HOMOSEXUALS ARGUE that U.S. military policies discriminate against them and reinforce the majority's homophobia. Some law schools that share this view have for years denied military recruiters access to their campuses, a practice now spreading to undergraduate campuses. Other colleges have served notice that ROTC chapters may no longer be welcome unless the military changes its tune.
It's time for straight talk. Homosexuals are correct; the services do discriminate against them. But spell that with a lower-case ''d,'' not a capital ''D.'' The second discrimination is rooted in prejudice; the services' policy is not. Rather, the policy is consistent with other recruiting practices that make it easier for the services to accomplish their mission. They reject applicants for a number of reasons; prejudice is not one of them.
Each year, thousands of people are disqualified because their performance on entrance exams falls below an admittedly arbitrary norm. High school dropouts also are disqualified. The services learned the hard way that youths who can't or won't stick it out through four years of high school aren't going to cut it in the military. There are exceptions, but basically that's the policy.
The services also discriminate against applicants who are too tall or too short because of the additional costs to clothe and equip them. No one is saying they're unfit for duty. We are saying they don't fit. Thousands of others are disqualified because their medical history predisposes them to injury.
Gays argue that Department of Defense policy unfairly targets them for exclusion, despite evidence that some can and do serve honorably. Studies suggest that homosexuals pose no exceptional security risks, and some have distinguished themselves both in peacetime and wartime service. Nevertheless, the services routinely discharge gays when apprised of their identity.
One hears that closeted homosexuals already serve in numbers reflecting their presence in the society at large. Really? To the best of my knowledge I never served with them. Granted, I represented ''management'' and, therefore, posed a threat to gays wishing to remain on active duty. If they were there, they remained closeted and conformed to institutional norms. Indeed, that's why there have been few problems thus far. Unlike race and gender, sexuality is not self-evident.
But change the rules, and all bets are off.
Sexual appetite is not a function of sexual orientation. Gay mating instincts are no less intense than heterosexual instincts. For the services that's a problem and gay men I've spoken with concede it's a problem. They acknowledge the powerful temptations presented by sharing living spaces with their sex objects. That's why we don't house men and women in the same rooms.
Some gays try to distinguish between ''status'' and ''conduct,'' but they're grasping at straws. As with other exclusionary rules, those barring homosexuals are founded on propensity and likelihood. Barracks and shipboard berthing spaces are no place to test new ideas that aren't new at all.
But students love to challenge the prevailing wisdom. Many believe that sexuality doesn't, and shouldn't, matter. And in the context of their collegiate experience, they're right.
Campuses are composed of individuals. Students enter into and abandon associations and relationships in keeping with evolving tastes and whims. Relationships exist freely and without regard for their setting. It's a far cry from the military. There, the social setting and work setting are one and the same; ''off-duty'' is a misnomer. There, hormones get in the way.
Maybe students believe that old-fashioned military coercion can regulate hormones. You know: Make them live close, but not too close, or else.
Were that possible, servicemen and women would have been sharing rooms and baths long ago. Military efficiency and singlemindedness would have seen to it. But that hasn't happened and it won't. If the services try billeting gays by themselves, it's only a matter of time before heterosexuals demand their rights and shared accommodations.
Finally, gays love to draw analogies between their situation today and that of blacks and women before them. And just as surely, some arguments in defense of current policy (that homosexuals won't fight, for example) are as disingenuous now as they were then.
Integration of minorities into the service called for repeal of prejudice and fear, not mating instincts. If, as gays claim, their orientation is innate, service regulations would have no more deterrent effect on them than they would on heterosexual men and women if we billeted them together.
The services' policy is the best policy. Given its unique lifestyle, anything else flies in the face of common sense. But more must be done. While it's not ''GI'' (Government Issue), there is homophobia in the military. The services haven't done much to address it and they should. There's no excuse for gay-bashing.
On the broader front, the services reject segments of our population, and the public is entitled to know why. Officers must be willing to square off with their civilian counterparts, and present their case. Gays and straights alike need assurance that these policies are rooted in practical considerations, not prejudice.
The author, a Vietnam veteran, retired from the U.S. Marines as a major in 1988.