the policy to end.13
  • General Minter Alexander, chair of the Military Working Group until Senator Nunn's office abruptly assigned him to testify at a set of budget hearings that made it impossible for him to continue leading the MWG, recalled in 2008 that he had understood Moskos's plan to be temporary, a transitional step to allow people to get used to serving with gays. “But fifteen years is too damned long,” said Alexander when sharing his current thoughts. “I think 'don't ask, don't tell' was a good interim solution as a first step to addressing this problem,” but it has turned out that the policy “is not necessarily improving readiness” and in fact “we know it has hurt readiness and morale in some cases.” Alexander now believes the law “impedes further progress” and should be repealed.14
  • In July 2008, a bipartisan panel of retired flag officers released a report that found that lifting the ban is “unlikely to pose any significant risk to morale, good order, discipline, or cohesion.” “I believe this should have been done much earlier,” said Brigadier General Hugh Aitken, one of the authors.15
  • In November 2008, Retired Admiral Charles Larson, former Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, reversed his opposition to openly gay service. "I think the time has come to find a way to let talented, young, patriotic Americans who want to serve their country serve," he said, "and let's enforce high standards of personal and human behavior for everyone.” Larson was in charge of U.S. and Allied submarines in the Mediterranean as a two-star admiral, and became head of the entire U.S. military command in the Pacific as a four-star admiral before retiring in 1998.16
  • In 2008, a Military Times subscriber poll found that 58% of Active Duty respondents opposed lifting the ban, and up to 24 percent claimed they would consider leaving the military if the ban were lifted. The predictive accuracy of such claims (i.e. the likelihood that respondents who say they would leave actually will leave) are challenged by further research questioning the predictive utility of opinion polls in institutional contexts.17
  • In 2009, the Military Times conducted a subscriber poll on “don't ask, don't tell.” Among Active Duty responses, 51% opposed openly gay service, a 7-point drop in opposition from the results of the previous year's Military Times poll.18
  • At a Pentagon meeting in July 2009, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was looking for a way to make the policy “more humane,” telling reporters he wondered, “is there flexibility in how we apply this law?” Secretary Gates said he was considering various options, but did not indicate that the Pentagon was supporting a full repeal. He said, "The issue that we face is that how do we begin to do preparations and simultaneously the administration move forward in terms of asking the Congress to change the law." He seemed to be supporting interim options before full repeal, one of which was letting people serve who may have been outed due to vengeance or a jilted lover.19
  • In October 2009, an Active Duty Air Force Officer, Om Prakash, published a study of gays in the military in a military journal edited by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that called the current policy a failure and called for its immediate reversal. The article, which was entitled, “The Efficacy of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'” and appeared in Joint Force Quarterly, concluded that “there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly.” Based on this research, Prakash wrote that “it is time for the administration to examine how to implement the repeal of the ban.”20
  • Also in October 2009, the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, a former Republican member of Congress, indicated that they Army is prepared to lift the ban on openly gay service. Secretary McHugh became the highest official inside the Pentagon to express such support, telling the Army Times that there was no reason to fear that major difficulties would result from lifting the ban, and that he would help implement the policy change when the time comes. “The Army has a big history of taking on similar issues,” he said, with “predictions of doom and gloom that did not play out.”21
  • In 2010, VetVoice, a project of VoteVets.org, conducted a bi-partisan national telephone survey of 510 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, which found that 34% favored allowing openly gay service, while 36% opposed it. When asked, “Personally, how comfortable are you in the presence of gays and lesbians?” 73% said they were comfortable (37% “very comfortable” and 35% “somewhat comfortable”), while 24% were uncomfortable (17% “somewhat uncomfortable” and 7% “very uncomfortable”).22
  • In February 2010, Adm. Mike Mullen became the first sitting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to call for an end to the gay ban, saying: “Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me personally, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution. I also believe that the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change. I never underestimate their ability to adapt.”23
  • Also in February 2010 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he “fully supports” President Obama's intent to “work with Congress this year to repeal the law known as 'don't ask, don't tell'” and that he would lead the Pentagon “to begin the preparations necessary for a repeal of the current law and policy.” Secretary Gates further stated, to Congress, “The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change but how we best prepare for it. We have received our orders from the commander in chief and we are moving out accordingly. However we can also take this process only so far, as the ultimate decision rests with you, the Congress.”24
  • Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said in February that he supports the President's plan to move ahead with repeal. Gen. Petraeus said he is not sure that troops in the field care one way or the other about the sexual orientation of fellow service members, and that he has served with gays and lesbians. He also commented that skill matters more than sexual orientation: “You say, 'how's his shooting,' or 'how's her analysis?'”25
  • Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, told Senate lawmakers n February that he thinks gays and lesbians should be permitted to serve openly in the military. He said the opinions expressed are his alone, that he and the Navy Department would follow the president's orders and Congress' laws, and that if the Defense Department finds that doing so would hurt military readiness, he would oppose it. Nonetheless, he expressed support for repeal, noting that gays already serve in the military, and that it was important to distinguish between orientation and conduct. He said sailors and marines are sanguine about the issue and that he has “absolute faith in the Navy and the Marine Corps to carry out any mission they're given, including this one, without any diminution in fighting value.”26
  • The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, told reporters at the Pentagon in February when asked about openly gay service: “My opinion is everyone should be allowed to serve, as long as we're still able to fight our wars and we're able to have forces that are capable of doing whatever we're asked to do.” Gen. Odierno said, “I don't have time to think about” the question of openly gay service and he has not focused on the issue because “we're kind of busy right now, trying to do our job in Iraq.”27
  • Gen. Colin Powell, whose support for "don't ask, don't tell" was instrumental in maintaining a gay ban for the last two decades, said in February 2010 that “attitudes and circumstances have changed” since 1993, and that “if the chiefs and commanders are comfortable with moving to change the policy, then I support it.”28
  1. Col. Om Prakash, “The Efficacy of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell',” Joint Force Quarterly (4th quarter 2009): 88-94.
