Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Now What for Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell?

By Mike Dorf

The unbelievably thorough Pentagon Report on the likely consequences of repealing DADT removes the principal argument available to Senators who have resisted repeal.  Perhaps that means that one or more Republicans will join with the Democrats to repeal DADT in the lame-duck session.  If not, it will be interesting to see what reasons they give for voting against repeal.  Here I'll predict a few:

1) Some Republicans will say that it is inappropriate for so momentous a policy shift to be undertaken by a lame-duck body.  After all, they'll note, we just had an election in which the voters preferred the Republicans, even though they knew that the Democrats favored repealing DADT.  Thus, the argument will be couched as a defense of democracy rather than (or in addition to) a defense of the policy.  One tactical disadvantage of this argument is that it only works in December.  Once the new Congress is seated next year, anyone voting against repealing DADT (or against cloture on a DADT vote) will need some new argument--and because Democrats will still be in the majority in the Senate, the issue can be brought back for a vote next year, at least in the Senate.  Perhaps the Republicans are betting on the all-too-common Democratic tactic of preemptive surrender, whereby Harry Reid et al will not even bother bringing the issue back for a vote in the new Congress, on the theory that it won't come up for a floor vote in the House.

2) I would also look for various Republicans or their allies in the media to argue that the ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, and elsewhere make this an inopportune time to make changes to personnel policy.  The report addresses this concern, noting that racial desegregation occurred during the Korean War, at a time when opposition to desegregation was much more widespread among service members than opposition is now to ending DADT.  I suspect that the anti-repeal forces will in turn respond with code.  They'll say something like the following: Opposition to racial desegregation was based simply in prejudice, whereas opposition to lifting DADT is based in concerns about "privacy" having nothing to do with prejudice.  This argument can't withstand scrutiny--because racial bigots had "privacy" concerns also, among other things--but don't expect a lot of scrutiny (except perhaps on The Daily Show).

Arguments 1 and 2 can both be put under the umbrella of "now is not the time" (even as they provide cover for an actual position of "it will never be the time").  I'd also be on the lookout for two additional sorts of arguments:

3) I expect that some number of repeal opponents will try to discredit the report by saying that President Obama came into office wanting to repeal DADT and so he stacked the deck in some way.  Perhaps the charge will be couched as follows: Service members from privates to 4-star generals knew that the Commander in Chief wanted to repeal the policy, and so out of a sense of duty they gave the answer that they knew the President wanted to hear.  This argument has the advantage of not looking like it's blaming the report writers or the survey respondents.  It has the disadvantage of being demonstrably false.  Many respondents gave what are clearly candid answers to other questions.  E.g., only a fifth of all respondents said that all of the officers over their immediate units are good leaders; fewer than half of Navy and Air Force respondents, and only just over half of all respondents, listed "to serve my country" or "to defend the nation" as a reason why they joined the military.  Because the respondents were not simply saying what they thought the higher-ups would want to hear in these other respects, there is no reason to think they would have done that on the DADT-related questions.  But the fact that the charge is demonstrably false does not mean that the public will see it demonstrated to be false.

4) Last, I suspect that we will see some creative slicing and dicing of the raw data.  Look for a special focus on the Marines, whose attitudes are least supportive of repeal.  This too shouldn't be persuasive.  To my mind, the most telling responses are to questions 39a, 39b, and 39c (at pages 181-182 of the report).  Service members who said they had served in units in which they and everybody else in the unit believed the unit leader to be gay or lesbian reported high levels of unit cohesion (77% good or very good), morale (68% good or very good), and performance (78%).  Answers for the Marine Corps were, respectively, 68%, 58%, and 72%.  And most of those in all branches who did not answer good or very good to these questions said that cohesion, morale, and performance were "neither good nor poor," with only small percentages choosing "poor" or "very poor."  Nevertheless, I'm sure that some ominous numbers can be massaged out of the data if one tries hard enough.  And because most people won't actually look at the report or the data, the competing views of the report will largely mirror previously held views.

I'm confident that some version of these (and other) points will be voiced by Republicans who previously said that no change should be made without support from the military.  Whether that prevents the lame-duck Congress from repealing DADT remains to be seen.


Paul Scott said...

Of course, all of this would be irrelevant if Obama was not a coward.

egarber said...

The stereotype section is interesting.

The study predicts that even with the change, things will essentially stay the same. It estimates that 85% of gay service members will continue to keep their orientation quiet. Most everybody will simply act as they do in any workplace -- talking about family when it comes up, but not going out of their way. The notion that there will be some sort of gigantic “coming out” party is just silly.

Hashim said...


I'd be interested to hear a fleshed-out version of your argument for why privacy concerns are merely pretext for prejudice. After all, we don't force female soldiers to use the same shower-room as male soldiers. And it seems to me that policy is designed not just to prevent sexual assaults. It's also intended to eliminate the privacy invasion of being forced to disrobe in front of a solider of the opposite sex. (I'm quite sure most female soldiers would object to unisex showers even if armed guards were present to prevent sexual assaults.) It seems to me that the latter privacy concern is also implicated by being forced to disrobe in front of a member of the same sex if the other person is homosexual. Thus, the need for gender segregation, rather than the success of racial integration, seems to me the proper analogy.

Notably, p.67 of the DADT Report finds that a large percentage of soldiers were uncomfortable being forced to share a shower-room with a homosexual soldier. But then pp. 140-41 of the Report straw-mans the concern, baldly asserting that the only reason the concern exists is fear of inappropriate behavior. But no support is provided for that assertion and, as discussed above, it's quite likely that privacy interests untethered to physical safety is also motivating the privacy concern.


Steve S said...

