When the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in schools in 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren tried to soften the impact of the ruling by giving local school systems time to comply. One year after the ruling, the court said in a follow-up that local school systems had to desegregate not immediately but “with all deliberate speed.”
The strategy paid off for the segregationists. With no court orders issued or imminent, segregationists mounted a campaign of “massive resistance” at every level of government. A decade later, hardly any school districts had effectively desegregated.
Today, the Obama administration appears to be following a similar strategy in trying to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. The administration’s hopes depend on the assumption that with enough time and “deliberation,” supporters of the present discriminatory policy will recognize what the top Pentagon leaders now believe: gay men and lesbians can and should serve openly and proudly in the U.S. military.
The initial indications are mixed. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is drawing wide praise for his forthright statement in favor of ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In the wake of Mullen’s appearance along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates before the Senate Armed Services Committee [Feb. 2], there is no evidence of a widespread anti-gay backlash among the public at large.
Indeed, the administration now has an important ally in trying to repeal the policy: retired general Colin Powell. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, Powell played the pivotal role in the defeat of President Bill Clinton’s effort to end discrimination against gays in the military and the enactment instead of the compromise “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Today, Powell says, “attitudes and circumstances have changed.”
On the other hand, Republicans in Congress and social conservatives outside the Capitol are digging in their heels to block any change in the policy. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee’s ranking Republican, said he was “deeply disappointed” in Mullen’s stance.
Previously, McCain had said he was open to repealing the policy if the military signed off. After hearing Mullen’s statement, however, McCain insisted that the policy “has been effective” even if “not ideal.” And he emphasized that Congress enacted the policy into law in 1993 and only Congress can repeal it.
To counter the anticipated opposition, the administration is relying on the high-level study ordered by Gates to be co-chaired by the Pentagon’s top civilian lawyer and the commander of U.S. forces in Europe and due to be completed by the end of the year. The study is aimed at ascertaining the views of service members, examining the impact of gay service members in other militaries, and identifying any specific steps needed after gays are allowed to serve openly.
Mullen emphasized that there has been no statistically valid study of the troops’ views. The only evidence that supporters of the policy cite is organized letter-writing by retired officers and write-in surveys by present service members who oppose allowing gays to serve openly.
Anecdotal evidence and a RAND Corporation study of vets in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest most service members will have no problem with gays serving openly. Mullen himself said he had served with homosexuals since 1968. But the relevance is unclear. No poll of students and families in the 1950s would have changed the constitutional imperative to abolish racial segregation. In addition, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., pointed out, the present policy effectively prevents gay service members themselves from speaking out on the issue without risking discharge. Gates lamely suggested gathering information from some of the gay soldiers already discharged under the policy.
As for other issues, the evidence is already in. Based on a study of militaries in six countries and police and fire departments in six U.S. cities, the RAND Corporation told Congress in 1993 that gays were serving openly with no apparent impact on effectiveness or cohesion.
Seventeen years later, the evidence is only stronger. Of two dozen militaries that allow gays to serve openly, none report negative effects. For the United States, the most visible effect is the loss in manpower. Since 1994, around 13,500 service members have been discharged under the policy. They took with them what the Government Accountability Office estimated in 2005 as close to $200 million invested in their recruitment and training.
Republican senators at the Armed Services hearing cited no studies to substantiate their warnings of a loss of unit cohesion. They did not contradict the polls indicating public support as high as 75 percent for allowing gays to serve in the military. In The Weekly Standard, the conservative commentator William Kristol described the policy as a success that, in any event, affects only “a few thousand” people. Actually, an Urban Institute demographer estimates 65,000 gay men and lesbians are currently serving in the U.S. military.
Politics appears to be driving the Republicans’ stance. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, made an ambiguous suggestion one day that he was open to repealing the policy only to retreat the next. In a political fight, time can help either side build support and momentum. The Obama administration’s challenge on “don’t ask, don’t tell” is to use the coming months to its advantage instead of letting opponents build up resistance to a change in policy.