The armed services of this country have adopted a code of conduct that’s supposed to guide the behavior of enlisted and commissioned members. On the top of a list of "ethical values" is "honesty," defined in part as "being truthful, straightforward and candid." The code continues: "Truthfulness is required. Deceptions are usually easily uncovered. Lies erode credibility and undermine public confidence."
How ironic it is that Congress is struggling with a proposal that would enable many members of the military to fulfill these high ideals. Up until the debate over the policy known as "don’t ask, don’t tell," gay and lesbian officers and enlisted personnel have had little hope that they could be honest with their commanders and continue their military service at the same time.
Yesterday, Pentagon officials released the long-awaited results of a study showing that gay troops could serve openly without compromising the military mission. In the closing weeks of the current Congress, lawmakers can and should finally deal with this divisive conflict.
At issue is a policy based on a section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that sets up discharge rules for homosexual service members, rules later reinforced by presidential orders. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan issued a defense directive stating that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service," and that those who engage in homosexual acts or simply state that they’re homosexual or bisexual were to be discharged. A decade later President Bill Clinton promised to lift the ban but finally settled on the "don’t ask" compromise.
It hasn’t prevented the discharge of gay service members, who could be found out without anyone asking or telling, by being caught in a gay or lesbian establishment or some other indirect means. Sadly, these are people who have been volunteers, whose reward for service to their country is being locked into living a lie.
U.S. Sen. John McCain has argued that the change would upheave military conduct of its Afghanistan and Iraq wars and that the policy has not impaired the armed services, which he said has attained a high point in recruitment, retention and professionalism. The results of the study, in which the majority of troops said they would accept an openly gay person in their ranks, counter McCain’s first contention. The problem isn’t orientation, it’s acting out. Gay soldiers, airmen and sailors would be bound by the same restrictions on sexual behavior as their heterosexual comrades, and failure to comply would get any offender rousted.
As for the second point, that the military functions just fine with the "don’t ask" policy, this may be superficially true. But beneath the surface, having a significant segment of the corps living in fear of being discovered creates a security vulnerability. More importantly, it’s an affront to servicemembers’ civil rights and to their service.
The military has a history of being asked to adjust to social changes, often ahead of civilian society. Racial and gender barriers have come down, and the troops have adjusted. Social attitudes about sexual orientation have evolved and, at a time when the military needs to recruit on the basis of talent and professionalism, this is the moment when the armed forces should reflect those changes and move beyond an outdated bias. The Obama administration rightly has given the military leave to study what repeal would mean, and most of the top brass now agree there is no real impediment to change.
It’s time for Congress to seize the moment, and repeal "don’t ask, don’t tell."