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posted Friday, July 16, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 29
Pentagon at odds with Gay rights groups over survey
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Pentagon at odds with Gay rights groups over survey

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

The Pentagon is at odds with Gay rights groups after sending out a survey asking troops what they would do if Gays were allowed to serve openly.

The survey, which was created and administered by the research firm Westat in conjunction with the Comprehensive Review Working Group, was sent out to 400,000 non-deployed and active duty troops last week. Troops have until August 15 to complete the survey, which asks some 100 questions, and cost taxpayers $4.4 million. A second confidential survey assessing how 150,000 family members feel about the prospective repeal is slated for next month.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) law, passed in 1993 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994, has resulted in the abrupt firing of more than 14,000 men and women because of their sexual orientation, and has led tens of thousands more to voluntarily terminate their careers because of the burden of serving under this outdated law. There are an estimated 66,000 Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals currently serving in the U.S. military, and an estimated 1 million Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

Earlier this year, top Pentagon brass established a team to conduct the survey after President Barack Obama called upon Congress and the military to end DADT. Thus far, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen publicly back a repeal of DADT.

"DEROGATORY AND INSULTING WORDING"
However, some Gay rights groups say the survey is biased and derogatory and - although there are 103 questions - falls short of asking troops if they think the current ban is harmful. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell called such criticism "nonsense."

"While it remains safe for Gay and Lesbian troops to participate in this survey, it is simply impossible to imagine a survey with such derogatory and insulting wording, assumptions, and insinuations going out about any other minority group in the military," said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, the nation's largest organization of Gay and Lesbian troops and veterans. "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. 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 says that flawed aspects of the survey include the unnecessary use of terms that are known to be inflammatory and bias-inducing in social science research, such as the clinical term "homosexual"; an overwhelming focus on the potential negative aspects of repeal and little or no inclusion of the potential positive aspects of repeal or the negative aspects of the current policy; the repeated and unusual suggestion that a co-worker or leader might need to "discuss" appropriate behavior and conduct with Gay and Lesbian troops; and more.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) recommended that Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual servicemembers not participate in any survey.

SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis released the following statement to SGN: "As a legal services group, our focus is on ensuring adequate legal protections for those Gay and Lesbian servicemembers that participate in the surveys. We continue to have discussions with the Department of Defense and are working to make sure Gay and Lesbian servicemembers are protected. At this time, our warning stands that Gay and Lesbian servicemembers should not take the survey unless adequate legal protections are put in place."

Sarvis said that SLDN has made clear from the beginning that no survey of the troops should be done.

"Surveying the troops is unprecedented; it did not happen in 1948 when President Truman ended segregation and it did not happen in 1976 when the service academies opened to women. Even when the military placed women on ships at sea, the Pentagon did not turn to a survey on how to bring about that cultural change," Sarvis told SGN.

"Now in the field, the survey is fait accompli," Sarvis continued. "The question today is what will the Pentagon Working Group do with the results? The Working Group was tasked to provide the Secretary of Defense with a set of recommendations to implement open service. We will soon learn to what extent this survey will identify potential issues with open service. No one should be surprised if a number of prejudices come to light."

Late last week, SLDN asked the Department of Defense and the Pentagon Working Group for the text of the survey, more information on possible certificates of confidentiality, and whether the Department of Defense or the working group guarantee immunity from DADT and other armed services rules and regulations for servicemembers who are inadvertently "outed" by the survey. The Department of Defense was unable to satisfy that request.

"The law is still in effect, and if someone were to out themselves, we would have to begin the discharge process," said Pentagon spokesperson Cynthia Smith.

For some, the issue isn't the questions themselves, but that the Pentagon has turned to surveying troops in the first place. "This is a very dangerous precedent," says Lawrence Korb, who ran the Pentagon's personnel office during the Reagan administration. "It gives the troops the feeling that they have veto over what the top people want."

Even some top officers acknowledge some unease. "We've never done this," said Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations. "We've never assessed the force because it is not our practice to go within our military and poll our force to determine if they like the laws of the land or not. I mean, that gets you into a very difficult regime."

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