Race and Sexual Orientation:
Commonalities, Comparisons, and Contrasts Relevant to Military Policy
During debates on U.S. military policies concerning homosexual personnel, it was often suggested that the armed forces might benefit from examining the similarities and differences between the challenges encountered in the course of racial integration and those that might be expected if gay men and lesbians were to be allowed to serve openly. The following section identifies the principal similarities and dissimilarities between the situations of racial integration and sexual orientation integration in the military setting.

While considering the material presented below, the reader should remain mindful that race and sexual orientation are independent categories. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals belong to all races and ethnic groups. Nevertheless, many heterosexual Americans associate homosexuality primarily with Whites (Herek & Capitanio, 1995). Consequently, attitudes toward homosexuality among some members of racial minority groups may be closely related to their attitudes toward Whites.


Between Race and
Sexual Orientation
  Both race and sexual orientation are a basis for minority group status in U.S. culture. Social scientists have proposed many different definitions and criteria for minority groups, recognizing that not all groups fit all criteria. The most important feature is that a minority group's members must manifest one or more characteristics that society uses as a basis for discrimination, despite the irrelevance of those characteristics to the setting in which discrimination occurs. Race and sexual orientation each constitute a master status. Once known, the fact that a person is a homosexual or a member of a racial minority group is regarded by members of the majority group (heterosexuals, Whites) as one of the most important pieces of information about her or him. Consequently, once a man or woman is labeled by heterosexuals as a homosexual, all of her or his behaviors regardless of whether they are related to sexual orientation are likely to be interpreted in light of her or his sexual orientation. Similarly, once a person's non-White race or ethnicity is known by a White, all other information about the individual even information that is totally unrelated to race is likely to be interpreted differently than if the person were White.

Members of racial and sexual minorities are the targets of prejudice. Anti-Black attitudes were widespread in the U.S. military when President Truman ordered an end to racial discrimination in the armed forces in 1948. Societal norms supported strict social and residential segregation of Whites and Negroes. Although Whites' attitudes toward Blacks have changed in the past half-century, both in civilian life and the military, racial prejudice is still widespread in U.S. society. Similarly, substantial numbers of heterosexual Americans express negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians.

For both groups, prejudice leads to differential treatment at the hands of the majority. Despite extensive efforts to counteract the effects of racism, African Americans today experience differential treatment because of their race. Compared to Whites, Blacks are economically and socially disadvantaged. Indeed, despite the DOD's considerable efforts to promote racial equality, African Americans are still less likely than Whites to be promoted. Prejudice also causes gay people to receive differential treatment. Various studies have shown that significant numbers of gay men and lesbians experience discrimination and violence.

New military personnel policies concerning race and sexual orientation have both faced considerable opposition. Prior to President Truman's Executive Order, opinion in the armed services generally supported segregation policies. This opinion reflected the era's prevailing stereotypes and prejudices. For example, a 1937 report from senior officers at the U.S. Army War College provided a litany of characterizations of Black soldiers that now are recognized as stereotypes:

"As an individual the Negro is docile, tractable, lighthearted, care free and good natured. If unjustly treated he is likely to become surly and stubborn, though this is usually a temporary phase. He is careless, shiftless, irresponsible and secretive. He resents censure and is best handled with praise and by ridicule. He is unmoral, untruthful, and his sense of right doing is relatively inferior" (quoted in Ambrose, 1972, p. 177).

As in debates about a new policy concerning sexual orientation, discussions of racial integration of the military in the 1940s often included dire predictions based on then-widespread prejudices. The report of a 1942 General Board commissioned to consider the integration of African Americans in the Navy, for example, concluded that "the enlistment of negroes [sic] for unlimited general service is inadvisable." It offered the following rationale:

"Enlistment for general service implies that the individual may be sent anywhere to any ship or station where he is needed. Men on board ship live in particularly close association; in their messes, one man sits beside another; their hammocks or bunks are close together; in their common tasks they work side by side; and in particular tasks such as those of a gun's crew, they form a closely knit, highly coordinated team. How many white men would choose, of their own accord, that their closest associates in sleeping quarters, at mess, and in a gun's crew should be of another race? How many would accept such conditions, if required to do so, without resentment and just as a matter of course? The General Board believes that the answer is 'Few, if any,' and further believes that if the issue were forced, there would be a lowering of contentment, teamwork and discipline in the service." (Navy General Board, 1942, p. 1)

