BY Advocate.com Editors
August 01 2009 12:00 AM ET
Gary Gates, The Williams Istitute of the UCLA School of Law
I am a demographer and Senior Research Fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, UCLA School of Law. Prior to taking my position at the Williams Institute three years ago, I served as a Research Associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. I have studied the geographic, economic, and demographic characteristics of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) population for more than fifteen years and have a particular expertise in analyses of same-sex couples using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. As a demographer, I have a particular interest in counting people. Under the constraints of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” (DADT), it is virtually impossible to easily enumerate LGB people currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Because the policy clearly restricts military personnel from discussing their sexual orientation, it would be impossible to conduct a random survey of military personnel that asks them to reveal their sexual orientation. However, data from Census 2000 coupled with standard statistical methods provides a way to estimate the number of lesbian and gay individuals serving on active duty, in the ready reserve, and veterans. This was the focus of my research brief entitled “Gay Men and Lesbians in the Military: Estimates from Census 2000." (PDF)
A large body of research has shown that same-sex “unmarried partners” identified in the U.S. Census are primarily composed of lesbian and gay couples. The Census includes questions about both current and past military service. My estimates for the military service rates of LGB men and women are based on these responses and assume that the military service patterns of men and women in same-sex couples are the same as those for the entire LGB population. I should note that this likely provides a conservative estimate with regard to active duty service since it seems reasonable to assume that single gay men and lesbians would be more likely than their coupled counterparts to serve on active duty. This is true for heterosexual men and women and further, the constraints of the DADT policy would place an added burden on coupled individuals who would be forced to hide the nature of their relationship. My analyses provided a range of estimates using various statistical assumptions, but the mid-range estimates suggest that more than 36,000 gay men and lesbians are serving on active duty, representing 2.5% of active duty personnel. When the ready reserve is included, nearly 65,000 men and women in uniform are likely gay or lesbian, accounting for 2.8% of military personnel. Other key findings of this research brief include:
• There are nearly one million lesbian and gay veterans in the United States.
• These lesbian and gay veterans have served in all military eras in the later part of the 20th century.
• Military service rates for women in same-sex couples far exceed rates for other women in every military era of the later 20th century.
o Nearly 10% of women in same-sex couples who were age-eligible report serving in Korea, compared with less than 1% of other women.
o In the Vietnam era, 6% of age-eligible women in same-sex couples served, compared to only 0.8% of other women.
o In the most recent service period available in these data (from 1990 to 2000), service rates among age-eligible women in same-sex couples are more than three times higher than rates among other women.
• Women in same-sex couples report longer terms of service than other women. Among all women age 18–67 who report military service, nearly 82% of those in same-sex couples. Less than 74% of other women report serving more than two years.
Drawing on this research, I have also considered how service patterns of gay men might change if the DADT policy were lifted. My research shows that the estimated proportion of gay men in the military falls below the estimated proportion of gay men in the general population (the proportion of lesbians among women in the military exceeds their proportion in the general population). An estimated 1.2% of men on active duty are gay or bisexual, implying that there are approximately 14,500 gay/bisexual men on active duty. In the absence of DADT, it seems reasonable to assume that the proportion of these men in the military would eventually mirror that of the population. A nationally representative government sponsored survey (the National Survey of Family Growth, 2002) found that 4% of men identified as gay or bisexual. If that figure held among those on active duty, then there would be approximately 48,500 gay/bisexual men or an additional 34,000 gay/bisexual men among those on active duty. Using the same procedure for men in the ready reserve implies that an additional 7,000 gay/bisexual men would serve. All told, this suggests that if lifting DADT restrictions raises the portion of gay men in the military to that within the population, then the military could raise their numbers by an estimated 41,000 men (see attached Williams Institute press release). I have also considered how lifting DADT restrictions could affect retention of military personnel. A recent survey of LGB veterans found that when asked about why they left the military, 20% said that it was because they could not be open about their sexual orientation. My estimates suggest that by adding exiting active duty and ready reserve service personnel who would otherwise stay in military service to those who are discharged under DADT, the military would retain at least 3,000 trained personnel per year in the absence of DADT. To summarize, my research has focused on developing credible estimates of the size of the LGB population in the U.S. military. Using those estimates, I have also considered the impact that lifting DADT would have on recruitment and retention. I find that:
• An estimated 65,000 LGB people are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
• In the absence of DADT, I would expect that an additional 41,000 gay and bisexual men might eventually join the military.
• The military could expect an additional 3,000 personnel to retain their positions each year if they could serve openly and not be subject to DADT restrictions.
Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, U.S. Marines Corp
Ms. Chairwoman and Members of the Subcommittee:
My name is Eric Fidelis Alva. I was a Staff Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. I am honored to testify today. Thank you for holding this critical discussion of the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences with the Subcommittee.
