3/04/2005

Do tell!

From Rick Klein in the Boston Globe:
A group of more than 50 House members filed a bill yesterday that would reverse the 12-year-old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in uniform, arguing that the ban against them undermines national security at a time when the military is struggling to recruit soldiers.
The bill represents the first major congressional effort to repeal the policy since it went into effect in 1993, under a compromise brokered by President Clinton. It also reflects an attempt by Democrats and gay-rights advocates to reframe the debate over the rights of gays and lesbians, in an era when Republicans have used the controversial same-sex marriage issue as a political club against Democrats.
The measure's sponsors argue that national security demands that gay and lesbian soldiers be allowed to serve. A Government Accountability Office study released Friday found that more than 750 service members in jobs considered crucial in combating terrorism - including linguists and intelligence specialists - were among the nearly 10,000 who have been dismissed from the armed forces for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual under the policy.
"The policy is a proven failure," said Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat who is the bill's lead sponsor. "In a time of war, it's outrageous that the military continues to discharge thousands of experienced, courageous, dedicated service members, with many of the critical skills that are needed in the war on terror, for reasons that have nothing to do with their conduct in uniform."
The bill is a long shot in the GOP-controlled Congress; of its 53 sponsors, only one - Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut - is a Republican. The House Armed Services Committee will take up the measure; its chairman Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, favors a complete ban on gays in the military, and said the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is too lenient.
Patrick Guerriero, president of the gay-rights group Log Cabin Republicans, acknowledged that "a lot of work" has to be done to persuade his fellow Republicans in Congress. But he said the political climate has changed greatly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, because of the increased strain on the US military. Some coalition forces serving in the war on terror are now being led by openly gay British officers, with no ill effects on morale or job performance, Guerriero said.
"We need soldiers in Fallujah who shoot straight, not necessarily who are straight," said Guerriero, a former mayor and state representative from Melrose. "It's interesting that people think throwing people out of the military makes sense in a time of war."
The bill's backers say the measure could pick up support after last week' s GAO report, which found that the policy has forced out more than 300 foreign-language specialists, as well as code-breakers, interrogators, and counterintelligence specialists. Recruiting and training replacements for those soldiers has cost taxpayers about $200 million, according to the report.
"These resources could be better spent protecting our troops with up-armored Humvees instead of perpetuating an outdated witch hunt," said Representative James P. Moran, a Virginia Democrat who has signed on as a cosponsor of the bill. "Military linguists able to translate Arabic and Farsi - skills desperately needed in the war on terror - have been discharged, to the detriment of our military intelligence and security of Americans."
Military law has long prohibited gay and lesbian conduct, considering it grounds for dismissal. In 1992, Clinton campaigned on a promise to lift that ban, but the ensuing controversy led to a compromise: Gays and lesbians could serve, if they kept their sexual orientations private and did nothing to alert their superiors.
At the time, opponents of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" argued that members of the military were overwhelmingly opposed to serving alongside gays and lesbians, and any change could harm readiness within the ranks. But attitudes among service members appear to have shifted since then, Meehan said. He cited a study by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey last fall, which found that about half of the junior enlisted personnel who were questioned say gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military. Higher-ranking officers, however, were solidly opposed, according to the survey.
Meehan's bill has been endorsed by eight retired generals and admirals, including three who are the highest-ranking US officers to come out publicly as gay or lesbian. On another front, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is being challenged in court in two separate cases: one involving 12 soldiers who were dismissed from their units and another involving an undisclosed number of service members still in uniform but not openly homosexual.
Retired Army Brigadier General Evelyn Foote said the urgencies of a modern military demand that the best men and women serve, regardless of their sexual preferences. "The issue is military readiness, not sexual orientation," Foote said yesterday at a press conference arranged by Meehan's office. "It's a critical way to begin bringing the military into the 21st century."

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