September 15, 2006

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Redux

Posted at 3:12 pm (Pacific Time)

Yesterday the New York Times reported on renewed efforts to repeal the US military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian personnel (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or DADT).

Despite strong public support for allowing sexual minorities to serve, and even though most of our allies no longer restrict service in their militaries on the basis of sexual orientation, the Department of Defense (DoD) continues to argue that DADT is necessary. As in the past, its current justification for the policy is that the presence of openly gay and lesbian personnel would interfere with the military’s ability to accomplish its mission.

The essence of the DoD’s rationale is that the problem isn’t really about homosexual personnel. Rather, it’s heterosexual servicemembers and military leadership. Heterosexuals have so much antipathy for gay people, so the Pentagon believes, that they’d be unable and unwilling to serve alongside them. Moreover, the DoD claims it is powerless to prevent this hostility from interfering with the military mission.

Scientific research and policy studies have never supported the military’s arguments in this regard. In the early 1990s, Prof. Robert MacCoun reviewed the relevant social science research literature on this topic for the RAND corporation and concluded that, although some heterosexual personnel might personally dislike gay or lesbian servicemembers, this dislike wasn’t likely to impair unit performance. Recently, Prof. MacCoun and his colleagues revisited the research and came to the same conclusion: “All of the evidence indicates that military performance depends on whether service members are committed to the same professional goals, not on whether they like one another” (Does Social Cohesion Determine Motivation In Combat? An Old Question With An Old Answer, p. 652).

In a similar vein, last year Prof. Aaron Belkin and I published a review of the research relevant to the DoD’s arguments about the supposed threats to unit cohesion and privacy created by sexual minority personnel (Sexual Orientation And Military Service: Prospects For Organizational And Individual Change In The United States). We concluded that the military is capable of meeting any challenges associated with implementing a new policy that permits sexual minority personnel to serve. (For more information, see the DADT section of my website.)

At a time when most branches of the military are having difficulty meeting their recruitment quotas, and when reserve units are being called up for service in the Middle East, it seems supremely foolish to exclude an entire class of potential recruits through policies that are based on prejudice rather than fact.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.