April 16th, 2009
05:29 PM ET

Allow gays to serve openly in military

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/16/art.army.jpg width=292 height=320]
Nathaniel Frank
Special to CNN

This week, four senior retired officers wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post predicting "grave harm" to the military if President Obama moves forward with his vow to let gays serve openly.

"Our experience," they wrote, "and that of more than 1,000 retired flag and general officers," suggest that lifting the ban would harm unit cohesion, recruitment and retention, and would ultimately "break the All-Volunteer Force."

The argument is an old one, and was an effective canard in defeating President Clinton's move to lift the ban in 1993. But it has never been rooted in fact or evidence, and the effort of these officers to defeat equal treatment this time around will face mountains of opposing data and a dramatically changed cultural landscape.

The officers who oppose openly gay service do not base their arguments on any new information. In addition to their own experience - an impressive credential that's nevertheless too vague to hang an argument on - the officers rely on a single poll.

They cite an unscientific survey - it does not draw from a representative sampling but from newspaper subscribers - indicating that 58 percent of the military oppose lifting the ban and that, if it's lifted, 24 percent claim they will leave or consider leaving after their tour ends.

But it's naïve at best, and disingenuous at worst, to confuse this opinion survey with a sound prediction of actual behavior. When both Britain and Canada proposed lifting their gay bans in the 1990s, similar opinion surveys found much higher numbers - about two-thirds in both cases - claiming they, too, would leave. In each case, no more than three departures were attributed to the policy change. Three.

In fact, the evidence showing that openly gay service works is overwhelming. Since 1957, when the U.S. military began doing its own studies on gays in the military, every last bit of research has shown that openly gay service works.

Studies of foreign militaries include a 1993 Government Accountability Office study of allied nations that found that "the presence of homosexuals in the military is not an issue and has not created problems in the functioning of military units"; a 1994 assessment by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences finding that predicted negative consequences of ending gay exclusion in the Canadian Forces never materialized; the 2000 assessment of the British Ministry of Defense, calling its new policy of equal treatment "a solid achievement" with "no discernible impact" on recruitment or other critical variables; and four academic studies conducted by the Palm Center, where I work, finding that lifting bans in Britain, Israel, Canada and Australia had no negative impact on military readiness, including on recruitment and retention.

The officers writing in The Washington Post question the relevance of foreign militaries to this debate, mocking the idea that the U.S. military "must emulate Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada." But they failed to note that 24 of our closest allies let gays serve openly, including Britain, whose combat-tested soldiers and sailors serve shoulder to shoulder with U.S. forces.

While our military and culture are unique in the world, it's an astonishing vote of no-confidence in American troops to say that they are not capable of doing what 24 other militaries have done successfully. Ours is a professional, disciplined fighting force, and the assertion that a diverse military would lack order and discipline is, as Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran, has said, "an insult" to him and the entire U.S. military.

But it's not just foreign militaries that provide real evidence on gay service. A majority of U.S. troops know of, or suspect, gays in their units, giving the lie to the most basic assumption underlying the gay ban: that openly gay service could never work.

After all, gays are already serving, and serving openly, without causing problems. Yet despite the law's failure to keep many open gays out, the ban's persistence means that gay troops are subject to random dismissals and are often unable to access military support services for fear of being found out and fired.

Even extensive research by our own military has concluded the gay ban is unnecessary, including a large 1993 study by the RAND Corporation - a think tank created by the military itself - and two official military studies - a 1989 study by the Defense Personnel Security Research Center and the Navy's 1957 Crittenden report - which all found sexual orientation is irrelevant to military performance.

Indeed, neither the military nor anyone else has ever turned up a shred of evidence tying openly gay service to impairment of the military.

When the officers' claims are pitted against the wealth of actual facts and research on this issue, they are shown for what they really are: fear and intolerance, rooted in a world that's largely disappeared. Indeed, the vast majority of these retired officers, including the authors of this week's op-ed, retired before the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy even began in 1994.

Their military is not the same as today's, where three-quarters of troops are "personally comfortable" with gays and lesbians, and "don't ask, don't tell" is considered "a joke."

These officers attribute current efforts to lift the ban to "gay rights activists," when in fact, according to consistent polling, four-fifths of the American public favors repeal, including majorities of Republicans, conservatives and even churchgoers. It also includes many retired officers who did serve under, and used to support, the current policy, such as Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who sees the ban as a threat to military readiness.

