Allow Them to Serve

July 16, 1993

"It's time for the military to change, and those Americans who want to serve their country, those Americans who say their sexual orientation is homosexual, if they can satisfy all other requirements, if they meet all other standards, we should allow them to serve."

So Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska concluded a moving speech on the Senate floor yesterday. Had he not lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Bill Clinton last year, he could have been making that statement from the White House -- as a directive, not a plea.

We suspect President Clinton will not do what Senator Kerrey favors. That is, flatly lift the ban on homosexual service. One reason is that the president does not have the standing with the military to be so assertive. He opposed the Vietnam war and dodged the draft. Senator Kerrey won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam.

Given strong opposition to lifting the ban by the military establishment and, apparently, in Congress, even a President Kerrey might have felt the need to seek a compromise. So, even though we favor lifting the ban, reluctantly we suggest to the president that he accept a compromise.

The details of the compromise matter. It should not, for example, allow the Pentagon to state as policy that homosexuality is "incompatible with military service." That is as gratuitously insulting as it is false. Homosexuals, some of them open about it but most not, have served their country and their branches of the armed forces and their units and their comrades with valor and skill in every war and in peacetime.

The compromise also should not allow military commanders to pry into the strictly private lives of soldiers and sailors. The present temporary compromise -- "don't ask, don't tell," which displaced the flat ban -- does allow such prying. It also would, apparently, require commanders who learned of a soldier's homosexuality by accident to discipline and discharge him or her. The only proper standard for discipline and discharge should be behavior -- and not private, off-duty behavior. "Don't ask and don't care" should be the rule regarding sexual status.

Some critics of those who support the ban or a very limited relaxation of it charge the Pentagon brass with bigotry. We don't think that's it at all. The military is a conservative institution which, when it arrives at standards that seem to work in the best interest of defending the nation, prefers to stick with those standards. The integration of blacks and later women into the military drew similar opposition from within the armed forces and had to be done incrementally.

In one of the most riveting moments of this debate, a Marine colonel said he would fear for his gay son's life if he were a Marine. "I must tell you," Senator Kerrey said yesterday, "that I believe the capacity for tolerance inside our armed forces is much higher." So do we. It is time to move on.

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