The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and marriage equality, on the surface, are similar policy issues. Both deal with equal rights for gays and lesbians. Both sharply divide liberal and conservative activists and politicians; the same lobbyist groups and think tanks tend to study and push the two issues in tandem.
But when it comes to public opinion, you have two very different issues: support for the repeal of DADT has skyrocketed in the last two decades, while support for marriage equality is stagnant.
Three quarters of Americans support the service of openly gay Americans, up from 62 percent in early 2001 and 44 percent in 1993, according to ABC/Washington Post polls. There has been a dramatic shift particularly among conservatives: a May 2009 Gallup poll shows their support for repealing DADT has jumped from 46 to 58 percent in just the past five years. The issue has momentum at the federal level: Obama brought up DADT in his State of the Union address, and the Senate has followed up on the issue with hearings in the Armed Services Committee.
Meanwhile, most Americans do not support marriage equality, and their opinions have not budged. Most polls show that support for it hovered below 50 percent for the entire decade. And while marriage equality does have a pending case in the Supreme Court, there's nervousness about whether the time for federal action is right after repeated defeats at the state level.
Why has one gay-rights issue steadily gained public support while another seems to have stalled? Not all gay-rights issues are created equal, and there are three main reasons why the repeal of DADT has become increasingly popular without translating into, or even correlating with, the growing acceptance of marriage equality.
DADT is increasingly viewed as a national-security issue.
In the 1990s, gay advocates mostly argued that the repeal of DADT was a matter of fairness and civil rights, much like marriage equality. But September 11 was a turning point: the country became more concerned with national security and counterterrorism. "That's when you see it become not just a gay-rights issue anymore but a national-security issue," says Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (St. Martins, 2009). "The idea became, we need our best military available, no matter what their sexual orientation." DADT discharges dropped dramatically after September 11, suggesting that, in wartime, officials were more willing to disregard the policy.
The high-profile travails of gay service members, particularly Arabic linguists like Dan Choi, became an example of DADT as an untenable wartime policy. The military has, at most recent count, discharged 58 Arabic linguists and nine Farsi linguists because of their sexual orientation, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "When they're releasing Arabic linguists it gives [DADT] a sense of absurdity," says Craig Rimmerman, a public-policy professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States (Temple University Press, 2001). "Expediency has become really important in wartime, so the idea that qualified people, who are volunteering to serve, are being hassled is really disconcerting." This likely explains the double-digit gains in DADT opposition among conservatives in the 2000s.
The increased concern over national security has increased support for DADT repeal among conservative leaders. Margaret Hoover—a former Bush appointee, a descendant of President Herbert Hoover, and a current Fox News analyst—referred to the discharge of Arabic linguists in her declaration of support for ending DADT last month. "I think that the issue has been acculturated so differently with folks in my generation as opposed to in the 1960s, when my dad enlisted in the Army," she said during a Jan. 28 O'Reilly Factor appearance, adding that "one dearth we have is people who actually speak Arabic, and you're kicking out Arabic translators" because of their sexual orientation.
International norms: repealing DADT would bring America in line with the rest of the world; marriage equality is not yet as widespread.
Twenty-five countries, including a number of American allies and two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (France and the United Kingdom), allow openly gay members to serve, according to the Palm Center at UC-Santa Barbara. Moreover, when these countries have lifted bans on openly gay service, they have had positive results. An article from the October 2009 issue of Joint Forces Quarterly that argues for the repeal of DADT cites a survey of more than 100 experts from Western countries allowing openly gay service. It found that "the decision to lift the ban on homosexuals had no impact on military performance, readiness, cohesion or ability to recruit or retain."
"We've seen these bans repealed elsewhere and that the sky didn't fall," says Greg Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies discrimination against gays and lesbians. But in legalizing gay marriage, we would have fewer points of comparison. Only seven countries have done so.
Americans are generally more supportive of antidiscrimination policies in employment; marriage, meanwhile, is often seen as a distinct category.
Twenty states, the District of Columbia, and more than 180 cities and counties now prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. More than half of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic-partner benefits. "For quite a long time most of the American public has supported the idea of nondiscrimination against gays and lesbians in employment," says Herek. "Military policy is related to that kind of attitude." Meanwhile, only five states have legalized marriage equality. Marriage, it seems, "falls into its own category," he says. Even though marriage rights is a civil issue distinct from whether any religious organization marries gay couples, many social conservatives object on religious grounds, which is less of an issue with military service.
"Clearly, there many people out there who support allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military but oppose marriage," says Herek. "There are a lot of people who don't see those different opinions as in conflict. If military policy changes, I don't know those people are going to change their opinion about marriage."