July 13, 2010 at 10:24 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Anti-gay bias found in Pentagon ‘Don’t Ask’ survey

A recently issued Pentagon survey asking service members about their thoughts on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is inspiring consternation among LGBT advocates who say the questions have an anti-gay bias.

The survey was issued last week and is intended to gather perspectives from 400,000 non-deployed active duty service members on lifting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The results of the survey are aimed to help inform a Pentagon working group that’s developing a plan to implement repeal of the 1993 law banning gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military. The group’s work is due Dec. 1.

The survey was created and administered by the research firm Westat in conjunction with the Pentagon Working Group, and, according to Servicemembers United, came at a cost to taxpayers of $4.4 million.

A copy of the survey obtained by the Blade and other media outlets is 32 pages. The survey uses the term “homosexual” interchangeably with the term “gay or lesbian” in its questioning.

One question asks responders if they “currently serve with a male or female” service member that they believe to be gay or lesbian.

Other questions address “If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed, how, if at all, would the way your family feels about your military service be affected?” and “Have you shared a room, berth or field tent with a Service member you believed to be homosexual?”

Another question asks service members how they would respond if they were assigned to share bathroom facilities or an open bay shower with an openly gay or lesbian person. Possible responses include “take no action,” “use the shower at a different time than the Service member I thought to be gay or lesbian,” “discuss how we expect each other to behave and conduct ourselves” or “talk to a chaplain, mentor or leader about how to handle the situation.”

No question on the survey asks service members about their sexual orientation or asks them whether they think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should be repealed.

In a statement, Alex Nicholson, executive director for Servicemembers United, said imaging a survey with “such derogatory and insulting wording, assumptions, and insinuations” on any other minority group is impossible.

“Unfortunately, this expensive survey stokes the fires of homophobia by its very design and will only make the Pentagon’s responsibility to subdue homophobia as part of this inevitable policy change even harder,” he said. “The Defense Department just shot itself in the foot by releasing such a flawed survey to 400,000 servicemembers and it did so at an outrageous cost to taxpayers.”

Nicholson cited as among the flawed aspects of the survey the use of the term “homosexual” and a focus on potential negative aspects of repeal, with little attention to potential positive aspects.

He also noted what he called a “repeated and unusual suggestion” that a service member may need to talk to military comrades and leaders about appropriate behavior and conduct.

Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, also expressed concern about the questions, but said the survey is important for the Pentagon working group to complete its examination on implementing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“While surveying the troops on the issue like this is problematic from the start and the questions exhibit clear bias, the fact remains that this study exists,” Cole said. “We urge the [Defense] Department to analyze the results with an understanding of the inherent bias in the questions and use it as a tool to implement open service quickly and smoothly.”

According to Reuters, Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesperson, addressed the notion that the survey had anti-gay bias at a press conference last week, saying he “absolutely, unequivocally” rejects the accusations as “nonsense.”

“We think it would be irresponsible to conduct a survey that didn’t address these kinds of [privacy-related] questions,” Morrell said.

Morrell reportedly added that more training, education or facility adjustments may be needed required to prepare the U.S. military if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.

One LGBT advocate familiar with the working group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon doesn’t intend to make the results of the survey public once they are compiled. Still, the advocate noted that the Defense Department expects they will be leaked or known through the Freedom of Information Act.

Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, said the survey is sending a “complicated mixed message” with regard to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

On one hand, Belkin said, the survey is “is part of an education process” in which the Defense Departmant is “just starting to talk with the troops and hear from the troops” about the impact of repeal. Still, Belkin noted that the Pentagon is asking questions about LGBT people that wouldn’t be asked about other minority groups.

“You would never ask a survey question [such as] what would it be like to share a tent with a Chinese soldier, or would you take orders from a Catholic officer, or how would your husband or wife feel if you lived on post next to a Jewish family?” Belkin said. “And the reason we don’t ask questions like that is because those questions, by their very nature, constitute the group you’re asking about as a second-class citizen.”

Belkin said he didn’t think male service members bunking with female troops would be an appropriate analogy for the survey questions because that isn’t as germane as serving with people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

“The troops are already living next to and serving with and showering with and sharing tents with and doing everything with gays,” he said. “This is not a change that is any different from civilian society. It would be a change if we were asking them to shower with and share tents with women.”

