NEW YORK - Critics of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy are gaining new allies, including a few conservative congressmen and a West Point professor, as they press on multiple fronts to overturn the ban on out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians in the armed forces.
As part of their strategy, opponents of the policy are now highlighting the ongoing struggles of Army and Marine recruiters. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network say in a new report that many highly trained specialists - including combat engineers and linguists - are being discharged involuntarily while the Pentagon "is facing extreme challenges in recruiting and retaining troops."
On other fronts:
- A federal court hearing is scheduled in Boston next month on a lawsuit by 12 former service members challenging the 12-year-old policy.
- In Congress, four Republicans - including stalwart conservatives Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida - have joined 81 Democrats co-sponsoring a bill to repeal the policy. Gilchrest, a former supporter of the ban, said he changed his view partly out of respect for gay Marines he served with in Vietnam and for his brother, who is gay.
- A U.S. Military Academy professor, Lt. Col. Allen Bishop, wrote a column this spring in Army Times urging Congress to repeal the ban. "I thought I'd get lots of hate mail, and my colleagues would walk on the other side of the hall - but there's been none of that," he said Tuesday.
Still, neither the White House nor the Pentagon has given any signal that they would drop their long-standing support for the policy, implemented in 1993 under the Clinton administration. It prohibits the military from inquiring about the sex lives of service members but requires discharge of those who acknowledge being gay.
On July 6, the Bush administration plans to ask a federal court in Boston to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the policy. The suit cites a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that state laws criminalizing homosexual sex were unconstitutional; the government says that landmark decision has no bearing on "don't ask, don't tell."
More than 9,400 troops have been discharged since the policy was implemented. Discharges peaked at 1,227 in 2001, and declined to 653 last year, a drop which critics attribute to reluctance by war-zone commanders to deprive their units of experienced gay and lesbian personnel during difficult missions.
"The services are far less likely to discharge gays and lesbians serving on the front lines," Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said in its report, released Monday. It said those discharged last year included 41 health care professionals, 30 sonar and radar specialists, 20 combat engineers, 17 law enforcement agents, nine language specialists and seven biological/chemical warfare specialists.
"The military continues to sacrifice national security and military readiness in favor of simple prejudice," said SLDN Executive Director C. Dixon Osburn. "Americans do not care if the helicopter pilot rescuing a wounded soldier or the medic treating that soldier is gay."
The Pentagon, asked for comment on the SLDN report and Osburn's remarks, had no immediate response.
Among the recently discharged soldiers is Robert Stout of Utica, Ohio, who was wounded while serving in Iraq and wanted to remain in the Army as an openly gay soldier. He is scheduled to visit Washington this week to lobby for repeal of the ban.
Gilchrest, the Maryland congressman, said he was unsure how many of his fellow majority Republicans were ready to join in seeking repeal, but suggested the momentum was shifting in that direction.
"When this issue comes up, members who believe that gays shouldn't be in the military are now more hesitant to voice their opinion," Gilchrest said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Many of us who feel the other way have come out of the closet, so to speak. A year ago, I would have been uncomfortable expressing my feelings."
Bishop, who teaches philosophy at West Point, said he had been troubled for years by "don't ask, don't tell" before deciding to write about it.
"They can be gay, but they can't practice being gay. They can be here, but they can't tell you who they are - it seemed pretty confusing to me," he told The Associated Press.
In his Army Times article, Bishop assailed the policy as contradictory to fundamental American principles.
"Despite our government's claim of liberty for all, we leave homosexuals out," he wrote. "If the American military sees and is allowed to see itself as the protector of some but not all American, democracy fails."
Bishop said he was heartened by the positive reaction to his article. But he predicted that military commanders would not lead the way in seeking an end to the ban and instead would defer to Congress.
On the Net:
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network: http://www.sldn.org/
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