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Implementing the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. Armed Forces

SOURCE: AP/Anja Niedringhaus

Once the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law is repealed there are a number of fairly limited and manageable administrative, bureaucratic, and legal changes that must be made to the military’s internal regulations dealing with benefits, housing, conduct, and other relevant topics.

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Event: Implementing the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (CAP Action)

It is long past time to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the military. As the Center for American Progress noted in a June 2009 report, the policy is discriminatory, has led to the discharge of thousands of qualified men and women, and has deterred untold others who want to defend their country from serving. Additionally, thousands more men and women in uniform voluntarily leave the service every year because of the law. Repealing it is the right thing to do, can be accomplished quickly, and would require few changes in military regulations and practices.

The highest-ranking civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon agree it’s time to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that they fully support the Obama administration’s decision to work with Congress to repeal the law this year. Admiral Mullen went further, stating it was his personal belief that “allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

This is the type of leadership needed to once and for all put an end to this policy. Now that these leaders have announced that they do not believe that military effectiveness would suffer if openly gay men and lesbians were allowed to serve, proponents of maintaining this outdated, discriminatory, counterproductive, and most likely illegal policy can no longer base their support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the groundless assertion that open homosexuality undermines unit cohesion and military readiness. Many of our nation’s closest allies have already repealed their bans on open military service by gays and lesbians. And as their successful experiences demonstrate, effective leadership and consistent execution of policies that create equal standards for all service members can and do ensure that readiness and cohesion are not affected by open service policies.

This month, the Defense Department is reportedly set to announce it will relax the enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Specifically, the department will raise the level of an officer who is authorized to conduct or initiate a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” inquiry; raise the bar on what constitutes credible information to initiate an inquiry; and raise the bar on what constitutes a reliable person in making an accusation.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced legislation in the Senate on March 3, 2010, to repeal the 17-year-old law that resembles similar legislation already introduced in the House of Representatives by Iraq war veteran Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA), the Military Readiness Enhancement Act. These developments are encouraging.

But this is not enough. The president and his national security team must begin working directly with Congress to enact legislation decisively overturning the 1993 law. Instead of actually supporting the legislation that has been introduced in both Houses of Congress, the Pentagon has appointed a high-level working group to “ensure that the department is ready should the law be changed.” This group has three main tasks:

  • To reach out to members of the armed services to gauge their views on the issue
  • To undertake a thorough examination of all changes to the department’s regulations that will be needed if the policy is repealed
  • To examine the potential impact of the repeal on military readiness

Secretary Gates also instructed the RAND Corporation to update its 1993 study on the impact of allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military in testimony before Congress in February. The secretary noted the review could take up to a year to complete. But this is nonsense. The working group’s first two tasks or objectives have already been completed.

Numerous official government studies dating back to the 1950s confirm that reversing the ban on gays and lesbians in the military will not undermine unit effectiveness or cohesion. According to the Palm Center at the University of California-Santa Barbara, “no reputable or peer-reviewed study has ever shown that allowing service by openly gay personnel will compromise military effectiveness.” In fact, historian Nathaniel Frank, perhaps the foremost authority on the military’s current policy on gay troops and author of the seminal study on the issue, notes that the ban itself is not “based on sound research because no research has ever shown that openly gay service hurts the military.”

The Clinton administration learned the hard way that studying the impact of the change on military readiness “further would cause waste, delay, and a possible backlash” when it was forced to set up the Military Working Group—many of whose members opposed Clinton’s policy—to study the question of open service.7 Congressional proponents of maintaining the ban on homosexual service members—which existed prior to Clinton’s 1993 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise—used the opportunity created by the Working Group’s 1993 review to conduct sensationalist hearings questioning the feasibility of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.

The 1993 RAND study demonstrated conclusively that any delay would be counterproductive. RAND went further to state that the “new policy regarding homosexuals in the military…be decided upon and implemented as quickly as possible.” RAND based its recommendation on the prediction that any delay would cause undue anxiety The working group’s first two tasks or objectives have already been completed. within the services, allow opponents to work together to undermine the potential policy change, and signal a lack of commitment to the policy. And that’s exactly what happened.

Similarly, the views of service members on this issue have already been thoroughly examined. The Military Times conducted a poll of the opinions of U.S. service members on the issue earlier this year. The poll demonstrated that opposition to gays serving openly in the military sharply declined among service members in recent years. The poll of 3,000 active duty troops revealed that opposition to gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military fell to about half (51 percent) from nearly two-thirds (65 percent) in 2004. Additionally, a recent poll of recently returned Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that 73 percent are personally comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians, including 37 percent who are very comfortable. This means today’s military is much more supportive of allowing gays to serve openly than were service members of the past to other social changes such as integrating African Americans or opening up combat positions to women.

Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that the troops themselves have simply moved on. Shortly after Admiral Mullen’s dramatic testimony before Congress, he did not receive a single question on the potential change in policy toward gays and lesbians during a trip to visit service members stationed in Jordan. And Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Darryl Robinson, the operations coordinator for the defense attaché office at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, told reporters after the admiral’s question-and-answer session that “The U.S. military was always at the forefront of social change… We didn’t wait for laws to change.”

Most importantly, while consulting our troops must be a component of the process to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” leaving the decision up to the troops alone would be unprecedented and would undermine the chain of command. What the Department of Defense should do is engage our men and women in uniform in a discussion about the information and resources they believe would be most helpful to them during the implementation of the new policy.

The Pentagon’s review should also recognize the overwhelming support of the American people for overturning the ban. Seventy-five percent of Americans in a recent Washington Post poll supported openly gay people serving in the U.S. military, up from 62 percent in early 2001 and 44 percent in 1993, when President Clinton tried to overturn the ban. Overturning the policy enjoys broad appeal across partisan lines as well: The same poll found that majorities across party lines favor repeal, “with support among Democrats (82 percent) and independents (77 percent) higher than among Republicans (64 percent).”

The Pentagon’s working group should, however, undertake the second objective and begin a review of the rules and regulations that must be updated in order to effectively and seamlessly implement the policy change. But this review must focus on how to implement the change rather than whether or not to do so.

Those who take the point of view that there must be a long period of transition are simply setting up a straw man to hide their real agenda, which is to maintain the current ban. Given these arguments, it is critical that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” not be perceived as a complicated puzzle requiring complex solutions to minor problems. Substantial research finds that transitioning to an inclusive policy would be significantly less difficult than proponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” claim. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell recently overstated the complexity of this transition when he said on March 3, 2010—after Sen. Lieberman introduced his bill to repeal the policy—that “we need to know more than we know about what the potential impact would be.”

But as this study and the experiences of some of our closest allies will demonstrate, once the law is repealed there are a number of fairly limited and manageable administrative, bureaucratic, and legal changes that must be made to the military’s internal regulations dealing with benefits, housing, conduct, and other relevant topics. Most existing regulations are already neutral with respect to sexual orientation and therefore don’t need to be modified. Others will require minor changes in legislation or additional executive guidance.

This report will analyze the eight critical areas where we believe the military must change rules and regulations in order to effectively implement the new policy. For the most part, these are minor changes to existing standards and can be instituted relatively quickly. Before making our specific recommendations for U.S. policy, we will examine the experiences of our allies in Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom to demonstrate how their militaries successfully integrated openly gay men and women into their armed forces. Analyzing their experiences will make clear that the U.S. military does not need months or years to make this change, and that the transition can be made quickly and easily.

Twenty-five nations allow openly gay men and women to serve in their militaries, including the majority of our NATO allies. But this report relies primarily on the United Kingdom, Canada, and Israel. These countries were chosen for several reasons.

First, their militaries are structured like ours. Their forces deploy globally and are frequently ordered to live in close quarters, such as on submarines. Second, their forces maintain a high level of readiness and engage in combat frequently. Third, the Canadians, Britons, and Israelis share a set of progressive cultural values similar to those of the United States. While the culture of the American military—or any military for that matter— has certain distinct features, the experiences of these militaries, which resemble our own, can provide valuable insight into how the United States should approach the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Finally, these countries dropped the ban on gays serving openly in the military around the same time that the United States decided not to do so.

Proponents of maintaining the policy argue that the U.S. military must conclude its exhaustive and in many ways redundant review process before Congress begins drafting and enacting legislation for the law’s repeal. We disagree. The Pentagon is fully capable of providing a list of administrative and procedural changes to Congress while both houses take up their respective pieces of legislation.

Nor is there a need for an excessively long implementation period. As noted above, Secretary Gates has indicated that even after Congress repeals the law, the Pentagon could take up to a year to implement the new policy. But the experiences of foreign militaries and RAND’s 1993 study indicate that immediate implementation not only can be done but is also the most effective way to make the policy change.

The Palm Center also notes that leadership and consistency will be incredibly important to the repeal: “Senior leaders must send clear signals of support for the new policy, and ensure that commanders discipline those who disobey it. In addition, the military must have a single code of conduct that applies irrespective of sexual orientation, and that holds every service member to the same behavioral standards.”

The experiences of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Israel make it clear that integrating openly gay men and women into the armed forces need not be the laborious and contentious process some fear. Several administrative and policy changes can ease the transition, and a wide body of literature and practical experience exists to guide this process.

All reputable military, academic, and popular studies and polls show that the American people are ready for this costly, ineffective, and discriminatory policy to end. The military’s top uniformed and civilian leadership has signaled that it is in favor of repeal, too. Now is the time for Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon to improve military readiness by permitting gay and lesbian Americans the opportunity to serve their country without forcing them to live a lie.

Download the report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Download key recommendations and findings from the report (pdf)

Event: Implementing the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (CAP Action)

See also:

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund)
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Print: Anne Shoup (foreign policy and national security, energy, LGBT issues, health care, gun-violence prevention)
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