What Would It Take To End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'? The Pentagon says it could take nearly a year to study all the issues raised by the potential lifting of the military's ban on openly gay service members. But examples from abroad, studies and even some opponents suggest that if the Pentagon does end the ban, it should act quickly.
NPR logo What Would It Take To End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?

What Would It Take To End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?

Adm. Mike Mullen's surprise and impassioned call this week for an end to "don't ask, don't tell" single-handedly shifted the momentum in the long-running debate over the policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

CodePink demonstrates before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing related to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

CodePink demonstrates before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing related to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

But the Pentagon says it could take nearly a year to study all the various issues caused by the ban's potential lifting. "I think rushing into it, mandating it by fiat with a very short timeline would be a serious mistake," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress on Wednesday.

The long time frame has left many advocates of a repeal scratching their heads.

"I don't really see all the problems," says Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense for manpower in the Reagan administration. "I just hope that people are not going to use this delay to undermine it and make the problems greater than they are."

'You Don't Build Separate Showers For Gay People'

The Pentagon is launching two separate reviews, including one by Rand Corp., an independent think tank, to explore the attitudes of soldiers, as well as the more practical and legal issues surrounding a repeal.

"These include potential revisions to policies on benefits, base housing, fraternization and misconduct, separations and discharges, and many others," Gates said. The studies are expected to examine whether new facilities, such as barracks and showers, would be needed, as well as what kind of changes might be required to disciplinary procedures for sexual harassment.

Gay-rights advocates are appalled by some of these notions. "You don't build separate showers for gay people," says Aaron Belkin, the director of the University of California, Santa Barbara's Palm Center, a research group that supports ending the ban. "That is frankly offensive."

Even some opponents of ending the ban, such as Gen. Carl Mundy, who was the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps from 1991 to 1995, say the mechanics of a repeal should be quite straightforward. "I don't think it would be easy," he says, "but on the other hand, the easiest way to deal with it is to make it as simple as possible."

"The last thing you even want to think about is creating separate facilities or separate groups or separate meeting places or having four kinds of showers — one of straight women, lesbians, straight men and gay men. That would be absolutely disastrous in the armed forces," says Mundy. "It would destroy any sense of cohesion or teamwork or good order and discipline."

'Gay People Have Been Serving Since Beginning Of Time'

For one thing, advocates of repeal note that many gays and lesbians are already serving in secret. New estimates from Gary Gates, who studies the issue at the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, suggest that some 13,000 gays and lesbians are currently serving on active duty in the U.S. military, along with an additional 53,000 in the Guard and reserve forces.

At A Glance

- Number of gay men and women kicked out of the military under "don't ask": more than 13,900, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. The Pentagon puts the number at around 10,900 because their count doesn't include the Coast Guard.

- Number of gays currently estimated to be serving in the military: 66,000. (According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law)

"You're a gay service member today taking a shower, and when the law will change, you'll be a gay service member taking a shower tomorrow," says Aaron Tax, the legal director at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group that advocates for an end to the ban. "We're not incorporating a new element here. Gay people have been serving the military since the beginning of time."

He also points to some 25 countries that now allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, including many close NATO allies.

Britain changed its rules a decade ago, after the European Court of Human Rights ordered it to do so. The change was implemented swiftly, and almost overnight, and there have been no reports of major problems or a significant growth in resignations.

The British military now runs regular recruiting advertisements in gay-oriented publications. Last year, the British army put a gay solider on the cover of its official magazine, Soldier.

Concerns About Discrimination 'In Garrison'

Still, with the U.S. military embroiled in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some Republicans argue it is a tough time to make such a controversial change.

"Many of us on this committee have serious concerns with putting our men and women in uniform through such a divisive debate while they are fighting two wars," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said during a hearing this week.

But the biggest complications from allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly could come at home, says David Segal, who directs the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

"The real problems are going to occur in garrison — how the military in a community setting is going to adapt to what are becoming the norms in society at large," Segal says. "Do we treat gays who could get married because of where they live differently from those who can't get married because of where they live? I think there will be issues of discrimination that will be very thorny."

It's not clear that there would be any changes to military benefits or other rules, because federal law currently bars recognition of same-sex marriage.

"What you would see is personnel turbulence," says Mundy. "There would be some who would resist it very actively, and you have to deal with them. You might have good troops who say, 'I'm just not going to live in that barracks with him,' and then you have to decide what to do."

Quick Policy Change Ultimately More Effective?

But the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network's Tax says that the military already has a well-developed set of rules that govern these kinds of cases.

"The conduct regulations are already gender- and sexual-orientation neutral," says Tax. "If someone acts inappropriately, they should be punished — gay or straight. We don't believe there should be any changes to those regulations."

Instead, he says the key to a successful transition will be education, training and good leadership from the top.

"We simply want gay people to be treated the same as everybody else," he adds.

He and other advocates of a repeal worry, however, that Gates and Mullen could end up making it even harder to implement the ban with their lengthy study process.

"They depicted the repeal process as something that's fragile and complicated and sensitive," says Belkin. "By saying that, you actually create the very problem you're trying to avoid."

Indeed, a 1993 study by Rand commissioned during the Clinton administration to study how the ban might be lifted came to a very similar conclusion.

"The policy selected should be implemented immediately," the study found. "Any sense of experimentation or uncertainty invites those opposed to change to continue to resist it."