Surveying Headaches

Pentagon DADT-repeal questionnaire raises questions of bias and participation from gay servicemembers

The Department of Defense mailed out 400,000 surveys to servicemembers on Wednesday, July 7, with half going to active servicemembers and the other half going to those in reserve units. The survey asks the troops 103 questions, many relating to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy and how they would react to openly gay military service, and has caused nonstop controversy in the week since its release.

Since DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson and U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham were named by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to head the Pentagon working group that planned the survey, questions have been raised – by members of Congress and leaders of LGBT advocacy groups – about whether the continued enforcement of DADT would impact the response rates of gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers.

The release of the survey to servicemembers on July 7 led to some disputed contentions from the LGBT military advocacy and legal group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), which said that concerns about the confidentiality of the questionnaire led it to issuing a statement that ”[a]t this time SLDN cannot recommend that lesbian, gay, or bisexual service members participate in [the] survey.”

Servicemembers United, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Palm Center and Log Cabin Republicans all issued statements detailing concerns with the survey, but none took the step taken by SLDN urging non-participation by LGB servicemembers.

HRC spokesman Michael Cole, for instance, noted that HRC’s “primary concern” has always been whether there’s a need for a survey at all. After the Palm Center released a copy of the survey that it had obtained, Servicemembers United’s Alex Nicholson said, ”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.”

In a late afternoon news conference on Friday, July 9, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell defended the survey, saying when asked about reports and commentary that the survey was biased, ”Absolutely, unequivocally, I reject it as nonsense.”

Despite his defense, his only response when asked by Metro Weekly why there appeared to be no questions regarding the current impact of DADT and DADT-related discharges on troops’ morale and unit cohesion was, ”I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a good explanation. We’ll try to get it for you. I don’t know.”

Speaking about Westat, the group the developed the survey in ”collaboration” with the Pentagon, Morrell said, ”This is the work of an incredibly respected, professional survey organization.”

Among the questions asked in the survey are the following:

In your career, have you ever worked in a unit with a coworker you believed to be homosexual?

Among all the factors that affect a unit’s morale, how much did the unit members’ belief that this coworker was gay or lesbian affect the unit’s morale? (Asked if survey respondent earlier confirmed that he or she had worked in a unit with a leader ”believed to be a homosexual.”)

If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed and you are assigned to bathroom facilities with an open bay shower that someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian Service member also used, which are you most likely to do? (Multiple-choice answers ranged from no change to avoiding showering with a gay or lesbian servicemember.)

In the briefing, Morrell noted that the survey states that ”homosexual” and ”gay or lesbian” are used interchangeably. He added that only ”seven of those references use the term homosexual” and that those that do are seeking yes or no answers and not ”subjective” assessments.

He fought back about media assessments focusing on the ”open bay shower” question, noting that the survey is lengthy and contained many more generalized questions. He said, ”We need to identify any potential problems associated with repeal and then determine how we mitigate those problems. … If we avoided these questions and proceeded with repeal and proceeded with implementation that didn’t address those potential problems, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs.”

On Monday, July 12, Morrell responded to the claim alluded to at Talking Points Memo and circulating in the LGBT blogosphere that “segregation” is a possible outcome of the Pentagon working group’s review, saying, ”But no one, no one is considering ‘separate but equal’ bathing or living facilities for … gay and straight troops. That’s just not ever a consideration.”

Meanwhile, as others focused on the questions the military is asking troops, Log Cabin Republicans were focused this week on questions of another type, as the group’s lawsuit challenging the DADT policy began its trial on Tuesday, July 13. The government had been trying to delay the trial, but U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips – a Clinton appointee to the federal bench – refused.

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