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First published May 9, 2007

“Don't Ask, Don't Tell”: Does the Gay Ban Undermine the Military's Reputation?


This article asks what impact, if any, the “don't ask, don't tell” policy might have on the U.S. military's reputation. Original empirical research is presented to suggest that the policy harms the military's reputation in four ways: the policy is inconsistent with public opinion, it prompts many journalists to criticize the armed forces while attracting almost no favorable media coverage, it provides a vehicle for antimilitary protesters to portray military culture as conflicting with widely accepted civilian values, and it is inconsistent with the views of junior enlisted service members.

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U.S. General Accounting Office, Military Recruiting, DoD Needs to Establish Objectives and Measures to Better Evaluate Advertising's Effectiveness, Report to the Senate and House Committees on Armed Services ( Washington, DC: GAO, September 2003, GAO-03-1005), 2.
David Ari Bianco, “Echoes of Prejudice: The Debates Over Race and Sexuality in the Armed Forces,” in Gay Rights, Military Wrongs, ed. Craig A. Rimmerman (New York: Garland, 1996 ), 47-52; Brian Mitchell, Weak Link: The Feminization of the American Military ( Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1989). For public opinion of the military in general, see David L. Leal, “American Public Opinion toward the Military: Differences by Race, Gender, and Class?” Armed Forces and Society 32,1 (2005), 123-138.
Ronald Ray, Military Necessity & Homosexuality (Washington, DC : Brassey's, 1993), 68-9; Melissa Wells-Petry, Exclusion: Homosexuals and the Right to Serve (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1993), 68-9.
Robert Maginnis, “Homosexuals in the Military, 2001 Update,” Family Research Council, (site now discontinued).
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, U.S. Code 10 (2003), 654.
Wells-Petry, Exclusion: Homosexuals, 173.
For one of numerous examples, see Wayne Hintze, Recognition of Military Advertising Slogans among American Youth (Arlington, VA : Defense Manpower Data Center, 1999).
Dana Blanton, “Majority Opposes Same-Sex Marriage,” August 26, 2003, Fox News.
See David Burrelli and Charles Dale, Homosexuals and U.S. Military Policy: Current Issues (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, March 2006), 6, citing a July 1993 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
The survey was administered by Knowledge Networks, a survey research firm that recruited and now maintains an “online research panel that is representative of the entire U.S. population.” Participants for the national panel were identified “by a random selection of telephone numbers. Persons in selected households were then invited by telephone to participate in the Web-enabled panel.” For this particular study, Knowledge Networks drew a random sample of 557 individuals from its pool of active panel members, all of whom had been prescreened to meet the age criterion (18 to 24) reflective of new military recruits and then sent an e-mail to each selected individual inviting them to fill out a Web-based questionnaire. Of the 557 individuals invited to participate in the study, 424 agreed to do so, for a participation rate of 76 percent. The sample of 424 was then narrowed to 282 so as to meet quotas based on gender and partisan identification that were designed to match benchmarks for incoming military recruits, and those 282 individuals then completed the Web-based survey, which was fielded between August 5, 2005 and August 25, 2005. Extensive information about Knowledge Networks' survey methodology is posted at http://www.knowledge reviewer-info.html.
Respondents to the survey were 81.6 percent male and 18.4 percent female. In the military, the 2002 Population Representation of Active Accessions reported that 82.7 percent of new military recruits are male and 17.3 percent are female. See Population Representation in the Military Services, Fiscal Year 2002. One hundred percent of survey respondents were between the ages of 18 and 24, roughly evenly divided across each year. In the military, the 2002 Population Representation of Active Accessions reported that 91.6 percent of new military recruits are between the ages of 18 and 24. In terms of partisan identification, respondents to the survey were 57.1 percent Republican, 24.8 independent or undecided, and 18.1 percent Democrat. In the military, an October 2004 poll by the Annenberg National Election Survey revealed that 47 percent of service members identify as Republicans, 26 percent identify as independents, and 15 percent identify as Democrats. Annenberg reported that junior enlisted service members are only slightly more likely to lean Democratic than members of the overall military sample. See NAES 04, National Annenberg Election Survey, In an important, forthcoming study, Jason Dempsey and Robert Shapiro confirm that of those junior enlisted personnel who identify with a political party, Democrats outnumber Republicans by three to two. However, Dempsey and Shapiro find that most junior enlisted personnel do not identify with either party. The analysis is preliminary as the authors continue to analyze their data at the time of the writing of this article, but their findings could have a major impact on the literature on partisanship in the military. See Jason Dempsey and Robert Shapiro, “Political Partisanship in the Army” ( paper prepared for the 2006 Annual Conference of the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers, Montreal, May 18-21).
Respondents to the survey were 80.1 percent white, 5.3 percent African American, 7.4 percent Hispanic, and 7.1 percent other, while in the military, 67 percent of service members are white, 15.7 percent are African American, 11.3 percent are Hispanic, and 6 percent are other. In terms of religion, 19.5 percent of the survey's sample was Baptist, Pentecostal, or Mormon, but the Armed Forces Chaplains Board reports that in the military, 39.1 percent are from these denominations. See Don Malin, “Military Chaplains and Religious Pluralism,” Watchman Fellowship of Alabama, (accessed December 31, 2002). As Table 2 indicates, the underrepresentation of African Americans in the sample probably lowered the total percentage who said they were embarrassed by the policy, while the underrepresentation of members of traditional religious affiliations probably inflated it. Matching the sample to a cohort of new military recruits in terms of race and religion (in addition to gender, partisan identification, and age) would have required adding significantly more respondents to the pool, and financial resources were not available for such an expansion. Data were not collected on the church attendance of respondents, so it is not possible to determine whether results confirm Gallup's finding that the majority of regular church attendees believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly.
