Last week, the Pentagon announced changes in enforcement of a 1993 U.S. law that compels gay service members to hide their sexual orientation. If discovered, homosexuals still face discharge from the military, but the regulations stipulate new rules for investigations. In the last of a two-part series, President Barack Obama's promise to fully repeal the ban on openly gay military service, and the opposition it is generating.
In his January State of the Union address, President Obama said the following. "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," he stated.
That call renewed a long-simmering debate over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - the U.S. law that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces so long as their sexual orientation remains a secret.
Several high-ranking military officials back the president's call for repeal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified on Capitol Hill. "I fully support the president's decision," he stated. "The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it."
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be "the right thing to do". "No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow-citizens," he said.
But chiefs of individual military branches who would be tasked with implementing a policy change are less enthusiastic about repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". Marine Corps Commandant James Conway recently said that, if the ban is repealed, he would urge separate living quarters for homosexual and heterosexual personnel. He has also said that current policy "works" and should remain.
"This particular argument has to do with the supposed right to declare oneself to be sexually attracted to a certain segment of the population, and insist on continuing to live in the most intimate proximity with them. Retired Marine General John Sheehan said. "In my experience, homosexual Marines create problems on the battlefield."
Bills to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" have been drafted in the House and Senate. Backers of ending the ban point to America's closest allies, like Israel and Britain, that ended bans on gay service members with little if any apparent consequence.
"Nobody will say that the Israeli army is not a very effective fighting force, New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler said. "And they have had gays and lesbians in the military, openly, for a long, long time."
During a visit to Washington, British Member of Parliament Nick Herbert gave a similar assessment. "In the U.K., we have allowed gays to serve openly in our military for 10 years. No one, no one can credibly claim that our troops' effectiveness serving alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan has been compromised by this policy," Herbert said.
But some argue that America's armed forces bear unique responsibilities and burdens on the world stage, and that any potential disruption to the military should be avoided in wartime. Senator John McCain of Arizona was a Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam. He opposes repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".
"It would present yet another challenge to our military in a time of already tremendous stress and strain. Our men and women in uniform are fighting two wars and guarding the front lines against a global terrorist enemy," McCain said.
President Obama repeatedly pledged to end the ban on openly-gay military service during his successful 2008 campaign. Backers of repeal cheered the president's January announcement, but some worry that the Pentagon's efforts to study the matter amount to a delaying tactic that will give opponents time to mount a campaign stoking anti-gay fears and stereotypes.
Two gay Iraq War veterans recently chained themselves to the White House fence to draw attention to their cause, and pledged similar acts of civil disobedience until the law is changed.