  2. Defense Force Management: DOD's Policy on Homosexuality,” U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), June 12, 1992.
  3. Elizabeth Kier, et al., “Rights and fights: Sexual orientation and military effectiveness,” International Security, 24 (1999), 181-201; Laura L. Miller, “Fighting for a just cause: Soldiers' views on gays in the military,” in Wilbur J. Scott and Sandra Carson Stanley, eds., Gays and lesbians in the military (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1994), 69-85.
  4. John W. Bicknell, “Study of Naval Officers' Attitudes toward Homosexuals in the Military,” master's thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, March 2000.
  5. Interview with Tim Russert, Meet the Press, NBC News, June 15, 2003.
  6. John Hutson, “Retire a Bad Military Policy,” National Law Journal, August 4, 2003; “Senior Admiral Says Lifting Gay Ban Would Strengthen Military,” news release, Palm Center, University of California, Santa Barbara, August 21, 2003; “Defeating 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'” panel discussion, Yale Law School, October 5, 2006.
  7. National Annenberg Election Survey, NEAS 04, 2004.
  8. Thom Shanker and Patrick Healy, “A New Push to Roll Back 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” New York Times, November 29, 2007; Statement of 28 Generals and Admirals, November 30, 2007.
  9. Associated Press, “Admirals, generals: Let gays serve openly,” MSNBC, November 18, 2008.
  10. Zogby International, “Opinions of Military Personnel on Gays in the Military,” December 2006.
  11. John Shalikashvili, “Second Thoughts on Gays in the Military,” New York Times, January 2, 2007.
  12. Alan Simpson, “Bigotry That Hurts Our Military,” Washington Post, March 14, 2007.
  13. Nathaniel Frank, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009), 280.
  14. Nathaniel Frank, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009), 115-117.
  15. Brigadier General Hugh Aitken, Lieutenant General Minter Alexander, Lieutenant General Robert Gard, and Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, “Report of the General/Flag Officers' Study Group,” Palm Center, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2008.
  16. 104 Generals and Admirals: Gay Ban Must End,” news release, Palm Center, University of California, Santa Barbara, November 17, 2008.
  17. Brendan McGarry, “Troops Oppose Repeal of 'Don't Ask,'; But Most Troops Would Stay In if Ban Ends,” Military Times, December 29, 2008.
  18. 'Don't Ask, Don't tell' Survey Results (Active Duty),” Military Times, November 2009.
  19. Barbara Starr, “Defense chief giving 'don't ask, don't tell' a closer look,” CNN, July 1, 2009.
  20. Col. Om Prakash, “The Efficacy of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell',” Joint Force Quarterly (4th quarter 2009): 94.
  21. Rick Maze, “McHugh: Focus is on Where Service Falls Short,” Army Times, October 26, 2009.
  22. National Survey of 510 Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans,” February 8-23, 2010.
  23. Hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee, February 2, 2010, as transcribed by Lexis Nexis.
  24. Hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee, February 2, 2010, as transcribed by Lexis Nexis.
  25. Lawmakers to Press Military on Fate of Gay Ban,” Gay & Lesbian Times, February 25, 2010.
  26. Philip Ewing, “SecNavy Tells Senate He Supports DADT repeal,” Navy Times, February 25, 2010.
  27. Justin Fishel, “Top Iraq General on Gays in the Military,” FoxNews.com, February 22, 2010.
  28. Karen DeYoung, “Powell Reverses View on Gays in Military; Ex-Secretary of State Now Says Serving Openly Should be Allowed,” Washington Post, February 4, 2010.
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