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Gay Troops and the Trouble With Polls

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Remember the poll taken of enlisted personnel asking them if they felt like invading Iraq? The one that political leaders and military brass used to decide if they should pull the trigger or not? No, because there wasn't one. Sure, the military takes the temperature of its troops to help ensure that whatever action its top-down command structure orders is carried out as effectively as possible. But only when it comes to the equal treatment of gays and lesbians does our country see fit to dole out rights to an oppressed minority by asking permission of the oppressing majority.

Now comes word that, after nearly two generations of a vibrant gay rights movement, Americans are somehow confused about what a "homosexual" is, throwing already shaky polling data into disarray just at the time when the military prepares to poll its members about how they feel about gay people. Respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll expressed significantly less support for lifting "don't ask, don't tell" when asked if "homosexuals" should be allowed to serve openly than when asked (on the same poll) if "gay men and lesbians" should be allowed to serve openly. Um, what did they think they were saying on the last question which asked the exact same thing but using a different word?

This week's Quinnipiac poll found similar confusion: 57% of Americans favored letting gays serve openly in the military; but the poll found that roughly the same percentage thought gays should have to restrict "exhibiting" their sexual orientation. Um, what did they think it meant to serve openly in the last question they just answered affirmatively? (Many Americans seem to believe that "openly" gay service does not just mean that gays could speak honestly about their lives just like straight people, but that they would be allowed to sashay through Camp Pendleton in a pink boa, exempt from wearing a military uniform; perhaps a better phrase than "openly gay service" would be "service with equal honesty.")

Other surveys confirm the major limitations of basing public policy on opinion polls. A substantial minority of Americans routinely say in polls that they think homosexual relations should be "illegal"; when asked in the same survey if they think the government should be able to throw someone in jail for consensual behavior conducted in their own bedrooms, many of those same people say no. Um, what did they think "illegal" meant in the last question when they were all too happy to support the sex police hauling people off to prison for private consensual conduct?

In the debate over "don't ask, don't tell," polls are unavoidable because the rationale for the policy has long been the assertion--totally unproven--that straight discomfort with known gays would harm the bonds of trust that make up unit cohesion. As I've argued on this site, the "unit cohesion" rationale was essentially made up by senior military officers and political pundits who were either clueless or hateful. Dozens of studies conducted across fifty years have failed to find a shred of evidence for the unit cohesion argument, and now published research by Active Duty military officers is concluding that "there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly" and even that the current gay ban itself harms cohesion by creating dishonesty and distrust.

But so long as right wing obstructionists try anything to revive the unit cohesion argument, the question of whether straight troops can serve effectively with known gays will remain in play. If we have to face that question, let's do it right: the issue is not the personal preferences of enlisted men and women--as we've been told for years (usually by homophobes implying that gays are the very essence of personal pleasure run amok), the military is not about individual desires, but about what's good for the mission. And firing badly-needed Arabic translators because they're gay while we're fighting two wars is not good for the mission. The relevant questions, if they have to be asked, are not whether the troops want to serve with gays, but whether they are capable of doing so; whether they know gays in their units; whether such knowledge has ever impaired overall cohesion; and whether they are in need of specific training to help them get over themselves if they have trouble working with people who are different from them (this would not be "sensitivity" training, which research has shown to backfire; it would be simple training guidelines that communicate the nature and purpose of any new policy that's implemented).

As luck would have it, we already have this data, making it far from clear why the Pentagon is saying it needs a year to study the matter. While stand-alone polls must always be looked at critically, the trends are overwhelming. The freshest data is from this week's Military Times poll showing that opposition to gay service among active duty troops has fallen from 65% in 2004 to 51% today. (Some of us have criticized this poll in the past for its non-random sampling and its question order: asking opinions about gay service directly following questions about gay rape; this poll is still flawed, but the trend it reflects is unmistakable.) Its findings are echoes of a long trend. Between 1992 and 1998, the percentage of male soldiers who "strongly oppose" gays serving in uniform dropped nearly in half, from 67 percent to 37 percent. A 2000 study conducted at the Naval Postgraduate School found that between 1994 and 1999, the percentage of U.S. Navy officers who "feel uncomfortable in the presence of homosexuals" decreased from 57.8 to 36.4 percent." And a 2006 Zogby poll of 545 troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq found that 72 percent of service members were personally comfortable interacting with gays and lesbians; that, of those who knew of gays in their unit, the overwhelming majority stated that their presence had little or no impact on the unit's morale; and that nearly two thirds of service members know or suspect gays in their units, giving the lie to the assumption that knowing a gay peer would harm cohesion.

This may be why discharge figures have plummeted since 2001 when we became a nation at war: if you want to know what the military really thinks (and not just what they say), look at the actions of commanders, who are clearly looking the other way when confronted with gay troops, in order to retain needed personnel. The most recent evidence of this is that Lt. Dan Choi's commander asked him to join drill last weekend even though the whole world knows Choi is gay (his discharge is formally still pending). Apparently openly gay service does not undermine the First Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment.

Polling the troops is a toxic exercise, not because their views don't matter, but because of how obstructionists will seek to use the data. If those responsible for reform want to ensure that this process goes smoothly, they must make absolutely clear that the purpose of such polling is to help smooth this transition, not to obstruct it. In 1993, after months of hatemongering by the far right about gays destroying the military, support for lifting the ban actually fell by ten percentage points; we can expect that again this time, and should realize that the best data is what we already have, not what we'll get in a highly politicized climate.

Notice too that this time around, obstructionists have sought to enlarge the numbers of their fellow opponents by adding "military families" to the mix of people whose opinions should determine the fate of gay equality. As the "unit cohesion" fable dies and opposition among troops crumbles, opponents of openly gay service need all the help they can get. But they're not going anywhere anytime soon. The rest of us must do all we can to keep them honest.

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