Military adjusts to 'don't ask, don't tell'

In six years, views have softened toward homosexuality, but some still report bias

Six years ago, a new commander-in-chief went toe to toe with his top generals, battling them over the Pentagon's long-standing ban on homo-sexuals.

What emerged from that tense boardroom battle was "don't ask, don't tell," a compromise designed to let gays serve in the armed forces if they kept quiet about their sexual orientation.

Five years after the policy was enacted, there is growing evidence that sexual orientation is not the incendiary issue it once was for men and women in uniform. Citing an end to "witch hunts" for homosexuals and a new era of tolerance, military services believe the policy works.

"We're more tolerant of folks and different beliefs," says Col. Robert Swann, chief legal officer at the Fort Jackson, S.C., military base. "All that the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy did was codify our beliefs."

Indeed, the softer attitude toward homosexuality extends into the rank and file at Fort Jackson. At a dining hall here, Sgt. 1st Class James Ruesch says it doesn't bother him if someone is homosexual "if they do their job. [But] if you start acting out, it's a problem," adds the infantry soldier, who has spent 14 years in the Army. Referring to private conduct, he shrugs his shoulders: "To each his own."

Polls show this more laid-back attitude is gaining ground in military barracks nationwide, suggesting that fewer troops than ever care about a comrade's sexual orientation.

Broader acceptance

Six years ago, as the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was being created, sociologists Laura Miller and Charles Moskos reported that 77 percent of Army men and 34 percent of Army women opposed or strongly opposed gays in the military. In August 1998, Mr. Moskos and Ms. Miller found the percentage had dropped to 52 percent among men and 25 percent among women.

The shift mirrors a broader acceptance of homosexuality in the US as a whole. A poll by Yankelovich Partners Inc. shows that the number of Americans who don't want homosexuals as friends dropped from 40 percent in 1994 to 37 percent in 1998. Young adults, who are much more likely to have gay friends, are more accepting of gay issues. It is this generation that is joining the military ranks.

But many inside and outside the military still see signs that all is not well between gay service members and their employer. They cite rising numbers of people being discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." According to Defense Department figures, 1,145 people left under the policy in 1998, up from 997 in 1997.

Military officials believe the overwhelming majority of discharge cases now involve those who volunteer their sexual orientation to commanders, often as a way to leave the service.

Moskos, one of the nation's foremost authorities on military sociology, suspects that in an era when all the services are suffer-ing personnel woes, a substantial percentage of young military recruits may come forward because they decide a soldier's life is not for them. "I think it is an easy way to get out," he says. "People are outing themselves."

Gen. Lloyd Newton, who oversees Air Force training, agrees. His service has seen a skyrocketing number of discharges in basic training recently. "They learn, if I step up and say, 'I'm homosexual,' we don't ask anymore questions," he says.

At Fort Jackson, a sprawling base that trains nearly 40,000 recruits a year, comparatively small numbers are discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." In 1998, 36 soldiers - all but one a recruit - left the Army under the policy.

Colonel Swann says all 36 cases involved soldiers who voluntarily told commanders they were gay. Eighty percent of the discharges were recruits who revealed their sexual orientation within a week of arriving on base.

Discrimination persists

But gay-advocacy groups, including the Service members Legal Defense Network (SLDN), say discrimination is still a big problem, even though attitudes have softened. They speculate that a cloistered, secret life - added to the normal stresses of military service - could account for why more service people are being discharged under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Overwhelmingly, antigay harassment is driving people out," says Michelle Benecke, co-director of SLDN, highlighting points made in the group's recent report criticizing the Pentagon. "Having been a commander, [I've seen that] so much depends on unit climate. Unfortunately, in most units, bigots have a free hand."

One Army officer who didn't want to be identified characterizes the climate today as better, but not perfect. Although open criticism of gay lifestyles has largely disappeared, he says, it's still common "to hear gay jokes at the mess hall all the time."

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Kelly Kruger, a West Point graduate who's been around the world in the Army, believes the military is changing from many of the old stereotypes and caricatures. He notices few gay jokes and no general disdain for gays or lesbians in the ranks.

Still, Lieutenant Colonel Kruger doesn't agree with the views of his young soldiers and is uncomfortable with the homosexual lifestyle. He espouses the traditional military view that homosexuality is incompatible with the barracks living and wartime pressures of military service: "We find it an unacceptable trait."

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