DADT Polling and the Power of Words

Here at GLAAD we often talk about the power of words. Look up at the top of the page for a second – it’s right there next to the logo. Words and images matter.

We know this to be true, from both scientific and anecdotal evidence. In fact I talked about it earlier today in a blog about the Transgender Day of Remembrance. But we wanted to share this with you too as more evidence of the power of words.

Earlier this week, a CNN/Opinion Research poll asked Americans how they felt about gay and lesbian troops serving openly in our military. A pretty overwhelming 72% of respondents said they support it. That’s nearly three-quarters of the country, and it’s pretty consistent with other polls we’ve seen throughout the year.

Except this next one.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll released this week showed just 50% of the country supports allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the military. Still half the country, but nowhere near the numbers that CNN got. Here’s why.

CNN asked a simple question.

“Do you favor or oppose permitting people who are openly gay or lesbian to serve in the military?”

In the CNN poll, 72% said they favor it. 23% said they oppose it. 5% said they had no opinion.

WSJ/NBC phrased it very differently.

“Let me read you three statements about gay men and women serving in the military, and please tell me which one comes closest to your point of view.”

(A) I favor allowing gay men and women to serve in the military.

(B) I favor allowing gay men and women to serve in the military under the existing 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.

(C) I oppose allowing gay men and women to serve in the military.

50% chose A, 38% chose B, 10% chose C, and 2% said “not sure.”  But as you can clearly see, the option to keep Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in place was presented to respondents as a perfectly viable option, through which gay men and women who want to serve their country can easily do so.

In this poll, a whopping 88% of Americans say they support allowing gay men and women to serve in the military, either with or without DADT. But many of those who favored keeping the law in place may not have been aware of the extreme hardships that gay and lesbian troops go through, needing to keep their orientation a secret. A person simply cannot “favor allowing gay men and women to serve in the military under the existing 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.” One can only “favor forcing gay men and women to stay closeted in the military under the existing 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.”

Let’s hypothetically change (B) to read “I favor forcing gay men and women who wish to serve their country to live a lie, or risk losing the chance to serve, and the careers they had worked so hard to build,” which is more in line with the harsh and discriminatory realities of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

If about half of those who picked the false option would have instead opted for (A) – that would put the numbers right in line with most of the other polling we’ve seen.

CBS and The New York Times tested the power of word choices in its polling on this very issue earlier this year and found undeniable evidence that words matter.

Even with Joe Lieberman saying that the 60 votes are there to pass the repeal language, it’s up to the media to present this situation to the American people as it truly is. If you support Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, you support telling gay men and lesbians who simply want to serve their country AND be who they are, that they cannot.

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