The officers say there is "no compelling national security reason" to accept the "risks" of lifting the ban, which they say include the likely loss of "experienced personnel who are not easily replaced." But under current policy, more than 800 "mission-critical specialists" have been fired just because they're gay, including more than 60 Arabic linguists.

Due to the military's overall struggle to meet its recruiting goals, it has had to lower standards and admit convicted felons.

Kicking out capable troops while replacing them with ex-convicts is not a recipe for good order and discipline. Forcing soldiers to lie to each other is not good for morale or cohesion.

Drumming out Arabic linguists at a time when we don't have enough to translate what our enemies are saying is bad, not good, for national security. If these officers care more about our nation than about preserving an embalmed military culture, they'll cease and desist.

Filed under: Nathaniel Frank • Raw Politics
soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Darlene

    The DADT Policy is outdated. People are people. When so many are on their forth and fifth tours downrange...everybody is welcome. As the writer above said, homosexuals will have to follow the same rues as everyone else. No PDA (public display of affection). They won't be able to trade in their ACUs for pink dresses, we have regulations for appearance on and off duty. I've been in for over 20 years and their have always been homosexuals and lesbians in the military. although they cannot say they are gay, everyone knows they are. They don't bother me and I don't bother them. Times have changed and we must change with the times. I don't have to like what they do but I have to understand that they exisit and hav the same rights as I do.

    April 16, 2009 at 10:33 pm |
  2. Jim

    there should not be any special roght for gays any place in the united states or the world.

    April 16, 2009 at 10:32 pm |
  3. Christopher

    Gays should be able openly express who they are in this world. Who are we to tell someone how to act and how to feel. If they are willing to lay their lives down for our country then they are doing way more than half of the people who are complaining about gays in the military. Get with the program, being gay is not wrong, and people should not have to hide it.

    April 16, 2009 at 10:19 pm |
  4. Mark York

    I am absolutely apposed to gays serving in the military let alone openly. The potential for the spread of aids during war time activities is much greater based upon statistics. Additionally, in my mind this is absolutely against christian views/beliefs. Our country is heading down a very grave path as far as I'm concerned. I'm fully aware that this type of activity has gone on for years, but it doesn't make it right.

    April 16, 2009 at 10:17 pm |
  5. emi rubio

    I have been in the military for 11 years now, and do not agree with homosexuals to practice their orientation out in the open. It does not contribute to the good order of the military, it causes a climate of mistrust amongst the troops, and can be dangerous for the soldier who is homosexual.

    April 16, 2009 at 10:14 pm |
  6. hemp

    Openly serve gay but they will have to uphold the same rules the current men serve. No public afection in uniform, no sex in the bunks, ect. They will have to follow the same rules as heterosexuals and not cry wolf. Sexual harassment is currently a big issue now.

    April 16, 2009 at 9:46 pm |
  7. Ryan

    From what I can tell by those I've been serving with in the military for the past few years, many of those who "fear" the repeal of DADT or "fear" gays in general harbor the old sterotype of homosexuality: flamers or "dikes". Those are vague and discriminatory ideas that still have a strong footing among many poeple who just don't know how things really are. There are plenty of gay men (like me) and women who don't identifiy themselves or what to be identified as "gay." Instead, they just view themselves as normal people who happen to like people of the same gender. People think if the DADT policy is repealed throngs of gays will reveal themsevles and act the sterotypes that many fear, but that is a completely unrealistic idea. The most importnat thing the repeal of DADT will do is not make everyone come out of the closet, it will just allow those who serve secretly to stop fearing dismissal because of nature. If they want to come out, they can, but even if they don't, they will not have to fear punishment because of who they are.

    April 16, 2009 at 9:29 pm |
  8. dina212

    Lifting of bans is not going to necessarily protect someone from getting bashed by a homophobe. Look what happened to Barry Winchell. If people are open about their sexuality, do you feel they aren't going to be bashed? I'm FOR this but in this instance I hope that by granting them this right that it doesn't make them more of a target.

    April 16, 2009 at 8:34 pm |
  9. Donna

    It is so very sad knowing we are in the 21st century, and the young gay men and lesbian women that volunteer to serve and die for their country, are expected to hide their true selves.
    Here's hoping that more opened minded people can call the shots, and everyone will have equal rights.

    April 16, 2009 at 7:48 pm |
  10. Bryon

    I served in the military and there alot of closet gays and lesbians serving. Everyone knows who they are and they are accepted for the mear fact that they have the courage to server our country.

    April 16, 2009 at 7:25 pm |
  11. flagryphon

    It is time for the military to acknowledge that any American who will lay down their life for our freedom should not only be allowed to serve with dignity and pride, but should be priased for his or her patriatism!

