NBA player Jason Collins’ declaration that he’s gay has been followed, thankfully, by supportive messages from peers like Dwyane Wade, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker. In the lead up to this highly anticipated moment, though, there have been plenty of negative comments from athletes and pundits about the potential negative consequences of open homosexuality in sports.
Chris Clemons, a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, posted on Twitter that it would be “selfish” for an athlete to come out, as it would entail “trying to make themselves bigger than the team” and would “separate a locker room and divide a team.” Louisiana State University football coach Les Miles said recently that if a player on his team came out, he would have to assess “how I saw locker rooms and how I saw travel and how I saw staying in hotel rooms and how I saw those things. If that’s not an issue, I think things could be resolved.” LSU running back Alfred Blue also let loose with stereotypes of gay men as unmanly: “Football is supposed to be this violent sport—this aggressive sport that grown men are supposed to play,” he said. “Ain’t no little boys out here between them lines. So if you gay, we look at you as a sissy. You know? Like, how you going to say you can do what we do and you want a man?” (Blue later apologized.) Even otherwise sympathetic commentators, like Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, suggest that having a teammate come out as gay would “create a major distraction for himself, his teammates, and his entire organization.”
Those arguments should sound familiar—every last one of them was tossed around by those who supported the U.S. military’s ban on openly gay troops. It would undermine group cohesion and hurt the mission, they warned. It would mean putting the individual above the group. It would cause chaos in the showers and locker rooms. It would be a “distraction.”
Yet in the years leading up to the 2011 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and in the years since its demise, every last empirical argument has been dismantled, leaving only the moral and religious claims of anti-gay advocates in their place. So what are the lessons we can learn from the research and reality of ending DADT as we move into an era of openly gay professional athletes?
First, concerns about privacy in the showers, team cohesion, and mission effectiveness turn out to be unfounded. The data on this are overwhelming. A large body of military, organizational, psychological, and workplace research dating back to World War II shows that it’s not social cohesion but what researchers call “task cohesion” that matters to achieving a group mission. Berkeley psychologist Robert MacCoun, who contributed to a RAND Corp. study that the Pentagon commissioned when it first considered openly gay service in 1993, later published the results of an extensive review of 50 years of research covering nearly 200 publications. MacCoun concluded that “it is task cohesion, not social cohesion or group pride, that drives group performance. This conclusion is consistent with the results of hundreds of studies in the industrial-organizational psychology literature.” In other words, it’s a myth that group members have to share the same values, or even like each other, to work together effectively. The positive correlation between group cohesion and mission performance results not from affection but from group members being mutually committed to the task at hand.
Even if you’re skeptical of this research and believe that social cohesion matters, there’s no evidence that the presence of open gays undermines social cohesion in organizations like the military, the workplace, or sports teams. That’s especially true in today’s society, with acceptance of homosexuality at unprecedented levels. Of course, many group members may not like gay people. But as an empirical question—what is its impact on cohesion and effectiveness?—research shows it’s a nonissue.
All this was known while DADT was still in place and was confirmed by the military itself in the most extensive research ever undertaken on openly gay military service. But since DADT ended, empirical research has further confirmed what many LGBT advocates had been saying for years: that equality in the military would not harm the force. In a study I co-wrote and reported on in Slate, a team of military and academic scholars found in exhaustive research that allowing gays to serve openly in the U.S. military “has had no negative impact on overall military readiness or its component parts: unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.”
A second lesson from the DADT battle is that openly gay group members only become a “distraction” when straight people make a fuss about it. In 2010, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, warned that the presence of openly gay service members would cause “a distraction” and that “mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines’ lives.” I’ll refrain from making a joke here about why so many Marines seem to worry about finding open gays so distracting. Suffice it to say that, while few serious observers expected that ending the ban would somehow lead to an increase in casualties, not even the Family Research Council has made such a claim in the more than two years since repeal was announced.
I know of just one documented case in which the presence of an openly gay person actually generated a ruckus in the force. In that case, the disturbance was caused by opposition to his reinstatement into the Navy and the media coverage that attended it. In 1992, as the nation was debating Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to allow gay service, Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, a flight systems instructor in the Navy, announced he was gay on ABC News. Meinhold was discharged, successfully sued the Navy, and was reinstated.
As the DADT compromise emerged in Congress, press reports indicated that the chief of naval operations was “deluged with angry questions from sailors and officers about the lifting of the ban.” Navy officials seized on the story to fan the flames of opposition and resentment, citing the sailor’s court-ordered return and the media circus as evidence that gays hurt morale. But of course Meinhold would never have “returned” to the Navy if he hadn’t been kicked out by an anti-gay policy in the first place. And in reality, the disruptions caused by his return were minor and temporary and were largely spurred on by the grandstanding of bitter senior officials.
The Meinhold story contains two lessons. First, responsibility for whatever disruptions may be caused by prejudice lie at the feet of the perpetrators, not the victims. Second is the importance of top leadership in sending clear signals that bias and discrimination won’t be tolerated, a principle that’s become a cliché but is consistently borne out by research on the role of leaders in group organizations.
A final lesson from DADT is a positive one. Research has shown—both before and after DADT was in place—that there are incalculable benefits to being out. The closet has harsh consequences to mental well-being and to the cohesion and integrity of a group, both because of the emotional repression it causes LGBT people and the disregard for honesty that it imposes. My research post-DADT confirmed numerous benefits to ending the policy.
As I’ve explained, the real source of opposition to equal treatment for open gays and lesbians is not the harm that it would cause to American institutions, whether the military, marriage, or professional sports. There isn’t any, unless by “harm” you mean violating the sectarian moral sensibilities of a shrinking minority of people and eroding heterosexual privilege. The real source of resistance to equality is moral and religious. Some athletes and fans may not like having open gays in their midst. But claims that it will harm their favorite teams are, based on the evidence, very unlikely to be true. Let’s not forget that sports are supposed to be fun and games. If the armed forces, where life really does hang in the balance, can accommodate open gays, professional sports surely can, too.