Integrating Gays into the Military

November 29, 1992|By DAVID C. MORRISON

Only a week after his electoral triumph, President-elect Bill Clinton waltzed into a buss-saw of controversy over the merits of fulfilling his campaign pledge to overturn the military's policy of expelling lesbian and gay personnel.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., a Clinton , and Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, the popular Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have both registered their opposition to ending the gay ban. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan and Marine Corps commandant Gen. Carl E. Mundy, Jr. have even had to issue public statements denying rumors that they have vowed to resign if Mr. Clinton signs his promised executive order.

Like it or not, Clinton seems determined to ink that order. Indeed, he may have no choice but to do so. "He will not back off, . . . and I think he can't do that for two reasons," judges former Reagan administration Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower Lawrence J. Korb, who supports changing the policy. "No. 1, he was very specific about it during the campaign. And, No. 2, if he backs off on this under pressure from military leaders, he will be seen as giving in." That would set an ominous precedent for a new commander-in-chief already saddled with the sobriquet "slick."

Even if President Bush had won re-election on Nov. 3, however, the gay ban could probably not have long endured. In May, remember, bills were introduced in the House and Senate to end it. In late August, Army Times, of all publications, editorialized against it. Even conservative stalwart William F. Buckley, Jr. has recently criticized it, opining that "a gay sergeant who obeys military regulations shouldn't endanger the republic, or even his platoon."

More than any other factor, the ban would surely have been torpedoed by the embarrassment that the military increasingly faces as top-rated troops come out and are summarily discharged. Lt. j.g. Tracy W. Thorne, a Navy bombardier three times ranked top in his flight training class, was discharged in late July after saying that he was gay on national television. In May, Army Reserve Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer's commanding officer wept as he dismissed her for refusing to deny that she is a lesbian. Joseph C. Steffan, a four-stripe midshipman who twice sang the national anthem on television, was bounced out of the Naval Academy in 1987 only weeks before graduation after acknowledging that he is gay.

In none of these cases were these or other individuals discharged for misconduct. Rather, as if by magic, the simple fact of their homosexuality -- like that of some 1,500 military personnel a year -- abruptly rendered them unfit. Even absent Mr. Clinton's campaign pledge, therefore, it seems unlikely that Pentagon could have persisted in enforcing a policy ejecting people with sterling service records solely because of an innate sexual trait.

The remaining question, then, is how the new, more inclusive policy should be introduced. Some gay activists fret that Mr. Clinton was starting to "waffle" when he recently asserted that he would proceed only "after consulting with military leaders." Robert Bray, the spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, however, agrees that Mr. Clinton "needs to work with the military brass. We're talking about unlearning half a century of homophobia in the military," he says. "The policy has to be overturned in word and in spirit."

Changing the word is one thing. As General Powell has conceded, "The armed forces of the United States will do what we are told to do." Moving the military spirit is likely to be something else. Even if Mr. Clinton signs an order during his first 100 days in office and the brass grudgingly salute and say "Yes, Sir," it may take another generation or longer to overcome every vestige of the personal fears and institutional prejudices that sparked the gay ban in the first place.

Consider earlier attempts to reform the treatment of African Americans and of women in the armed forces. Although controversial, the parallels between the 1990s debate over the gay ban and the 1940s dispute over ending segregation in the ranks are nonetheless striking. Then, as now, the Navy spearheaded the resistance. "The close and intimate conditions of life aboard ship, the necessity for the highest possible degree of unity and esprit de corps, the requirements of morale -- all of these demand that nothing be done which may adversely affect the situation," a 1941 Navy memo contended. "Past experience has shown irrefutably that the enlistment of Negroes [other than for mess attendants] leads to disruptive and undermining conditions."

General Powell, an African American, disputed this black-gay analogy in a recent letter to Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo. "Skin color is a benign, nonbehavioral characteristic," he wrote. "Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics."

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