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US Military Accepts Openly Gay Recruits

'Don't ask, don't tell' policy suffers another blow, but activists still warn applicants not to reveal sexuality

by Paul Harris in New York

America's military yesterday began accepting openly gay recruits into its ranks for the first time in its history as the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy suffered another serious blow.

A recruiting station in Times Square, New York. A judge ruled that the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy was illegal. Photograph: Chris Hondros/Getty Images The move comes after California judge Virginia Phillips ruled last week that the policy – which had previously seen openly gay soldiers kicked out of the US armed services – was illegal, and ordered a global injunction to halt it.

Though the Obama administration is seeking to appeal against that legal decision, the Pentagon has now told its recruiters across the country to accept applications from openly gay men and women.

However, the situation remains dogged by uncertainty. Some gay rights activists have warned that gay applicants should still not reveal their sexuality for fear that the policy may be reinstated if the government's appeal is successful. At the same time, the Pentagon advice to military recruiters directs them not to inquire of a person's sexuality, and not to disqualify any candidates who openly admit to being gay. It also adds that any such recruits should be warned that "don't ask, don't tell" could come back into force if the legal injunction quashing it is overturned.

"If they were to self-admit that they are gay and want to enlist, we will process them for enlistment, but will tell them that the legal situation could change," Douglas Smith, spokesman for US army recruiting command based at Fort Knox in Kentucky, told the Associated Press.

Getting rid of "don't ask, don't tell" has long been one of the main aims of gay rights groups in America, who argue that it is highly discriminatory in a way that would not be tolerated of any other social group. But it has now become a political headache for the Obama administration.

The president has frequently publicly committed himself to ditching the ban, but has stated he wants it to be removed by a vote in Congress, not by the actions of a judge. As such, the department of justice has committed itself to appealing against the injunction halting the policy in the hope of getting rid of it later with a political vote.

Many Republicans, including former presidential candidate John McCain, have spoken out in favour of keeping the ban. Previous attempts to ditch it with a congressional vote have failed and Obama's political influence on such a controversial subject is waning as Democrats gear up for a potentially devastating defeat in November's midterm elections.

That has left gay groups arguing that the best option to get rid of an unjust practice is simply not to appeal against Phillips's ruling, which the judge herself reinforced yesterday by refusing a government legal request to delay enforcement of her injunction. That was met by further delight among gay rights organisations.

"[We] applaud Justice Phillips for her leadership helping end such a discriminatory policy," said a statement from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

The uncertain status of the law has caused much confusion within an institution that has historically discriminated against gay people. Before the 1993 law, the military banned them and declared them incompatible with military service.

There have been instances in which gays have served, with the knowledge of their colleagues.

Twenty-nine nations, including Israel, Canada, Germany and Sweden, allow openly gay troops, according to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group and plaintiff in the lawsuit before Phillips.

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