Fewer oppose gays in military, survey finds
By WILLIAM H. MCMICHAEL and BRENDAN MCGARRY
When Adm. Mike Mullen stunned the Senate Armed Services committee Feb. 2 by saying it's time to stop kicking gay service members out just for being gay, he also acknowledged that the Defense Department is working in an information vacuum on the issue.
"I do not know what the impact will be, and I do not know what the implementation requirements will be," Mullen said. "There's very little objective data on this."
Now there is.
In a survey on service members' attitudes about gays in the military, slightly more than 3,000 Military Times readers contacted randomly by e-mail and through fliers placed in random newsstand copies late last fall offer a glimpse of attitudes and experiences in today's military.
The majority of troops are generally happy with the current policy. But opposition to a change is dropping steadily.
The percentage of respondents opposing repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" fell to 51 percent, a decline of 12 percentage points since 2003. The percentage favoring repeal, meanwhile, rose 6 points over the same period, to 30 percent among active-duty readers of Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times and Marine Corps Times responding to the survey. The survey was conducted from Nov. 11 through Nov. 30.
Military Times also interviewed about 24 career service members for this article, including 11 who identified themselves as gay. We agreed not to name them to protect their careers.
"I think it's time to repeal the law," said Air Force Maj. Mike Edinger, an 18-year veteran of space and missile operations.
Married with children, Edinger said he once opposed open service by gays.
"As you get older, your views are reflected by things that you experience in life," he said. "I had met, through my sister a number of years ago, a group of gay men that are friends of hers. They're all civilians, but I got to know these guys. It was the first time I had ever met anybody that I knew was homosexual, and it really struck me how they're just like anybody else.
"And so then that starts making me think, why should they be treated any differently in terms of service in the military?"
Army Maj. Christina Bembenek, a military intelligence officer, disagreed.
"I think the law is fine as it is," she said. "It's not a perfect solution, but better than opening it up."
But troops interviewed for this article were generally united on two points — even before Mullen's Feb. 2 pronouncement: There are already gays serving in the military, and change is coming.
"Taking a look at where our nation is going, I think it's inevitable," said Marine Lt. Col. Alex Chatman, a pilot with 21 years of service who opposes homosexuality on religious grounds and believes sexual orientation is a choice rather than genetic.
"It's not whether I like it or not — it's just a fact."
Among active-duty survey respondents, 2.1 percent identified themselves as gay or bisexual, while 3 percent said they were "unsure" or declined to answer. Women were three times more likely than men to report being gay or bisexual (5.4 percent to 1.7 percent).
Most active-duty survey respondents, 57 percent, believe a member of their unit is gay. But of those, only 14 percent could say for sure — the individual told them directly, for example.
"I think people would be amazed at the number of people in the military who are gay," said a gay female Army first sergeant, who has deployed to Afghanistan twice. "I personally know a one-star, all the way down to a private. The gamut is so wide."
Proponents of repeal say it's an issue of fairness, with some comparing it to President Harry Truman's order to racially desegregate the military in 1948.
"I was born black, didn't choose it," said Army Maj. Brian Robinson. "I believe (gays) are born that way. I don't believe they get socialized."
Service members' responses were similar when separated by age or rank. The Military Times survey showed opposition to open service was slightly lower among the junior enlisted paygrades of E-1 through E-4 — whose ranks account for nearly half of the armed forces — as well as among racial minorities.
But more than twice as many women as men (55 percent to 27 percent) support allowing gays to serve openly.