What do LGB people think about the military?

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(by Gary J. Gates, PhD, Williams Distinguished Scholar, Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law)

Whether it's a Gallup poll showing that 7 in 10 Americans believe gay men and lesbians should serve openly in the military, or a Military Times poll showing that there's still resistance to repealing the "don't ask/don't tell policy" (DADT) among military personnel, or Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili opining on how allowing LGBT people to serve will do no harm, we hear quite a bit about what America and its military thinks about LGBT people. We rarely have the opportunity to assess what LGBT people think about the US military.

The newest release of the General Social Survey (GSS) offers an interesting glimpse at just that. The survey, a representative sample of the US population, asked more than 2,000 respondents their sexual orientation and two questions about the US military: how interested are they in military and defense policy and do they think military spending is too little, about right, or too much. I analyzed the data regarding LGB attitudes (the GSS has no way to separately identify transgender individuals) and the results are intriguing.

First, LGB men and women are just as interested in military and defense policy as everyone else. More than 44% of LGB individuals said that they were very interested compared to 40% of heterosexuals. The difference is not statistically significant.

While LGB and straight people share a common interest in defense issues, they differ substantially in their views about military spending. Fully 7 in 10 LGB people think that we spend too much money on the military, compared to only 4 in 10 straight people (and that difference is statistically significant). Conversely, 1 in 4 heterosexuals think we spend too little on the military compared to only 1 in 7 LGB individuals.

You might think that these results are just a function of LGB people (compared to heterosexuals) being younger (they are) more politically liberal (they are) and having more education (they do). Younger people, liberals, and those with a college degree are all more likely to say that we spend too much on the military. But even when I take those differences into account (using regression models), I still find that LGB people are more than twice as likely as heterosexuals to believe that we overspend on the military (and the difference is still statistically significant).

So what to make of this? The survey results suggest that apart from age, political ideology, and education, there's something about an LGB sexual orientation that makes folks less comfortable with funding the military.

Perhaps a policy that bars LGB people from openly serving actually diminishes overall support for the military. It certainly reduces support among LGB vets. A survey of LGB veterans conducted in 2005 found that 1 in 5 left the military as a direct result of their unwillingness to continue to hide their sexual orientation (see http://www.law.ucla.edu/williamsinstitute/publications/EffectsOfDontAskDontTellOnRetention.pdf). That amounts to nearly a thousand active duty personnel lost each year to DADT.

The US military is currently implementing a plan (begun in 2007) to increase military strength by 65,000 troops. The Obama administration recently announced the need to add 30,000 more recruits to that goal. The GSS findings suggest that the negative consequences of DADT extend beyond LGB military personnel. Lifting the ban could be an important component in meeting these ambitious recruitment goals by increasing broader LGB support for the military and improving the likelihood that LGB men and women who would otherwise resist a military career might consider service.

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