WASHINGTON How would you feel about sharing shower facilities with gay or lesbian troops? How about a field tent in wartime?
These are some of the 103 questions that the Pentagon is asking in a survey sent to 400,000 members of the armed services ahead of a possible repeal of the 17-year-old ban on openly serving homosexuals in the military.
Critics have suggested parts of the $4.5 million survey are biased against homosexuals -- a notion the Pentagon dismissed on Friday.
"Absolutely, unequivocally, I reject (the accusations of bias) as nonsense," said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.
"We think it would be irresponsible to conduct a survey that didn't address these kinds of (privacy-related) questions," he added, citing privacy concerns expressed by troops about bathing, socializing and living quarters.
The survey -- only a portion of which touches on homosexuality -- is meant to inform a Pentagon study due by December preparing for a potential repeal of the "Don't ask, Don't tell" law.
The Clinton-era policy allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military if they keep quiet about their sexual orientation but expels them if it becomes known.
Its repeal is championed by President Barack Obama and gay rights advocates, who see it as a milestone in a campaign for equal rights in the United States.
Morrell raised the possibility that more training, education or even adjustments to facilities might be required to prepare the armed forces if the law is repealed.
But "we don't know any of that yet. That's (what) we need to find out conclusively through this scientific survey," he said.
QUESTIONS ON POLLING
The Palm Center, a research institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, was one of the groups critical of the overall polling approach by the Pentagon.
"Why would you ask those questions unless you thought there was something potentially wrong with (that group)?" asked Palm Center Director Aaron Belkin. "You would never have a survey asking: Would you share a shower with a Catholic soldier?"
Most of the questions are meant to assess the demographics and service background of respondents. But the last section delves into topics surrounding potential repeal of the ban.
One question asks: "If 'Don't ask, Don't tell' is repealed and you are assigned to bathroom facilities with an open bay shower that someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian Service member also used, which are you most likely to do?"
Among the possible responses are: "Take no action" or "Talk to a chaplain, mentor, or leader about how to handle the situation."
Another question reads: "If 'Don't ask, Don't tell' is repealed and you are assigned to share a room, berth or field tent with someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian Service member, which are you most likely to do?"
Morrell said the Pentagon was doing everything in its power to get its study right. He noted that the Pentagon had hired a professional polling firm to handle the survey.
"It's costing us an extraordinary amount of money. It's taking an extraordinary amount of manpower. And it deals with an extraordinarily important issue," Morrell said. "We're not playing games here."
(Editing by Xavier Briand)