As the United States launches into the second Gulf War, one of its most nettlesome military personnel policies is under escalating criticism at home. Ten years after President Clinton proposed it, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy remains in place--an awkward compromise that allows gay men and lesbians to serve in uniform as long as they keep quiet about their sexual orientation. Some people yearn to reinstate the previous policy, which made clear that gay people were not welcome in the ranks. From the opposite flank, there is greater pressure than ever to allow gays to serve openly; gay rights groups argue that the military's war-readiness is undercut by a policy that alienates gay soldiers or forces them from the ranks. The Bush administration and the Pentagon say there are no imminent plans to abandon "don't ask, don't tell."
"As Winston Churchill said of democracy, it's the worst system possible, except for any other," said Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who helped devise the policy. "The military says it's working OK; it's the best option available. I think it's here indefinitely."
Recent initiatives against the "don't ask, don't tell" policy include those from:
1) Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization, which issued a report denouncing "don't ask, don't tell," urging President Bush to repudiate it and assailing the military as "a bastion of officially sanctioned discrimination against homosexuals."
2) Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a legal assistance group for gays in the military, which launched a "Freedom to Serve" campaign aimed at overturning the policy. The network also reports an upsurge of requests for advice and support from gay service members deployed in the Middle East.
3) The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group, which compiled first-person accounts from dozens of gay and lesbian veterans describing the challenges of serving dutifully in an unwelcoming environment.
"I loved the Navy--it was good to me--but I was very bitter my last few years," said one of those veterans, Nick Marulli, who served from 1977 to 1997. "It was difficult having to live in two worlds." To guard against a discharge that would jeopardize his pension, Marulli avoided telling even close friends in the service that he is gay. He is convinced that gays could serve openly without problems if political and military leaders backed the change. "The military is about discipline, it's about the example set by leaders," said Marulli, 44, now a computer instructor in Crofton, Md. "If the command says, 'This is our policy; you're going to live by it and respect it,' people would jump in line and say, 'Yes, sir."'
The Pentagon considers the policy a mandate from Congress and says its duty is to implement it. "There are no plans to change or modify the policy at this time," the Defense Department said in a statement. "The department continues to work tirelessly to administer that law in a manner that is both fair and consistent...treating all service members with dignity and respect." Secretary of State Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the policy in a recent interview with teenage reporters for the magazine Teen Ink. Though most forms of discrimination against gays are wrong, Powell said, "I think it's a different matter with respect to the military because you're essentially told who you're going to live with, who you're going to sleep next to."