Dr. Jonathan Cowden designed the survey instrument with great care, and his efforts are very much appreciated.
With 95 percent confidence, the margin of error for this survey is plus or minus 5.8 percent.
While the tabular data are only suggestive and a regression analysis would be illuminating, data were not collected for several critical factors that have been demonstrated to be correlated with attitudes toward policies concerning gays and lesbians. For example, no data were collected as to whether or not the respondent has ever known a gay person. As a result, the development of a fully specified model is not possible. See Greg Herek and John Capitanio, “`Some of My Best Friends': Intergroup Contact, Concealable Stigma, and Heterosexuals' Attitudes Toward Gay Men and Lesbians,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22,4 (1996), 412-24.
The list appears to be the most comprehensive tally available of media endorsements in the 2004 election. See “Presidential Endorsements 2004,” . A total of 212 newspapers endorsed John Kerry.
The papers were contacted in alphabetical order. Raquel Busani worked tirelessly on this project, and her efforts are much appreciated.
The three were the Amarillo Globe News (Amarillo, TX); the Daily News (Bowling, KY); and the Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, VA).
I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this point.
Personal communication with Steve Ralls, director of communications, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, September 16, 2005.
I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this point.
Tampa Tribune, “Easier Access for Military Recruiters,” July 6, 2000; Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, “Military Recruiting Shortfalls Seen as Self Inflicted” (Santa Barbara: University of California, 2001).
See, for example, the Web pages of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors,, and the American Friends Service Committee, in particular “Surviving Militarism, Racism, and Repression,” .
For example, the Portland State University student newspaper ran the following headline: “Student Senate May Ban Recruiters: Leaders Cite Opposition to Iraq War and Discrimination Against Gays as Basis for Potential Removal” (Vanguard, August 6, 2005).
Cecilia M. Vega, “Supes Torpedo Efforts to Land Old Battleship,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 2005, B4. Also see Dean Murphy, “Battle of San Francisco: New Campaign for the Iowa,” The New York Times, October 30, 2005.
Melissa Healy, “The Times Poll: 74% of Military Enlistees Oppose Lifting Gay Ban,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1993, A1; Laura L. Miller, “Fighting for a Just Cause: Soldiers' Views on Gays in the Military,” in Gays and Lesbians in the Military: Issues, Concerns and Contrasts, eds. Wilbur J. Scott and Sandra Carson Stanley ( New York: Aldine, 1994), 70.
Surveying military attitudes is often an inexact science because of the difficulty of obtaining a truly random sample of members of the armed forces. This is particularly true on issues for which the Pentagon declines to provide official access to survey researchers. Hence, the statistical data presented in this section must be interpreted with caution. At best, the scholar may be able to form preliminary conclusions on the basis of comparing various survey results as well as expert testimony.
Herek and Capitanio, for example, find that heterosexuals who learn of an individual's homosexuality via direct disclosure may develop more favorable attitudes about gays and lesbians than those who receive the information indirectly, through a third party. In general, research has shown that disclosing personal information often increases positive feelings toward the person who has revealed the information. See Self Disclosure: Theory, Research, and Therapy, eds. Valerian Derlega and John Berg (New York: Plenum, 1987), quoted in Herek and Capitanio, `“Some of my best friends,”' 421. Also see the April 2005 Sports Illustrated poll, which revealed that 78 percent of respondents agree that, “It is OK for gay athletes to participate in sports, even if they are open about their sexuality.” Only 40 percent agreed that, “It's OK for homosexuals to participate in sports provided they are not open about their sexuality.” “Homosexuality and Sports,” Sports Illustrated, April 12, 2005. (The Sports Illustrated poll was conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, Inc., which interviewed 979 adults selected from the general population from March 18-21, 2005. The margin of error for the poll was +/— 3.1 percent.)
Gordon Lubold, “Most Troops `Comfortable' with Gays, Poll Finds,” Marine Corps Times, December 19, 2006, . John W. Bicknell, Jr., “Study of Naval Officers' Attitudes Toward Homosexuals in the Military” (master's thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, March 2000).
NBC Meet the Press transcript, June 15, 2003.
For a description of Annenberg's sampling strategy and methodology, see NAES 04, National Annenberg Election Survey at .
M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker, “Political Similarity and Influence Among Husbands and Wives” (Working Paper 2001-14, Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 2001).
See the Military Times poll 2003 at Readers interested in the Military Times raw data may contact the author.
Cadet Alexander H. Raggio, “Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Be: A Philosophical Analysis of the Gay Ban in the U.S. Military,” Department of English, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, April, 2005.
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Field Poll, June 17, 2004.
Elizabeth Kier, “ Homosexuals in the U.S. Military: Open Integration and Combat Effectiveness,” International Security 23,2 (1998), 5-39.
Wells-Petry, Exclusion: Homosexuals, 172-3.

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Published In

Article first published: May 9, 2007
Issue published: Winter 2008


  1. don't ask
  2. don't tell
  3. gays in the military
  4. public opinion

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Published online: May 9, 2007
Issue published: Winter 2008



Aaron Belkin
University of California, Santa Barbara

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