New Study of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Repeal Helped the Military

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 20 2012 7:45 AM

The Last Word on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

A new study shows repealing it helped the military.

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Our in-depth interviews with 62 gay and straight service members corroborate the surveys data. A heterosexual Army Ranger, for instance, said that repealing “don't ask, don't tell” “didn’t affect cohesion... or how we interact, or force us to change any sort of accommodations for anyone.” Another straight solder said, “It was a nonevent, like driving over a flat road. You don’t even notice a ripple.”

Not everyone was cheery about repeal. Yet, while some troops told us they remained personally opposed to openly gay service, the germane point is that overall morale and readiness did not suffer as a result of the policy change. A heterosexual Air Force captain said that even when military members felt personal opposition to homosexuality, this did not generally translate into poor behavior and unit-wide disruptions. “That’s just not how it works,” he said. “Individuals may have a problem, but there is no problem with the group opinion.” As West Point Chief of Staff Colonel Gus Stafford told us, much of the military community “underestimated the adaptability and capability of our young people to adapt.”

It was easy for us to conclude from our research that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” did no harm. But we found we could go beyond that: We can also report that after the military ended the gay ban, the institution itself improved, and not just for gay people but for the overall force. Lifting the ban, we found, improved the ability of the military to do its job by removing needless barriers to peer bonding, effective leadership and discipline.

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According to our interviews, peer relations improved as a greater degree of honesty and authenticity “promoted increased understanding, respect and acceptance.” Leadership advanced because commanders can better understand and address the needs of their subordinates when troops are able to speak freely. One officer said the ban had hindered military leaders from helping ensure the personal readiness of their sailors: Commanders had been scared to ask basic personal questions lest they learn something they’d have to report. With the policy change, said the officer, “everyone from leadership down were relieved.” Harassment against gay troops is easier to report and address now that gay victims don’t fear that their own career could end if they speak up. We found repeated instances where coming out or being out elicited more respectful treatment, and allowed service members to successfully navigate what would otherwise have been an interpersonal minefield—rife with rumors, innuendo and threats. Removing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in short, has enhanced bonding, trust, discipline and the rule of law inside the military, by eliminating conditions that had bred suspicion and mistreatment.

Our research on gays in the military adds to an emerging body of evidence that’s countering the long-held assumption that LGBT equality is harmful to society. This is a key lesson. After all, the public debate over same-sex marriage continues to hang on the question of whether it harms kids and families, another assertion that’s never been proved. The latest such claim, a study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus, which he wrote about for Slate, not only sparked much criticism but earned a formal reprimand after Social Science Research, which published the study, asked an editorial board member to review it. Among other flaws, Regnerus relied on a sample size of two respondents raised by same-sex couples. Darren Sherkat, the sociologist who performed the review, summed up his assessment in an interview: “It’s bullshit.” We don’t yet know if that’s the best word to describe all empirical claims that LGBT equality hurts society—more data (and more equality) are still needed. But if you’re looking for facts to back up your anti-gay values, they are becoming ever harder to find.

Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, is the director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School.