Clinton to confront military ban on gays upon return from Pacific trip Pressure mounts for a decision

July 14, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- After grappling with Japan's trade practices and North Korea's nuclear threats during a trip to Asia, President Clinton returns to the White House tonight to confront an issue that has been lying in wait for him for six months: the military's ban on homosexuals.

As pressure mounts for Mr. Clinton to decide a new policy on gays in the military as soon as tomorrow, his gay friends and supporters are anticipating the worst.

Two gay rights advocates were told by the Pentagon yesterday that Defense Secretary Les Aspin will recommend allowing homosexuals to serve as long as they do not make public or private declarations about their sexual orientation, the New York Times reported. Military policy would be rewritten to say "homosexual conduct," rather than "homosexuality," is incompatible with military service.

Many gay activists are already plotting acts of civil disobedience, expecting Mr. Clinton to break his promise to lift the 50-year-old ban and adopt instead a policy that would still expel avowed homosexuals from the armed forces.

But if the president pushes a policy with less than unanimous support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he risks a nasty showdown in Congress, where conservatives and moderates have threatened to write a ban on homosexuals into law.

"What's happening here is somewhat dangerous," said David Smith, a spokesman for the Campaign for Military Service, a national coalition seeking to end the military's discrimination against homosexuals. "The Joint Chiefs are uniting with political opponents of the president to urge him to take a hard line against gays, and we think this is outrageous.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force plans a rally tomorrow at the Lincoln Memorial and a protest by gay military veterans, who will risk arrest by trying to shut down the heavily-traveled Memorial Bridge that links Virginia to Washington.

"Any crumb, any half a loaf isn't going to do anything," said Tanya Domi, a former Army captain and a task force leader. "You can't rewrap an old policy that's wrong, that's destroyed people's lives, and call it new."

But some gay activists worry that launching an aggressive, high-profile campaign now could make the administration even more unwilling to be seen responding to gay demands.

"Organizations are doing what they can to keep the issue in the forefront, and that means civil disobedience is going to erupt all over the place," said a prominent gay rights activist, who thinks the tactic would be more effective after the policy announcement.

Political firestorm

Within days of taking office in January, Mr. Clinton set off a political firestorm when he appeared ready to deliver on his unqualified campaign pledge to repeal the military's ban on gays. But as public furor threatened to consume his attempts to fashion an economic package, he took the issue off the front burner and ordered Mr. Aspin to study the policy and submit a draft executive order by July 15 that would "end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation" in the armed forces.

Mr. Clinton also announced an interim "don't ask, don't tell" policy in which recruiters stopped asking applicants about their sexual orientation and the military suspended the formal discharge of gays.

A senior Pentagon official said last week that Mr. Aspin was prepared to give Mr. Clinton three narrow choices for lifting the ban, all variations of the interim policy that Sen. Sam Nunn, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has proposed as a permanent compromise.

Nonetheless, all the options would allow the Pentagon to discharge men and women who reveal their sexual status. "It's pretty clear that if they're out of the closet, they're out of the military," the official said.

The military chiefs have favored the most restrictive option, which would affirm that homosexuality is "incompatible" with military service but would allow gays to serve only if their homosexuality remains a secret, even from sympathetic colleagues in their units.

The other choices offer minor differences in wording about homosexual "conduct" that would be incompatible with military service.

The chiefs have been split over the options, despite general agreement that forbidden conduct should be broadly defined, covering homosexual actions, marriages and statements. But they have been willing to back a permanent end to witch hunts, often based on rumors, and aggressive campaigns by some unit commanders to ferret out gays.

Mr. Aspin, who returned from overseas Monday after joining Mr. Clinton in South Korea and Hawaii, will not brief the president on the issue until he returns to Washington, White House officials said. Mr. Clinton, who headed to flood-ravaged Iowa last night, is not expected back at the White House until late tonight.

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