The Last Word on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

A new study shows repealing it helped the military.

Joseph Martinez, an active duty sailor in the Navy, parepares to march in a gay pride parade.
Joseph Martinez, an active duty sailor in the Navy, prepares to march during the 2011 San Diego gay pride parade.

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.

During the debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell”—which ended one year ago this week—Sen. John McCain insisted that ending the gay ban would do “great damage” to the military, and the commandant of the Marine Corps said it could “cost Marines’ lives.” One think-tanker agreed that we’d be taking “a risk with our lives, property and freedom.” Another declared breathlessly that, “ultimately all of civilian life will be affected.” Then there was the dire prediction that one-quarter of the military, or 500,000 troops, might quit in protest.

Underlying the debate were competing moral visions, but the claims over harm to the military were where it often played out, on both sides. Gay rights proponents countered by pointing out that there was never any evidence that openly gay service would hurt the military, and that plenty of research from foreign countries suggested the opposite. Even studies conducted by the U.S. military itself, and by the Government Accountability Office, suggested readiness would not suffer if gays served openly. The trouble was that the research was predictive, not descriptive. No one could actually say for sure what the impact on the military of ending DADT would be.

Until now. A new UCLA study, which I co-authored with other academics including military professors from all four U.S. military service academies, has assessed whether ending the gay ban has indeed harmed the armed forces. It hasn’t. Our conclusion is that ending the policy “has had no negative impact on overall military readiness or its component parts: unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.”

We surveyed 200 active-duty troops before and after repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about cohesion in their units, and analyzed data from two other surveys. We also looked at recruitment and retention figures released by the Defense Department. We interviewed dozens of military scholars and officials, gay and straight troops, and policy experts, and we examined hundreds of media stories on the issue—reading every relevant piece we could find in a systematic search. We made a special effort to uncover any damage to cohesion, morale or readiness by reaching out to all known opponents of openly gay service. This included contacting anti-gay advocacy groups who would surely be listening for, and eager to publicize, any harm that occurred, and writing to over 500 retired generals who signed a 2009 letter predicting that repeal would “undermine recruiting and retention, impact leadership at all levels, have adverse effects on the willingness of parents who lend their sons and daughters to military service, and eventually break the All-Volunteer Force.”(A “standards of evidence” discussion in the study explains how we weighed the different data types we found.)

In one survey, more than 750 active duty troops were asked three months after repeal about their morale, housing, perception of officer and troop quality, and overall quality of life—factors considered key components of military readiness. All the figures were the same or slightly higher than in a parallel survey administered in the months before repeal, meaning readiness did not drop after repeal. Recruitment and retention figures throughout the military have remained steady, and survey responses indicate that troops are just as likely to re-enlist after repeal as before. The military confirmed the premature departure of two service members—not 500,000.

Our in-depth interviews with 62 gay and straight service members corroborate the surveys data. A heterosexual Army Ranger, for instance, said that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” “didn’t affect cohesion… or how we interact, or force us to change any sort of accommodations for anyone.” Another straight solder said, “It was a nonevent, like driving over a flat road. You don’t even notice a ripple.”

Not everyone was cheery about repeal. Yet, while some troops told us they remained personally opposed to openly gay service, the germane point is that overall morale and readiness did not suffer as a result of the policy change. A heterosexual Air Force captain said that even when military members felt personal opposition to homosexuality, this did not generally translate into poor behavior and unit-wide disruptions. “That’s just not how it works,” he said. “Individuals may have a problem, but there is no problem with the group opinion.” As West Point Chief of Staff Colonel Gus Stafford told us, much of the military community “underestimated the adaptability and capability of our young people to adapt.”

It was easy for us to conclude from our research that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” did no harm. But we found we could go beyond that: We can also report that after the military ended the gay ban, the institution itself improved, and not just for gay people but for the overall force. Lifting the ban, we found, improved the ability of the military to do its job by removing needless barriers to peer bonding, effective leadership and discipline.

According to our interviews, peer relations improved as a greater degree of honesty and authenticity “promoted increased understanding, respect and acceptance.” Leadership advanced because commanders can better understand and address the needs of their subordinates when troops are able to speak freely. One officer said the ban had hindered military leaders from helping ensure the personal readiness of their sailors: Commanders had been scared to ask basic personal questions lest they learn something they’d have to report. With the policy change, said the officer, “everyone from leadership down were relieved.” Harassment against gay troops is easier to report and address now that gay victims don’t fear that their own career could end if they speak up. We found repeated instances where coming out or being out elicited more respectful treatment, and allowed service members to successfully navigate what would otherwise have been an interpersonal minefield—rife with rumors, innuendo and threats. Removing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in short, has enhanced bonding, trust, discipline and the rule of law inside the military, by eliminating conditions that had bred suspicion and mistreatment.

Our research on gays in the military adds to an emerging body of evidence that’s countering the long-held assumption that LGBT equality is harmful to society. This is a key lesson. After all, the public debate over same-sex marriage continues to hang on the question of whether it harms kids and families, another assertion that’s never been proved. The latest such claim, a study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus, which he wrote about for Slate, not only sparked much criticism but earned a formal reprimand after Social Science Research, which published the study, asked an editorial board member to review it. Among other flaws, Regnerus relied on a sample size of two respondents raised by same-sex couples. Darren Sherkat, the sociologist who performed the review, summed up his assessment in an interview: “It’s bullshit.” We don’t yet know if that’s the best word to describe all empirical claims that LGBT equality hurts society—more data (and more equality) are still needed. But if you’re looking for facts to back up your anti-gay values, they are becoming ever harder to find.