Editors' Note: Guest blogger Dixon Osburn is Co-founder and former Executive Director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
The House Armed Services Committee is set this Wednesday to hold the first hearing on lesbians, gays and bisexuals in the military since Don't Ask, Don't Tell was enacted into law in 1993. The hearing comes as new support for repeal is emerging.
A new Washington Post/ABC poll this week found that 50% of veterans agree that gays should serve openly, up dramatically from a 2007 Zogby poll in which 28% agreed, and a 1993 poll done by military sociologist Charlie Moskos in which only 13% of service members agreed that gays should serve openly.
The Post/ABC poll also found that 75% of the general public supports gays serving openly, including significant majorities of conservatives, evangelicals and Catholics, up from 44% of the general public in 1993.
Two weeks ago, fifty-two retired generals and admirals signed a statement calling for repeal of the military's ban on lesbians, gays and bisexuals, joining ten others who have called for repeal including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, and former NATO Commander, General Wesley Clark.
On the other hand, General Colin Powell and former Senator Sam Nunn, who both led the opposition to ending the gay ban in 1993, have recently said that, while they believe it is time for Congress to review the efficacy of the current law, they are not yet ready to endorse repeal.
The test of whether the hearing on gays in the military this week is successful is whether Members of Congress fairly and objectively probe the effect of the ban on military readiness, especially as the United States faces a military stretched thin by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here are some of the questions the committee should address.
What is the evidence that gays serving openly undermines unit cohesion? That question was never asked in 1993. Many witnesses gave their opinion that it would be a problem, but no one, including General Powell, backed up their personal opinion with any data.
How should the armed forces treat the 65,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual personnel currently serving? Should the military round up and discharge all 65,000 troops (which would be as impractical as it would be catastrophic), or should gay Americans be allowed to serve playing by the same rules as all other service members? In 1993, there was no hard data on how many gays were actually serving, and some who supported the ban argued, incorrectly, that the numbers were insignificant. The 2000 census provided the first insight into how many gay patriots are fighting for us today.
What evidence is there that the United States military's strength has degraded due to the presence of openly gay service members? According to a 2007 Zogby poll, 23% of Iraq and Afghan veterans reported that they knew someone who was openly gay in the military. We also know that American forces are serving with openly gay troops from foreign militaries in joint operations and with NATO forces deployed around the world, and yet there has been no report of operational deficiency. So, what is the continued readiness rationale when policy (the ban) and practice (people are telling) are different?
What evidence is there that openly gay service members have disrupted privacy in the barracks or showers? The showers argument animated great opposition to gays in the military in 1993. Paul Cameron, of the Family Research Institute, recently agreed on the Colbert Report that he would "rather die in a terrorist attack than suffer through an uncomfortable shower with a gay?" Yet, with nearly one-quarter of gay troops serving openly, there has not been any report of a problem in fourteen years.
Should we risk mission accomplishment by banning gays critical to the mission? Would you prefer that Osama bin Laden stay at large, or be captured, if the person who caught him turned out to be gay? Should we have aborted the effort to rescue Jessica Lynch because one of the participants was gay? Should we discharge Arabic linguists who are gay? As former Republican Senator Alan Simpson in a Washington Post op-ed observed, "Is there a 'straight' way to translate Arabic?"
It is doubtful that Congress will pass the Military Readiness Enhancement Act to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell this year. Yet, the hearing this week is significant as it marks the first time Congress has re-engaged on the issue. Will Congress take note that popular and military opinion supporting gays serving openly has changed dramatically? Will Congress place a greater burden on the Department of Defense to prove, with hard evidence, why a ban is still necessary? Answers to these questions will provide a window into whether Don't Ask, Don't Tell will be repealed next year, or much later.