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'Don't ask, don't tell': The reality of repeal

By Ed Hornick, CNN
U.S. Marines look out over the Helmand River from an outpost in Kajaki, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marines look out over the Helmand River from an outpost in Kajaki, Afghanistan.
  • Pentagon report finds that repealing "don't ask, don't tell" wouldn't hurt the military
  • Opponents say there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered
  • But those in favor of repeal say the answers are clear

Washington (CNN) -- It's not if, but when, the law banning openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military will be repealed, say advocates and top administration officials.

Then it's a question of how.

Will domestic partners receive benefits? Will gays and lesbians get their own military status? What will happen to housing? Will there be separate barracks and facilities? Will the change affect unit cohesion, especially on the battlefield? Will troops opposed to the repeal leave the military in droves?

Tommy Sears, executive director of the Center For Military Readiness, which opposes the repeal, told the Fayetteville Observer this week that "don't ask, don't tell" may become a "social tinderbox" for the military.

"It's tantamount to saying to women that you are going to have to share living quarters and private areas [with men]," he said, referring to allowing openly gay service members to share barracks and showers. "We don't do that today with men and women. Now we're going to ask men and women to do so with people who are admittedly sexually attracted to them?"

The history of 'don't ask, don't tell'
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Ending 'don't ask, don't tell' policy
McCain and 'don't ask, don't tell'

Other critics, including Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are worried that changing the law will hurt the military during wartime.

"The system is working," McCain told CNN's Candy Crowley. "The military is at its highest point in recruitment, in retention, in professionalism, in capability. So to somehow allege that this policy has been damaging the military is simply false."

But P.W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said most concerns are "more manageable than some of the hysteria that kind of surrounded it."

"You're talking about a force that we trust to figure out how to deal with complex military operations," he said. "They'll be able to figure this out. And you're also talking about an organization that basically when an order is given, it is executed."

The Senate is expected to vote on repeal in the lame duck Congress or early next year. A long-awaited Pentagon report released Tuesday said the transition would be relatively easy.

The yearlong study found that repealing the policy would have "some limited and isolated disruption to unit cohesion and retention," but the effects would not be long-lasting or widespread.

Read more about the study

"The general lesson we take from ... transformational experiences in history is that in matters of personnel change within the military, predictions and surveys tend to overestimate negative consequences, and underestimate the U.S. military's ability to adapt and incorporate within its ranks the diversity that is reflective of American society at large," the report concluded.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, which advocates for repeal, said the study is thorough and accurate.

Don't ask, don't tell
In 1992, President Clinton suspended the military's policy that barred gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the military.

Congress passed "don't ask, don't tell" in 1993.

The law says gay, lesbian and bisexual service members are allowed to serve unless they:

--Make a statement of their sexuality , publicly or to family and friends (and are later turned in)
--Attempt to marry a person of the same sex
--Get caught engaging in a homosexual act

In 2005, a bill was introduced in the House to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." The bill did not have enough support to make it out of committee.

In 2008, more than 100 retired generals and admirals called for repeal of  "dont' ask, don't tell." Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has called for a review of the policy.

During the 2008 presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to end the policy.

Obama, as president, has been criticized by gay, lesbian and bisexual groups for not pushing harder to get the law repealed.

Military statistics indicate that from 1997 to 2008, more than 10,500 service members have been discharged under the law.

Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network -- an organization providing legal help -- says more than 13,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual service members have been discharged since 1994.

"The Pentagon Working Group did a very thorough job of trying to explore a wide variety of concerns over the repeal of the U.S. military's gay ban, but I really think their results reflect an overabundance of caution," said Nicholson, who was discharged from the Army under the Clinton-era law.

R. Clarke Cooper, an active duty Army reservist and head of the Log Cabin Republicans, agrees.

"So it does shoot holes when people say, 'Well this hasn't been thought through' or 'this seems forced prematurely,'" he said. "There was not this much study or review or even a complicated process that occurred when there was racial integration of the forces back in 1948. And there wasn't even this excessive review with co-educational integration of sexes in the forces."

