Nunn to Open Hearings On Military's Gay Ban

As opposition to president's plan intensifies, Clinton wavers, and initiative shifts to Congress

THE military still doesn't like the idea. The Clinton administration seems reluctant, uncharacteristically, to promote it. Meanwhile, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is acting a little bit as if the choice is his to make, his critics say.

His committee will hold long-awaited congressional hearings this week on President Clinton's proposal to allow homosexuals in the military, with the outcome of the issue very much in question. Since January, when heavy criticism forced Clinton to back down from unilaterally ending the gay ban, opposition to the move has, if anything, intensified.

Theoretically, Mr. Clinton could allow gays and lesbians to legally join US military forces with the stroke of a pen on a presidential order. But foes of the move could overturn it with a vote in Congress.

Predictions on Capitol Hill's attitude are mixed. Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine claims the issue would pass. Senator Nunn has said he believes a majority of the Senate is opposed, and other lawmakers go further in predicting the president won't prevail on gays in the military.

"He's never going to have that," Sen. James Exon (D) of Nebraska, an Armed Services Comittee member, told Reuters last week.

Emotions are now running high on both sides of the debate. When Clinton seemed to suggest last week that he would consider regulations banning homosexuals from some military jobs, such as combat vessels, advocates of gay rights reacted as if stung.

Administration spokesmen hustled to play down the statement, saying the president was just indicating he maintains an open mind. But the way the whole situation has developed has left some advocates fuming.

"Sam Nunn, for whatever reason, has decided to act like a spoiled child and interfere with the policies of a president of his own party," says Kevin Cathcart, a legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund.

The political effect of Senator Nunn's hearings could well become a powerful force on the outcome of the issue. The hearings will be spread over several months, beginning with an overview of the history of homosexuals in the military and continue on with visits to facilities to gauge troop reaction.

Nunn has promised the hearings will be fair. Given the objections Nunn himself has already voiced, however, it is unlikely they will conclude that there are no serious impediments to homosexuals serving in the armed forces.

Under the compromise Clinton struck with opponents in January, military recruits are no longer asked about their sexual orientation, and discharge proceedings against homosexuals already in service have been halted. In return, Clinton promised a six-month review of the policy that would focus on problem areas identified by military leaders, such as the effect of overt homosexuals on unit discipline.

Review teams have been tardy to begin work, however. With Defense Secretary Les Aspin slowed by health problems, little overall direction has been given to the work groups already formed by each service.

The working groups are focusing on a wide spectrum of effects of lifting the gay ban, according to one military official. That means everything from whether gay couples will be allowed PX privileges and military medical care to their possible effect on unit morale.

"Our role is to defend the US, not to be a social experiment," says a military official. "If we can assimilate gays and still do that, we're good to go. If not, maybe not."

Advocates of overturning the ban maintain that in presenting their objections to acknowledged homosexuals in their midst, the military is edging dangerously close to insubordination.

In this view, the president has already said what he wants to do, so the armed services should salute and move forward.

"Whether they like it or not he's been elected commander in chief," says Kevin Cathcart.

For their part Clinton officials now appear unsure about how to proceed. They acknowledge that they misjudged both the public and military reaction to a move that had already received wide exposure during the Presidential campaign.

One thing they have decided to do is get some outside advice to go along with the studies to be produced by the military itself. A "B" team of personnel experts from the RAND Corporation will also produce a report on the issue for the Pentagon.

Gay advocates say they cannot accept a compromise along the lines of the rules that govern women in the military. Separating barracks by sexual preference or disallowing a gay role in combat units, they claim, is repugnant segregation similar to that which blacks in the military suffered for decades.

"The level of pressure from within Congress and the military on this is truly phenomenal," comments Kathleen Gilberd, an attorney with the Military Law Task Force, a group that represents gay and lesbian service members threatened with expulsion.

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