By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration today has more research to help make its case for allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces.
A survey of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan has found that having gay or lesbian soldiers in fighting units has no significant impact on unit cohesion or readiness. (Read it here.)
The data raises new doubts about the underlying assumption of the congressional ban, namely that military discipline will fall apart if gays and lesbians were permitted to serve openly.
"Service members said the most important factors for unit cohesion and readiness were the quality of their officers, training, and equipment," said Laura Miller, a sociologist at the government-funded RAND Corp. that conducted the study along with the University of Florida. "Serving with another service member who was gay or lesbian was not a significant factor that affected unit cohesion or readiness to fight."
The study, which was commissioned by the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara -- whose researchers have advocated lifting the ban -- is the latest high-profile assessment to question the validity of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which requires gays and lesbians to keep their sexual orientation secret or risk discharge.
RAND and the University of Florida found that "40 percent of the military members surveyed expressed support for the [current] policy, while 28 percent opposed it and 33 percent were neutral -- less support than seen in previous surveys," according to a release this morning by RAND, which also advises the Pentagon on a host of security matters.
It added: "About 20 percent of those polled said they were aware of a gay or lesbian member in their unit, and about half of those said their presence was well known. In addition, three-quarters of those surveyed said they felt comfortable or very comfortable in the presence of gays or lesbians."
The study comes a few weeks after a scholarly journal published for the Joint Chiefs of Staff included an article by an Air Force colonel calling for repeal of the 1993 law, arguing that forcing gay soldiers to live a lie actually undercut the honor and integrity that are central to military service.
President Obama has vowed to press Congress to repeal the ban on gays -- a key campaign pledge -- but has yet to begin lobbying lawmakers to take action. A bill to repeal the law in the House has been sponsored by Representative Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat, but no Senate sponsor has come forward.
The latest survey, which appears in the journal Armed Forces and Society, found no significant differences in the attitudes towards gays and lesbians among the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
Other findings in the RAND announcement:
-- Compared to previous studies of military members, support for "donít ask, donít tell" continues to decline. The earliest polls in 1993 showed 75 percent agreed with the ban, 16 percent against, and 8 percent unsure.
-- The important factors for cohesion and readiness were officer/noncommissioned officer quality, training quality, and equipment quality. Beyond these factors, knowing a gay or lesbian person in the unit was not associated significantly with ratings of unit cohesion or readiness.
-- The most frequently endorsed arguments in support of integrating gays and lesbians were those that prioritized performance and qualifications over exclusionary practices.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.