Gays in the Military

January 27, 1993

Homosexual men and women have proven over the years they can be as patriotic and effective in the armed forces as their heterosexual critics. That is true even though they labor under the added tense burden of having to keep their sexual orientation to themselves. They have every right to seek full acceptance in the military, and they have a right to expect that Bill Clinton will work in their behalf to bring that about. He supported it almost from the beginning of his presidential campaign.

However, in the real world of national security politics, presidents are not free to do exactly as they promise or wish, without regard for other influential power centers. Specifically, with both the Pentagon establishment and the Congress strongly opposed to ending the military ban on homosexuals, on the grounds that it could weaken the military's ability to perform its vital role, the president has no alternative but to proceed cautiously.

We believe rescinding the ban tomorrow would not be incompatible with good military order and performance. But the military leaders whose life and death responsibility it is to defend the nation do believe that, and they have a right to have their fears considered. Congressional hearings are definitely in order before far-reaching unilateral presidential action is taken. (Congressional action may be needed fully to implement a presidential executive order ending the ban on homosexuals in the services.)

Some advocates of prompt, decisive presidential action urge Mr. Clinton to emulate President Harry Truman, who ended racial discrimination in the armed forces in 1948. The situations are not the same, politically speaking. President Truman had the support of some of the brass, and both major parties favored this step in their platforms that year. The country was behind him. President Clinton was the only presidential candidate of the three nominees to oppose current rules, and public opinion polls show the country does not agree with him.

President Clinton can take some temporizing but positive steps while waiting for Congress to educate itself, the military command and the public on this issue. He can reverse previous Justice Department decisions to oppose anti-discrimination suits in the courts by gay servicemen and -women, for example. He can order the military to adopt a policy of benign neglect of homosexuals -- no investigations, no discharges relating to mere sexual orientation (conduct is a different matter) -- until the issue of the ban itself is resolved.

President Clinton might look to President Truman in one sense. The latter said he was against racial segregation personally but, because some generals and admirals were concerned that an abrupt change in military life could affect readiness, he ordered only "equality of treatment." Later, as the old fears proved groundless, segregation itself faded away in the armed forces.

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