Chiefs may bar gays in combat Top brass seek to avoid full integration

February 24, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Refusing to concede defeat on integrating gays into the military, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are quietly promoting a policy that would discourage homosexuals from openly declaring their sexual orientation by barring those who do from combat units, a senior defense official said yesterday.

The nation's top military officers now say they don't care about the sexual orientation of the troops, but they want to segregate avowed homosexuals by limiting them to rear-echelon jobs and off-base housing.

Their proposal is an attempt to satisfy President Clinton's demand for lifting the military's ban on gays with minimal impact on combat units.

The chiefs acknowledge that segregating gay men and women would spark years of "guerrilla warfare" between gay rights activists and the armed services, even though they think such a policy could prevent anti-gay violence and other "disruptive" behavior during military operations in the field, the official said.

"We can't allow people to come out of the closet," said the official, who has spoken with the chiefs and agreed to be interviewed only if his identity was not disclosed.

He criticized soldiers who want the right to "stand up and say I'm a homosexual on Phil Donahue and have my 15 minutes of fame." "If this person thinks it's more important that he identify himself as a homosexual than to think about the solidarity of his unit, then we don't want him. He's said right then, 'I don't give a damn what the effect is on people in the unit.'

"We say, 'Fine, you do that in civilian life.' We're only interested in people who place the consequences of what they do to the unit above this kind of personal grandstanding."

Yesterday, a White House adviser on the issue said Mr. Clinton has not reviewed the option of segregating avowed homosexuals, although he has repeatedly stated his opposition to discrimination against gays who want to serve in the military.

"We know there's going to be resistance to the president's desires at every step of the way, and they'll come up with every convoluted and lame step they can," the official said.

The Joint Chiefs are at the earliest stages of developing a response to Mr. Clinton's Jan. 29 directive on gays in the military.

The chiefs were directed to work with Defense Secretary Les Aspin to produce recommendations for an executive order in July that would end the military's long-standing exclusion policy on homosexuals.

Now, they are carrying out their orders even while continuing to oppose a policy change.

The Air Force and other services have appointed advisory task forces to consider a list of more than two dozen issues during the six-month review ordered by Mr. Clinton, mostly relating to the legal and practical impact of bringing homosexuals into military life.

From the chiefs' perspective, allowing homosexuals to serve in uniform but segregating those who come "out of the closet" may be the best "compromise" between the president's anticipated final order and the depth of feeling against lifting the ban that most officers and enlisted personnel share, the official said.

One issue for review is the option of treating homosexuals in much the same way the military treats women, who are prohibited from ground combat and combatant ships.

When Mr. Aspin first raised this late last month, he was described by administration officials as open to the idea and many others. A White House spokeswoman said only that Mr. Clinton was ruling nothing in or out while the review was under way.

Gay rights activists, including some who have Mr. Clinton's ear, expressed outrage yesterday that the military chiefs would favor segregating avowed homosexuals. They saw little consolation in keeping avowed gays in uniform.

"It's totally and completely unacceptable," said David Mixner, a friend of Mr. Clinton's and a Los Angeles-based political fund raiser. "It even creates more fear, more problems against those who come out. It punishes those who are honest and rewards those who aren't.

"I don't believe for a minute that that's going to be the policy of the Clinton administration or the secretary of defense," said Mr. Mixner, who detects growing support among military officers for some form of segregation. "I think it's only one of many options being explored."

The senior official said the military chiefs told Mr. Clinton at their White House meeting Jan. 25 that he should draw a distinction between troops with a homosexual "orientation" and those who acquire homosexual "status" because they have openly declared themselves to be gay.

"By and large, orientation has never been a problem for us," he said. "There are people who are suspected of being homosexuals and no one gives a damn. There's also no problem with behavior. If there's a problem, bang, throw the guy out. Clinton agrees."

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