This is an edited excerpt of a Chicago Tribune editorial, which was published Friday.
THE chilling story of 21-year-old Army private Barry Winchell illustrates, as if any additional evidence were needed, why the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military is unworkable -- and why it ought to be eliminated.
Mr. Winchell enlisted in 1997, filled with dreams of becoming a helicopter pilot. But because he was gay, he soon was subjected to months of harassment and was ultimately bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by fellow private Calvin Glover.
On Wednesday, Mr. Glover was found guilty of premeditated murder, but testimony during the trial also indicted the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Indeed, five years after it was instituted, "don't ask" has clearly proven unworkable and counterproductive: Gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly, subject only to the same limitations and conditions imposed on their heterosexual counterparts.
In Mr. Winchell's case, early rumors about his homosexuality were followed by taunting and vicious name-calling, and even an informal investigation by his superior. Mr. Winchell at first tried to deny the rumors, to no avail. And complaining to his superiors -- much less confirming the rumors -- only would have prompted more inquiries, inevitably leading to discharge.
Because of such contradictions, "don't ask" in fact has made life worse for gays and lesbians in uniform. Between 1994 and 1998, the number of gays discharged from the military increased to 1,149 from 597, while the number of complaints filed with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay and lesbian group, doubled between 1997 and 1998.
The cornerstone premise of "don't ask" is that homophobia in the military is so widespread and ingrained that openly admitting gays would undermine morale and create friction. But just as the services learned to integrate women and blacks into their ranks, they must learn to integrate gays.
The answer to bigotry cannot be to arbitrarily exclude its victims or condemn them to life in a limbo of fear and lying or, as in Mr. Winchell's tragic case, to beatings and death.
"Don't ask, don't tell" has had its chance and has been a failure. It's time to declare that gays and lesbians may serve openly in the armed forces, and that discrimination and persecution will not be tolerated.