I grew up in a military family in Texas. My father served in Vietnam, my grandfather in World War II. I guess you could say that service was in my blood. I inherited my middle name, Fidelis, from my father and grandfather. As you know, the Marine credo, Semper Fi, is short for Semper Fidelis – “always faithful.” Loyalty is literally my middle name. So I guess you could say that serving my country was my calling.
I joined the military because I wanted to serve; I joined the Marines because I wanted a challenge. I was 19 years old. I was patriotic, idealistic; I was also gay. For 13 years I served in the Marine Corps. I served in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope. I loved the discipline and the camaraderie, what I hated was concealing part of who I am.
My military service came to an end on March 21, 2003. It was the first day of the ground war in Iraq; mine was one of the first battalions in. Three hours into the invasion, we had stopped to wait for orders. I went back to the Humvee to retrieve something – to this day I can’t remember what – and, as I crossed that dusty patch of desert for the third time that day, I triggered a landmine.
I was thrown through the air, landing 10 or 15 feet away. The pain was unimaginable. My fellow marines were rushing to my aid, cutting away my uniform to assess the damage and treat my wounds. I remember wondering why they weren’t removing my right boot – it wasn’t until later that I realized it was because that leg was already gone.
Another landmine detonated, though I couldn’t hear it because the first had temporarily deafened me; it wasn’t until later that I learned it had taken the leg of my friend and fellow Texan Brian Alaniz, then a medical corpsman in the Navy, as he tried to help me.
When I awoke, groggily, in a hospital tent outside Kuwait City my right leg was gone, my left leg was broken, and my right arm permanently damaged. I also had the dubious honor of being the first American injured in the war. I received the Purple Heart, along with visits from the President and First Lady. I was told I was a hero.
That landmine may have put an end to my military career that day, but it didn’t put an end to my secret. That would come years later, when I realized that I had fought and nearly died to secure rights for others that I myself was not free to enjoy. I had proudly served a country that was not proud of me. More importantly, my experience disproved all the arguments against open service by gays and lesbians – I knew I had to share my story.
Even under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, I was out to a lot of my fellow Marines. The typical reaction from my straight, often married friends was “so what?” I was the same person, I did my job well, and that’s all they cared about. Today I’m godfather to three of those men’s children.
Normally, I was cautious about whom I divulged my secret to – I felt I had to be. Then one evening, out with some guys from our unit, I let my guard down. One of the guys commented on some women in the bar; when my response was less than enthusiastic he asked me, jokingly, if I was gay. “As a matter of fact, I am,” I responded. He swore to keep my secret, but I suppose he thought it was just too good a piece of gossip to pass up. He was wrong. No one he told cared. The response from everyone was the same as it had been from the friends in whom I’d confided: “so what?” I was still Eric, still one of them, still a Marine; I was still trusted.
That was a very powerful thing for me, that I still had their trust, because the supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are right about one thing – unit cohesion is essential. What my experience proves is that they’re wrong about how to achieve it. My being gay, and even many of my colleagues knowing about it, didn’t damage unit cohesion. They still put their lives in my hands, and when I was injured they risked those lives to save mine.
My experience gives me confidence in our military men and women. I am confident that, just as they are capable of immense professionalism and dedication to duty - putting their lives on the line every day - our soldiers are equally capable of putting aside personal bias and standing shoulder to shoulder with gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. They are there to fulfill a mission, just as my unit and I were. They will do their duty.
As a former Marine and patriotic American, I am deeply disturbed that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is discouraging young patriots from joining the Military at a time when our country needs their service. I am horrified that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” forces trained and ready troops to choose between serving their country and living openly – a choice I myself would have been faced with, had a landmine not made it for me. I am appalled at the involuntary separation of thousands of skilled service members during a time of war – threatening our country’s military readiness for no good reason. I am also thankful for the acceptance of my unit members, whose support protected me from a similar fate.
My experiences serving in the military demonstrate that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a solution looking for a problem. Since leaving the military, the opportunities I’ve had to speak with Americans, both gay and straight, have showed time and again that the American people support open service by gay, lesbian and bisexual troops.
Looking back on my years in the military, I am proud. I’m proud, not only of my service and my sacrifice, but of the way my unit members accepted me. I’m proud, not only of how American culture is becoming more accepting, but of how the American military is evolving, too. Now is the time to revisit this ill-considered law. It is costing us far too much, and purchasing us nothing in return.
Those who support “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” claim that they do so in the interest of unit cohesion. Well, as a former Marine, I can tell you what it takes to build unit cohesion: trust. It takes trust in your fellow unit members to have your back and do their job. And I can also tell you that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” does nothing but undercut that trust, and with it our nation’s security. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” imposes secrecy and undermines unit cohesion, ousting gays and lesbians at the expense of the military readiness of the United States. Allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual service members to serve openly will only improve unit cohesion and in turn our military. I urge the members of the subcommittee to rethink this failed policy and thank you for the opportunity to share my story today. Thank you.