The democracy argument has the additional problem that a strong majority of the public believes that gays and lesbians should be able to openly serve in the military. See the Pew Forum study.

egarber said...

After all, we don't force female soldiers to use the same shower-room as male soldiers.

The dynamic isn't the same as with women and men, where mutual attraction -- or the high potential for it -- permeates the environment. For a gay service member, it's the opposite. He knows there is little chance for reciprocal attraction – indeed, he senses outright discomfort -- so he goes out of his way to avoid doing anything that makes others feel uneasy in a close setting (showers, etc.).

The last thing a gay soldier wants is to be called in front of his superiors for inappropriate behavior, so all incentives point toward extreme discretion. This is borne out within foreign militaries that allow open service.

And if the concern was that widespread, it seems like it would be "baked" into the overall numbers somehow. Instead, of the 69% who said they pretty much know they work with gay soldiers, 92% said it presents no problem.

egarber said...

Adding to what Steve S wrote, this is pretty fascinating:

Michael C. Dorf said...


I didn't mean to say that the word "privacy" was being used as a conscious pretext. Rather, my point is that the privacy interest is bound up with stereotypes. Circa 1950, white service members who worried about privacy held negative stereotypes about African- American bodies, such that being in close proximity to them was regarded as repugnant. That's why you saw the strongest negative reactions to desegregation in the context of swimming pools.

That's not a fair comparison, the argument on the other side goes, because the social meaning of sex-segregation is quite different: Women don't want to have to use the same open-stall showers as men because they don't want to be oggled. Likewise, a straight man doesn't want to be oggled by a gay man.

I suppose a fair number of men may understand their opposition to repealing DADT in these terms, but if so, I think they are mostly kidding themselves. As the Report notes, this just isn't a problem in civilian life (at a gym, say), where everyone knows there will be some number of gay people. And that's because of two factors:

1) As Eric notes, gay men and lesbians have a very strong disincentive to oggle people in the locker room, a disincentive that's likely to be as strong or stronger in the military as in civilian life;


2) The cultural norm with which we are inculcated is NOT a general fear of oggling by those who may find us sexually attractive, but a more specific norm against mixed-sex nudity. That norm itself is of course a social construction; in much of Europe, by contrast, mixed-sex changing facilities are taken for granted. I'm not proposing that for the U.S., but the norms we already have make mixed gay-straight facilities more or less a non-issue.

Hashim said...


Thanks for the clarification, but I'm left underwhelmed by your response.

In the civilian world, individuals who are concerned about the risk of ogling have a much greater ability to avoid that risk -- most obviously, by avoiding use of communal showers or altering the timing of their use. But, for obvious reasons, such options will often be unavailable to soldiers.

Likewise, I don't know what your basis is for asserting that the cultural norm is really against mixed-sex nudity, rather than fear of being ogled generally. And that seems rather implausible to me. The mere fact that ogling is a clear risk in gyms, etc., doesn't mean that the practice is non-troublesome to the ogled. Rather, it merely reflects the combination of 1) the inability of public accommodations to exclude gays, 2) the unwillingness of public accommodations to incur the expense of having separate showers for gays, and 3) the ability of individuals who especially fear being ogled to opt out.

Finally, you adopt Eric's claim that homosexuals have a strong disincentive to ogle in a communal shower. But Eric's claim was itself premised on the "strong discomfort" felt by possible oglees. And straight soliders are unlikely to discover that they're not being ogled in fact, since that of course would require ogling the gay soliders. So the strong discomfort is going to persist, unless straight soldiers engage in some game theory, which seems unlikely.


Michael C. Dorf said...


1) I stand corrected on the spelling of "ogle."

2) Even under DADT, service members have reason to worry about ogling, because closeted gays and lesbians serve. Indeed, one could argue that the oglephobic are in worse shape under DADT because they must worry that anybody could be gay or lesbian. Repeal would arguably reduce that risk (although that's not on my top 10 reasons for supporting repeal).

3) My basis for thinking the norm is about male/female rather than sexual attraction is the fact that thus it has been in my experience--including as a high school athlete from 1979-1982, at a time when society was MUCH less accepting of homosexuality than it is now.

4) Like people who voluntarily decide to join the Y, service members also volunteer. I guess I just think that for the vast majority of them, the risk of ogling from someone known to be gay rather than suspected of being gay is quite minor compared to the risk of being blown up by an IED--and certainly not large enough to justify a very discriminatory policy.

egarber said...

>>So the strong discomfort is going to persist, unless straight soldiers engage in some game theory, which seems unlikely.

I don't agree. Over time, the caution will likely desensitize everybody. From what I gather, this is exactly what has happened within the Israeli military -- which has had an open service policy since 1993 I think (ironically, right when we were instituting DADT).

Plus, there's an inaccurate stereotype that gay men ogle all men. That's not how it works. Gay men are often unattracted to straight men, precisely because they're straight. So the notion that openly serving gay members would be "ogling" everybody just doesn't hold up.

Hashim said...

I'm prepared to agree to disagree at this point. I did, however, want to clarify in response to Eric that I never suggested the inaccurate stereotype that *all* gays would ogle. I merely observed that straight individuals can reasonably be concerned that *some* gays might ogle -- just as the fact that not *all* men would ogle in a unisex shower doesn't undermine the reasonable concern of women that *some* men will.

AF said...


I want to make sure I understand your position. Are you saying that:

1) Straight individuals might reasonably be concerned that some gays might ogle them; or

2) Straight individuals might reasonably be concerned that some gays might ogle them *and* those concerns are sufficient to justify excluding gays from the military?

(1) strikes me as justifiable, but (2) does not. Members of the military are asked to sacrifice many reasonable privacy interests. I don't see how this particular one could possibly be sufficient to justify excluding millions of otherwise qualified people from the military.