WASHINGTON — "Don't ask, don't tell" – the 14-year-old policy that keeps openly declared gays from serving in the military – is coming under new scrutiny.
Overturning it remains an unlikely prospect in the near term, given the political explosiveness of the issue. But the needs of war – and a fresh push by gay advocates in the courts and Congress – is pushing the policy back into the limelight. For example:
•In a January op-ed, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the policy no longer made sense in a time of war, when young men and women were needed no matter what their sexual orientation. "I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces," retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili wrote in The New York Times.
•In Congress, Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts is reintroducing legislation with more than 100 cosponsors to lift the ban. With a new Democratic Congress, there is a growing sense that the issue can be seriously debated once again.
•On Wednesday, 12 former service members released from service under "don't ask, don't tell" will argue their case before the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. They want the court to overturn a lower-court ruling that didn't allow them to make a case as to why the ban on gays is unconstitutional.
"I think we are finally making progress," says Representative Meehan. "It will be an uphill climb, but the November election can only mean good things for my bill."
Nearly 11,000 military personnel have been discharged under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 2005, including about 750 personnel in jobs critical to the war on terrorism, like translators. Thousands more are thought to have voluntarily left the military – or never joined – because of the policy, gay and lesbian advocates said.
The policy was created in 1993 to calm the waters after President Clinton's initial attempt to force the military to accept homosexuals serving openly. General Shalikashvili, who then headed the Joint Chiefs, supported the policy at the time. But after discussions last year with several gay and lesbian service members, he says he's changed his mind.
Recent opinion sampling reflect a similar shift in attitudes.
A Zogby poll of more than 500 service members released late last year found that 73 percent of military members are "comfortable" with lesbians and gays and 23 percent "know for sure" that someone in their unit is homosexual.
An annual poll begun in 2003 by the independent Military Times newspapers has shown a yearly increase in support for homosexuals serving openly in the military. Nevertheless, in its latest poll, only 30 percent of a sampling of 6,000 of subscribers approved of the idea.
Advocates say the current generation of recruits are from the "Will and Grace" generation, people who have been exposed to homosexuality in pop culture and for whom sexual orientation is not considered as important as it is to other generations.
"Within the last two years, it has been truly remarkable how many service members who are openly gay or lesbian are ... serving without incident," says Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., for gay service members.
But supporters of "don't ask, don't tell" doubt that it will be changed. The apparent momentum for the legislation Meehan introduced is "manufactured," says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, based in Washington.
Think tanks and advocacy agencies aren't the ones who will sway Congress one way or another. Ultimately, it's the rank and file who will have to be convinced and, in some quarters, that will not come anytime soon.
One soldier who likes to say he joined the military "back when the Army used to be an Army," 31 years ago, said he doesn't understand where these polls saying there is increasing acceptance of homosexuals in the military are coming from.
"Who are they asking? I'm not seeing anything near what the supposed poll data was proclaiming," said the soldier, who asked not to be identified because he had not been cleared to discuss the policy by his senior commander. He said he believes gays are "morally wrong," and has conducted some informal polling in his unit in Georgia to determine its views. No one he has talked to believes homosexuals should serve, he said.
"I'm from a Christian background and I believe what the Bible says," he said. "Automatically, you have to love the sinner, but you don't have to love the sin."