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'Don't ask' death knell?

The Pentagon report released this week may prod the Senate to join the House and repeal the policy covering gays in the military.

December 02, 2010

We were skeptical in February when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates commissioned a study on how a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy would be implemented. Our chief concern was that putting the issue to a vote, as the study seemed to do, would obscure the fact that simple justice required repeal. We also worried that the study's outcome might provide a pretext for congressional opposition to allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly.

This week the Pentagon released its report, complete with the results of more than 100,000 surveys turned in by service members and their families. Though we continue to believe that "don't ask, don't tell" should have been abolished before any surveys were taken, the results are heartening. More important, they may persuade some senators to end their equivocation and join the House in supporting repeal.

The most striking finding of the report is that 70% of service members said the effect of repealing the policy would be "equally mixed, positive or nonexistent." Members serving in combat, particularly Marines, were less sanguine, but overall the numbers support the report's conclusion that "the risk of repeal of don't ask, don't tell to overall military effectiveness is low."

The report also takes on some quaint stereotypes, including that gay men "behave in a stereotypically effeminate manner" and that "gay service members would behave as sexual predators." Those stereotypes, the report concludes, "are exaggerated and not consistent with the reported experiences of many service members."

The report reflects a remarkable cultural shift in the way gays and lesbians are perceived by their fellow citizens in and out of uniform. But its primary significance is political: Advocates of repeal in the Senate still don't have the votes necessary to thwart a Republican filibuster, and the report allows converts to the cause to point to its conclusions as a reason to vote for abolishing "don't ask, don't tell." Alas, the ranks of converts are unlikely to include the increasingly cranky Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is unwilling to be educated out of his opposition to repeal.

With the Democratic majority in the Senate set to shrink next year, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) must make repeal a priority. When he makes the case, the Pentagon report will provide him with chapter and verse.

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