Politics & Government

'Don't ask, don't tell' policy makes it worse, says witness

The government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy is based on mistaken assumptions and probably is making a difficult situation worse, a leading expert in cognitive psychology said Tuesday in Maj. Margaret Witt's lawsuit against the Air Force.

Testifying in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, University of Washington professor Anthony Greenwald said that, based on academic studies, dire predictions about how troops would react to open homosexuality in their ranks almost certainly are wrong.

Chances are, soldiers would get over the stress, if any, of serving with gay men and lesbians far more quickly than Congress imagined when it passed the “don’t ask” law, Greenwald said.

Keeping homosexuality a secret in the military probably increases fears, he said, and tends to reinforce the attitude that they are unwanted.

“When people are restricted from saying anything, their leader is free to assume there are no gays or lesbians serving and that people prefer it that way,” he said.

Greenwald, social psychologist and professor of psychology at the UW, is widely known in the field of social psychology for innovations he’s made in the study of prejudice and observing unconscious attitudes.

His painstaking testimony and cross-examination took most of the day in court Tuesday.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is the shorthand term for the federal law that defines how homosexuality should be handled in the U.S. military.

People who are openly gay are barred from military service. However, as long as gay service members don’t talk openly about their sexual orientation or display openly gay behavior, their supervisors are restricted from initiating investigations.

Witt, a popular and much decorated flight nurse, was discharged from her unit at McChord Air Force Base for engaging in homosexual conduct. With the help of the ACLU, she sued the Air Force in 2006, contending the Air Force had not proved that her sexual orientation had interfered with her work.

Her case initially was dismissed, but in 2008 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent it back to U.S. District Court in Tacoma, saying the Air Force must prove Witt’s specific dismissal hurt the Air Force, rather than relying on only the more general concept that open homosexuality hurts military readiness.

Greenwald’s careful, technical testimony in court Tuesday did not lend itself to easy conclusions.

“It’s something like building the foundation of a house with Jell-O,” U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton told Greenwald of his analysis.

“There are not very many concrete elements.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 rob.carson@thenewstribune.com