WASHINGTON -- President Clinton ordered yesterday that gays and lesbians no longer be considered security risks and that they be granted access to classified government documents on the same basis as other federal employees.
His directive puts an end to almost 50 years of official federal discrimination against homosexuals in government, although individual agencies had begun piecemeal reforms in recent years.
Advocates for homosexual rights said the order was long overdue.
"We all know that innumerable lesbians and gay men have served their country loyally and well throughout its history without betraying its trust or giving away secrets," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who is openly homosexual.
"But, shamefully, until now, the federal government was unwilling to acknowledge this fact."
Mr. Clinton's executive order came more than two years after the controversy caused by his proposal for allowing open gays and lesbians in the military. The new order represents his biggest overture to gays and lesbians since that furor.
While the executive order is not expected to spark widespread opposition, it was criticized yesterday by some conservatives.
"The Clinton administration has really given a moral slap in the face to American families," said Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. "They are clearly trying to tell the American people that homosexuals are no different from heterosexuals, and their lifestyles are clearly different."
"The reason why there is a concern about homosexuals is because of other risk factors involved. Most importantly for security concerns, it is behavior associated with lots of other anti-security markers, such as drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity and violence," Ms. Hamrick said.
Federal employees have been screened for trustworthiness and loyalty before winning clearance to see classified information since 1947, when growing Cold War tensions led President Harry S. Truman to issue an executive order setting standards for security clearances.
In 1953, a second order added "sexual perversion" as a basis for firing federal workers, and various agencies have used that standard to label homosexuals security risks.
One rationale was that federal employees who kept their homosexuality secret were vulnerable to blackmail threats from foreign agents. The agents could threaten the federal workers with exposure if they didn't cooperate.
Gay and lesbian activists have said that justification -- if ever legitimate -- is much less relevant today because more gays and lesbians are open about their sexuality.
In 1975, the Civil Service Commission issued guidelines prohibiting the denial of federal jobs to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. A General Accounting Office study in March noted that eight federal agencies independently had ceased using homosexuality as a reason to deny security clearances to their workers.
Mr. Clinton's order establishes the nondiscrimination standard uniformly across the federal bureaucracy for the first time. It also prohibits such discrimination on the basis of a person having received mental health counseling.
Mr. Clinton's 19-page directive is the result of several separate processes. Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government" reforms led to an effort to harmonize security-clearance policies that until now had been drawn up and administered separately by each agency -- some of which would not honor clearances granted elsewhere.
Gay and lesbian activists have been lobbying Mr. Clinton for such reforms since his inauguration.
"I would put this in the category of an important request [to Mr. Clinton] that has now been fulfilled," said Elizabeth Birch, president of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay advocacy group.
"There is no reason why a gay or lesbian person who otherwise is making a good contribution in their federal job should be restricted from moving on to higher responsibility because of arbitrary discrimination."