The U.S. could learn a lot from Australia and Israel, allies that serve alongside U.S. forces overseas, said Retired Australian Army Maj. Gen. Simon Willis in a Brookings Institution panel discussion in May.

"I must say lifting the homosexual ban in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] was a bit like the Y2K issue," he said. "There's a lot of bluster and screaming and yelling and plans, and everyone had an opinion about it, but it came and went, and that was it, nothing more was heard about it."

The authors of the Pentagon report said they did hear many religious and morally based objections to homosexuality.

But will that opposition lead to an exodus from the military?

"In the 1940s, there were a lot of predictions that senior noncommissioned officers would leave the ranks if segregation was ended," said Aubrey Sarvis, a veteran and current executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which advocates on behalf of gay and lesbian troops. "Well, that did not come to pass. Thirty some years ago, there were dire predictions that if women were allowed to attend the service academies, there would be a mass exodus from the ranks. That, too, did not happen."

In the end, advocates said it comes down to the military's uniform code of conduct.

"Getting rid of repeal does not take away the uniform code of conduct; does not take away standard operating procedures, doesn't mean all the sudden soldiers can show up dressed in a campy fashion -- because that's not uniform," Cooper said.

The report, along with supporters and experts, detailed how other questions would be resolved:

On a smooth transition: It comes down to strong leadership, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sarvis agreed, saying that "leadership, education and training are the three key components. This is not reinventing the wheel. For there to be a smooth implementation, all three of those elements will have to be at the forefront."

Singer, too, said, "Leadership is the key to success."

"Essentially, if the ban is lifted, service men and women are going to be looking to their superior officers for guidance," he said.

On privacy and discomfort over sharing bathrooms or housing: The report recommends "against separate facilities. ... The creation of a third or possibly fourth category of bathroom facilities and living quarters, whether at bases or forward deployed areas, would be a logistical nightmare, expensive and impossible to administer."

The report's authors added that separate facilities would stigmatize gay and lesbian service members "in a manner reminiscent of 'separate but equal' facilities for blacks prior to the 1960s."

On special minority status: "In a new environment in which gay and lesbian service members can be open about their sexual orientation, we believe they will be accepted more readily if the military community understands that they are simply being permitted equal footing with everyone else," the report said.

On those discharged coming back: According to the report, those forced out under the law should be allowed to return, without the reason for their dismissal being considered as part of their application.

On benefits for gay spouses or partners: The authors of the report urged more study, including a full review in a year of any policy change.

Even with a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," not all benefits would be available to gay service members and their partners because of the Defense of Marriage Act, in which the federal government defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

On military housing: "We do not recommend at this time that military family housing be included in the benefits eligible for this member-designated approach," the report said. "Military housing is a limited resource and complicated to administer and a system of member designation would create occasions for abuse and confusion."

On operational effectiveness: Canadian forces Maj. Gen. Walter Semianiw told the Brookings panel that he found "no impact to reflect on operational effectiveness by having men and women of any sexual orientation fighting together, be it in Afghanistan ... be it in Iraq, be it on many key peacekeeping missions over the many, many years."

In their discussion of the report on Tuesday, Gates and Mullen agreed.

On unit cohesion: Those in favor of changing the law point out that U.S. troops are already serving with NATO troops who are openly gay, so they believe concerns over unit cohesion are unfounded.

For Cooper, who is openly gay and serving as a reservist, his combat experience in Iraq taught him that being open is a nonissue.

"Even before we were in a combat environment in Iraq and Afghanistan, [the U.S. troops were] already doing joint exercises with our NATO allies and we have been for decades," he said. "So have U.S. servicemen been serving next to open service personnel? Yes. In fact, some of them have been under the U.S. command."

Cooper shared a personal story in which a gay Australian soldier came out in a very low-key way, which caused "no change in behavior."

"He didn't walk up and say 'I'm gay.' He got a cake sent to him from Melbourne and people said, 'Oh is that from your mom? Is that from your girl?' [He said], 'No, it's from my dude.'"