WASHINGTON – Public attitudes about gays in the military have shifted dramatically since President Bill Clinton unveiled what became his administration’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy 15 years ago today.
Seventy-five percent of Americans in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll said gay people who are open about their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military, up from 62 percent in early 2001 and 44 percent in 1993.
Majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike now believe it is acceptable for openly gay people to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Shortly after he took office in 1993, Clinton faced strong resistance to his campaign pledge to lift the military’s ban on allowing gay people to enlist. At that time, 67 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of conservatives opposed the idea. A majority of independents, 56 percent, and 45 percent of Democrats also opposed changing the policy.
Today, Americans have become more supportive of allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the armed forces. Support from Republicans has doubled over the past 15 years, from 32 to 64 percent. More than eight in 10 Democrats and more than three-quarters of independents now support the idea, as did nearly two-thirds of self-described conservatives.
Changing attitudes on the issue parallel broader swings in public views about homosexuality. In their recent review of 20 years of polling data, the Pew Research Center reported “a major shift away from highly negative attitudes toward gays and support for punitive actions against gays.” In the 2007 Pew data, for example, 28 percent said local school boards should have the right to fire teachers known to be gay; that was down sharply from the 51 percent who said so in 1987.
In the new Post-ABC poll, military veterans are less apt than others to say gay people should be allowed in the military. While 71 percent of veterans said gay people who do not declare themselves as such should be allowed to serve, that number drops sharply, to 50 percent, for those who are open about their sexuality. Non-veterans, by contrast, are as likely to support those who “tell” as those who do not.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone July 10 to 13, among a random national sample of 1,119 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins are larger for subgroups.