Not the last word on gay GIs

October 01, 1993

The House defense authorization bill that codifies policy on gays in the military endorses the code passed by the Senate in September. Sen. Sam Nunn, who wrote the language, says it "clarifies" the compromise announced by President Clinton last July. It clarifies it, all right, and then some.

The July version was characterized as "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue." That is, military commanders would not ask servicemen and women (or would-be enlistees) if they were gay. Gays would not announce or demonstrate that they were. And the military would not investigate individuals except in a relatively few situations.

The congressional language is two-thirds of the policy: don't ask and don't tell. It allows military investigators much more leeway to snoop. It can be read to justify and indeed compel such investigations. The president's policy stated that homosexual orientation "is not a bar to service"; the Nunn language says those with "a propensity" to homosexuality are "unacceptable" in the service.

Even the "don't ask" part of the original compromise is approved only tentatively. The bill says a secretary of defense may order a resumption of asking without getting congressional approval. (But a defense secretary or president could not relax any part of the proposed restrictions on homosexuals without getting congressional approval.)

This is a defeat for the gay community and for President Clinton. He has signaled that he has gone as far as he feels he can afford to politically on this issue. He says he will accept the Nunn language. The overwhelming majority of Americans either didn't agree with the president's proposal or don't care. He has enough challenges that are important to large majorities. It is the better part of valor to put this issue aside and concentrate on others.

Though many in the gay community regard this outcome with utter dismay, this is not likely to be the last word on gay GIs. Military culture may be changed in subtle ways as rules and regulations and habits develop in wake of the law. Homosexuals won't be treated equally but they may be treated more fairly. And if, as we believe, the military sees that its fears about the threat to morale and readiness are groundless, even further advances will occur.

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