In a 1948 Gallup Poll of 3000 American adults, 63% of those surveyed favored racial segregation of the military whereas only 26% supported integration. President Truman was strongly criticized for his Executive Order, and the attacks were often accompanied by dire predictions about the weakening of the U.S. armed forces and national security. Senator Richard B. Russell, for example, spoke against the policy on the Senate floor, offering predictions that are remarkably similar to some of those made in the recent debates about allowing gay people to serve openly in the military:

[T]he mandatory intermingling of the races throughout the services will be a terrific blow to the efficiency and fighting power of the armed services....It is sure to increase the numbers of men who will be disabled through communicable diseases. It will increase the rate of crime committed by servicemen." (Quoted in Binkin et al., 1982, p. 26).


Between Race and
Sexual Orientation
  Despite the parallels, it should be recognized that important differences also exist between race and sexual orientation as minority group statuses. Three such differences are particularly relevant to attempts to generalize from race-relations research to the effects of a nondiscriminatory sexual orientation policy.

In most social situations, race is a readily visible attribute whereas sexual orientation can be concealed. In a routine social interaction, a White person can usually recognize an African American's race from the outset. Consequently, the White person is likely to think about the Black person mainly in terms of the latter's racial group, and to respond to that individual in terms of the group categorization. In contrast, homosexuality is usually concealable. In a routine social interaction with a gay person, a heterosexual usually remains unaware of the other person's sexual orientation. Consequently, the heterosexual person's initial perceptions of and feelings toward the gay individual are based on factors apart from the latter's sexual orientation. When the heterosexual eventually becomes aware of the gay person's sexual orientation, her or his positive experiences with the latter may foster individuation and personalization of gay people, thereby reducing her or his prejudice against gay people as a group.

In the United States, race is more strongly linked to socioeconomic status than is sexual orientation. Unlike race and ethnicity, sexual orientation transcends social class and economic status. Lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and heterosexuals appear to be distributed throughout society's strata, although anti-gay discrimination appears to affect occupational distributions and income levels, especially for gay men. This difference offers possible advantages for implementing a nondiscriminatory policy concerning sexual orientation. Because gay and heterosexual personnel have a greater likelihood of sharing class and economic backgrounds, they may also share many common values unrelated to sexual orientation. Such commonalities can form the basis for reduced prejudice on the part of heterosexuals.

Openly gay personnel are unlikely ever to constitute a substantial proportion of the military. A final important difference concerns the relative proportion of military personnel who are members of a racial minority and those who are openly gay. Since the military's intensive integration efforts began in the 1960s, members of racial minorities especially African Americans have constituted a substantial proportion of military personnel. The proportion of openly gay personnel is likely to remain small, however, even if current restrictions are eliminated.

Although the stigma attached to homosexuality in the United States interferes with attempts to assess its prevalence, most research with probability samples suggests that at least 3-6% of the male population is homosexual, with somewhat fewer females. Based on this estimate, only a small number of military units will have an openly homosexual member, even after real of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Furthermore, the experience of domestic paramilitary organizations (such as fire and police departments) and foreign military organizations suggest that relatively few homosexual personnel are likely disclose their sexual orientation publicly.

Indeed, based on research by the RAND Corporation concerning domestic paramilitary organizations, Professor Robert MacCoun (1996) estimated that fewer than 6% of 40-person platoons and fewer than 1% of 5-person crews and teams would be expected to have an openly gay member in the wake of a policy change. Furthermore, he noted that even fewer units would have an openly gay member if the presence of open homosexuals were to be clustered rather than randomly distributed.

An important consequence of the relatively small number of openly gay military personnel is that the DOD will be able to focus largely on heterosexuals' attitudes in implementing a new policy. In contrast to the need to address racial attitudes of White and Black personnel alike, which the military confronted in the 1970s, so few openly gay personnel will serve that polarization comparable to what was observed between the races in the 1960s and 1970s is unlikely to occur. At the same time, the relatively small number of openly gay personnel will mean that many heterosexuals' attitudes and beliefs are unlikely to be informed by direct interactions with a gay or lesbian coworker.



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