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New Harris Interactive Poll on Gays in the Military

Where do we go from "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?" That's what the civilian and military leadership of the country needs to figure out based on the public's opinion of the current policy toward homosexuals in the military. Overall, 46% of the public opposes the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, 34% favor the policy and 20% are still undecided.

When asked to choose among three possible policies towards gays in the military, 48% of the public favor allowing gays to serve openly in the military. In addition, 18% support allowing gays to serve if they keep their homosexuality a secret, the same number (18%) favor prohibiting gays from serving in the military at all, and 16% are undecided. Thus, while a plurality favors open service by gays in the military, there is not a clear majority public opinion on this issue yet.

These are among the important results of a Harris Interactive Election 2000 national survey of 5,460 respondents conducted from January 19th to January 26th. The survey was conducted using the Internet and Harris Interactive's Internet panel of over 5 million cooperative respondents.

Further review of the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and support for future policy options shows a diverse field of opinions. Among those who oppose the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, the vast majority (78%) favor a more lenient policy that would allow gays to serve openly. At the same time, 5% who oppose the current policy would support a similar policy that allows gays to serve if they keep their sexual orientation a secret. However, there are some who oppose the current policy (12%) but favor a more stringent policy that would bar all gays from the military. Even more surprising, of those who favor the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, 35% actually support a more stringent policy of prohibiting all gays from serving in the military. They may be willing to support "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" because they recognize that a more restrictive policy may be unobtainable. In addition, 39% of those who favor the current policy would support a policy similar to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and 16% would support a policy that allows gays to serve openly.

Taking political party into consideration, there are also some surprises. Contrary to what one might expect, almost one-third (32%) of Republicans favor allowing gays to serve openly in the military. However, 31% favor banning gays from serving in the military at all while 21% support a plan similar to the current policy.

Democrats are slightly more cohesive in their support for open military service for gays with 61% supporting it, 19% supporting a policy that allows gays to serve if they keep their homosexuality a secret, and 7% supporting the banning of gays from all military service. Independents, tend to fall in between the two parties, with 48% supporting open service, 13% backing service if their homosexuality is kept secret, and 19% in favor of banning gays from all military service.

Gender and race/ethnicity also influence positions on this issue. Women are much more supportive of gays and lesbians openly serving in the military than men, with 56% of women and 38% of men supporting open service for gays. In addition, men are almost three times as likely as women (28% vs. 10%) to say gays should not be allowed to serve in the military at all.

Race/ethnicity also has an interesting effect on support for gays in the military. While Hispanics wholeheartedly support gays serving openly in the military, Blacks are more divided in their views. While 64% of Hispanics and 42% of Blacks support gays serving openly in the military, slightly more than one-third (36%) of Blacks indicate that they are not sure which policy for gays in the military they support. Given the history of the civil rights movement within the black community, it will be interesting to see on which side of the fence Blacks fall on this policy issue.

Among Whites, almost half (48%) of respondents support open service for gays in the military. In addition, 20% favor gays being prohibited from serving in the military at all, and 18% favor allowing gays to serve if they conceal their sexual orientation.

So, what does this mean for the military, the presidential contenders, and the parties?

First, it means the presidential candidates and the parties must build party platforms that consider the varied opinions of their members. Second, it means that any future policy must recognize the fact that society has changed over the past decade in its attitude towards gays and as a result the country is more supportive of gays serving in the military. Third, the military must also weigh the impact of its policy on its members and future recruits. Thus, developing a new policy on gays in the military will be a difficult balancing act for everyone involved.

Methodology

This Harris Interactive Election 2000 study was conducted between January 19th and January 26th with a national sample of 10,928 respondents from the Harris Interactive Inc. panel of Internet users. Data for this release is based on a random sub-sample of 5,460 respondents. Data were weighted by age, sex, education, income, race/ethnicity, and region as well as propensity to be online, a composite of several factors, in order to generalize the results to the national population.

In theory, with a sample of this size and after weighting the data, one can say with 95 percent certainty that the results have a statistical precision of plus or minus 3 percentage points of what they would be if the entire adult population of the United States had been polled with complete accuracy. Unfortunately, there are several other possible sources of error in all polls or surveys that are probably more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error. They include question wording and question order, non-response, and screening (e.g., for likely voters). It is difficult or impossible to quantify the errors that may result from these factors.


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