Belkin said that advocates shouldn’t be focusing on the survey, but on an upcoming “leadership moment” in which the president and defense leaders would have to certify that repeal should happen.

“The question is not, ‘Does the survey say 46 percent will share a tent or 42 percent will share a tent?’” Belkin said. “That’s not what this moment is about. This moment is about whether leadership steps up and certifies that it’s time for repeal and implements non-discrimination — that’s what we should be focusing on.”

SLDN to LGBT troops:
Don’t take this survey

Also sparking debate among advocates is whether LGBT service members would be at risk of being outed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” if they participated in the survey.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network issued a statement July 8 warning LGBT service members about a potential risk if they participate in a Pentagon survey over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, said his organization “cannot recommend” that LGBT service members “participate in any survey being administered by the Department of Defense, the Pentagon Working Group, or any third-party contractors.”

“While the surveys are apparently designed to protect the individual’s privacy, there is no guarantee of privacy and DOD has not agreed to provide immunity to service members whose privacy may be inadvertently violated or who inadvertently outs himself or herself,” he said.

The statement says SLDN asked the Pentagon working group for information about the survey, including the survey texts, possible certificates of confidentiality, and whether the Pentagon could guarantee immunity for people inadvertently outed by the surveys. According to SLDN, the Pentagon was unable to satisfy this request.

Sarvis advised LGBT service members who participate should do so in a way that doesn’t identify their sexual orientation.

In contrast to SLDN, Nicholson issued a statement encouraging LGBT service members to take part in the study.

“Servicemembers United encourages all gay and lesbian active duty troops who received the survey to take this important opportunity to provide their views,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson added his organization is “satisfied” sufficient safeguards are in place to “protect the confidentiality of any gay and lesbian servicemember who would like to fully and honestly participate in this survey.”

Cole said HRC likewise is encouraging LGBT service members to take part in the survey.

“It is critical that voices of lesbian and gay service members are included in this study and we feel that the privacy safeguards are sufficient to maintain anonymity,” he said.

Nicholson told the Blade that as part of its contract, Westat has to “strip out information about survey respondents” before the company delivers the information to the Defense Department and “destroy” any personally identifying information.

“They cannot contractually give DOD any personally identifying information about any of the survey respondents,” Nicholson said.

At a press briefing last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also maintained that LGBT service members wouldn’t be in danger of discharge if they participated in the study.

“I strongly encourage gays and lesbians who are in the military to fill out these forms,” he said. “We’ve organized this in a way to protect their privacy and the confidentiality of their responses through a third party, and it’s important that we hear from them as well as everybody else.”

The LGBT advocate familiar with the Pentagon study, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a member of the Defense Department working group found SLDN’s response “jaw-dropping.”

“He has complete faith that the agreement they have with their third-party vendor, which is administering the survey, the anonymous drop-box option, and the other pieces of the survey that are designed to protect the anonymity of respondents are pretty air-tight,” he said.

The advocate said he was told if gay or lesbian troops don’t respond, it would remove a significant number of service members from the sample who would respond favorably to repeal.

On the other side, the advocate said, the Marine Corps and religious groups are “really making a major effort” to get anti-repeal comments to the Pentagon working group.

“The responses that they’ve gotten thus far have been overwhelmingly anti-repeal, and the attempt by SLDN to keep gay service members from responding is not going to help,” he said.

Belkin said the Palm Center is deferring to SLDN on whether taking the survey would be safe for LGBT service members and he had no recommendation for service members. Still, he noted that the Palm Center has an assessment of the risks.

“On the one hand, we think the Pentagon has actually been pretty careful about dividing privacy protections, and so we think that the risk of participation is minimal, but at the same, we don’t think it’s zero,” Belkin said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

1 Comment
  • It figures Gates and the other military brass would pull a stunt like this, and no doubt they will use this poll to justify not moving ahead with the repeal of DADT. This why Congress should go ahead with repeal and not worry about the bogus military study of the repeal, as it was always a delay tactic. Repeal now! President Truman didn’t wait for the military’s approval before intigrating the units, and Obama and the Congress shouldn’t wait before acting now.

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