    April 16, 2009 at 7:20 pm |
  12. Trent - Athens, GA


    I'm a Sociology major at The University of Georgia and I am currently working on a policy paper on this very issue. You present a wonderful summary of this problem, with compelling and damning evidence in support of repeal of this discriminatory policy. Thanks for the good work, keep it up.

    April 16, 2009 at 7:17 pm |
  13. Christopher

    I don't think sexual preference should matter while serving your country.

    April 16, 2009 at 7:13 pm |
  14. georgia

    I never understand why gay men were never allowed to openly serve in the military? What was the reason behind it???

    April 16, 2009 at 6:52 pm |
  15. Jason

    Being ex military and gay I think Don't Ask Don't Tell is for the safety of the gay service members. Even as a closeted homosexual at the time I endured both directly and indirectly significant amounts of homophobia and gay bashing. If it were to get lifted one out look is you will lose alot of good servicemen and women who are not comfortable with serving with homosexuals but will gain that many who are gay or don't enlist because they feel the policy is too discriminatory. Truth be told no one can know for sure the outcome until it happens.

    April 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm |
  16. d. schulz

    This well reasoned piece is what should have appeared in the Washington Post instead of the piece by the old retired guys. Our children are teaching us everyday that people are just people. Thank God the lessons of Ghandi, King, and Jesus did sink in...skin color, sex or orientation make no difference as long as the job gets done.
    Go Army!

    April 16, 2009 at 6:49 pm |
  17. Cate Malone, Omaha, NE

    It is insane in this, 2009, in what is supposed to be the "land of the free", we still discriminate out of bigotry. When are we going to stop allowing bigots to write our laws????

    April 16, 2009 at 6:45 pm |
  18. Wael Binali

    I agree 100%. Not letting gays and lesbians serve their country openly is a total joke. They are putting their lives on the line for the rest of the country and they can't be who they are? They have to lie about it? That's just insane, and it's about time for America to grow up.

    April 16, 2009 at 6:41 pm |
  19. Jim- Calif

    HMMM – Thats an Idea- Lets clear out our Prisons of Convicted Fellons Like Charles Manson Who loves to Kill & Send them over to take care of the Somolian Pirate problem, Or Drop them over to find Osama , Or to take out the Mexican Drug Cartells.

    April 16, 2009 at 6:30 pm |
  20. Mr. L

    My partner currently is serving in the US Military. He is 100% in the closet, and it is one of the hardest things for him to do. He will be leaving for Iraq again in a few months, I will not see him when he goes for fear of being outed, etc. We have talked at length about the lift of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and while he is very happy to see that the ban may soon be lifted, he has decided that if the ban is lifted while he is still active he will not come out for fear of being harmed, isolated, killing the morale among a unit he has been with for many years... I think lifting the ban is a great thing and hope that it does happen as I think everyone should be free to serve openly, but I can understand the morale parts, trust factors, etc as well after hiding something for so long from people you become so close with over the days, months, years while you are serving.

    April 16, 2009 at 6:29 pm |
  21. Donna

    It is sad that in the 21st century, many young gay men and lesbian women are willing to lay down their lives for their country, but are asked to hide their true selves in order to do this.
    For the OLD cronies and Bible Thumpers, get with it...people are people first, and their sexuality is far down the line of why they are willing to serve their country.

    April 16, 2009 at 6:27 pm |
  22. Fay - California

    DADT is a senseless policy which needs to be repealed–the studies cited in this article provide ample proof that gays serving openly in the military is not a detriment to morale. To continue a policy that is stripping the military of highly trained and experienced people because of their sexuality is beyond foolish.

    April 16, 2009 at 6:10 pm |
  23. paulernestshow

    Are gays not Americans? They have equal responsibility toward our national security, just as we socalled "straight men" do. And if any American wishes to defend his or her country, why should sexual orientation be a hinderance. They have been there for ages and should continue to serve. As a veteran, all that was required of us was to always keep our military bearing and as long as they adhere to military rules, they are good as any one else.

    April 16, 2009 at 5:49 pm |
  24. Annie Kate

    If sexual orientation is irrelevant to military performance then why does it matter if gays can openly declare their sexual orientation? I for one don't think it is any of my business what anyone else's sexual orientation is – it comes under the heading of too much information (TMI) for me. I don't care who sleeps with who; I just want the military to do a good job, which they are doing.

    April 16, 2009 at 5:37 pm |