Candidate Bill Clinton staked out his position on gays in uniform during an appearance at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in October 1991. It was only mildly remarkable at the time-the kind of gesture a moderate Democrat would make to impress the avant-garde, and one that seemed to bear no significant political price. It was simple: Clinton, once elected, would do for gays what Harry Truman did for blacks in 1948-eliminate the military's discriminatory policies by executive order, starting a social revolution with the stroke of a pen. Fifteen months later, faced with widespread opposition in the ranks and stonewalling from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Clinton and his advisers are realizing otherwise: in the real world of Beltway polities, this gesture could prove both controversial and costly.
It is too soon to tell whether Clinton's promise to gays will produce what he and his team must fear most: a high-profile defeat in the early days of his administration. But there is no question that this issue, which is hardly central to his program for the nation, created a discordant undertone during the festivities of his Inauguration. The Joint Chiefs, who in December threatened to resign en masse if Clinton forced the gay issue upon them, have steadily leaked their continued opposition to his offers of a deal. After an emotional two-hour session with Secretary of Defense Les Aspin last week, they asked for and got a meeting with the president to state their resentment at being asked once again to take the point on a thorny social issue. At the weekend, Clinton restated his determination to end the ban on gays and White House sources said the formal announcement will probably come this week. But the chiefs are restive, and there will likely be more bad press and more political gamesmanship. If the controversy deepens, Republican conservatives, abetted by the family values right and an army of angry veterans, can make this an explosive issue on Capitol Hill.
The cause of gays in uniform may thus become an unwanted political test for the Clinton administration-and it is already a moral challenge to the military and the nation. Although no one can doubt that many thousands of gay men and women have served, and continue to serve, honorably and well, homophobic prejudice runs deep and wide through all four branches of the uniformed services. Official discrimination against gays began during World War II, became consolidated as policy during the 1950s and reached its apogee, in terms of investigative witch hunts and administrative repression, during the 1980s. According to the General Accounting Office, chasing suspected homosexuals out of military service costs the Pentagon about $27 million annually. That estimate is most certainly low, and it does not reflect the human cost of ruined careers, disrupted lives and widespread fears of gay-bashing. The death of Navy Seaman Allen Schindler (page 57) is a horrifying case in point. Schindler was allegedly beaten to death by fellow sailors in Sasebo, Japan, last October. His murder is fast becoming a cause celebre for gays.
As gays themselves tell it, serving in the military poses the continual strain of living in a hostile environment. Homosexuality itself is forbidden, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes all forms of gay sex a criminal felony. (This sodomy rule applies to straights as well as gays, of course.) These regulations are enforced unevenly and to some extent arbitrarily. But they can be imposed at any time, which makes gays continually vulnerable to harassment, vendetta and reprisal-even if they perform their duties well, and even if they try to keep sexual orientations secret. If their sexual identities become known, they face speedy discharge from the ranks: there were 700 such "administrative separations" during 1992, and about 13,000 men and women have been cashiered as homosexuals since 1982. Although most such discharges are honorable, there is a catch: the discharge papers, known as a DD214, clearly state the reason for the individual's expulsion to future employers.
Gay-rights activists have been fighting these policies for years. Their primary weapon has been the law-and bit by bit, in a series of lawsuits, they have forced the Pentagon to retreat from its longstanding insistence that homosexuality is a threat to discipline and national security. The case of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, which dates back to the mid-1970s, was the first real setback for the brass. Matlovich, who has since died of AIDS, was discharged from the air force on the ground of his sexual orientation-but later collected $160,000 in back pay when the air force could not rebut his claim to an exemption from the no-gays policy. Late last year, in a decision that probably signaled the end of the Pentagon's legal resistance, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively upheld a lower-court ruling that demanded the services provide "a rational basis" for the ban on gays. The case, Pruitt v. Cheney, involves a lesbian chaplain in the Army Reserve, Capt. Carolyn Pruitt. A federal judge in Los Angeles, meanwhile, had already ordered the navy to reinstate Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, who announced his homosexuality on national television in May and was discharged in August.
Meinhold is staking his career and reputation to prove a political point-that gay Americans are just as loyal and just as competent as straights, and that they deserve equal standing and equal treatment from the military. Other gays are fighting back as well-and all are providing new test cases for the gay-rights movement, which sees Pentagon policy as a prime target in the campaign to change the attitudes of society at large. Gay political groups were among Bill Clinton's strongest supporters, contributing about $3 million to his presidential campaign, according to Robert Bray of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a Washington-based lobbying group. And now, says lawyer-activist Bob Wightman of Arlington, Texas, "when Bill Clinton lifts the ban, he is going to push national acceptance of homosexuality. It's not just going to push people out of the closet in the military-it's going to push people out of the closet all over the country. It's going to be OK to be a homosexual."
But not if the Joint Chiefs of Staff wins the ongoing battle in Washington. The JCS has been fighting with Clinton's advisers since November-first with Washington lawyer John Holum, representing the Clinton transition team, and more recently with Defense Secretary Aspin. Led by Chairman Colin Powell, the chiefs in mid-December warned Clinton's aides that they would resign as a group if the incoming administration chose an unacceptable plan for legitimizing the military status of gays. Powell himself disagreed that there was any meaningful parallel between the status of gays in 1992 and the status of blacks in 1948; homosexuality was a behavioral issue, he said, and much more complicated than racial integration. Adm. Frank Kelso, the chief of naval operations, Gen. Carl Mundy, the Marine Corps commandant, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan were just as hostile to the new administration's goals. "Up and down the chain of command, you'll find the military leadership favors the ban," a Pentagon source said. "You're not going to find anyone in the leadership coming out in favor of lifting the ban."
Holum came up with a tentative compromise in early January. Clinton would stop short of issuing an executive order and instead send the Pentagon what is known as a "memorandum of instruction." This document, deemed less coercive by the brass, would order the services to stop questioning recruits about their sexual orientation, stop investigations into soldiers' sexual orientations and end the practice of discharging soldiers who admitted they were gay. The plan was broadly acceptable to many in the Pentagon-but not to gay-rights activists, who told Holum they would settle for nothing less than an executive order. To underscore the point, Reps. Pat Schroeder and Gerry Studds collected the signatures of 50 House members on a letter supporting Clinton's stand. The transition team, well aware that Clinton was already under fire for backing away from his campaign promises, decided that the president-elect had to stand by this one.
Aspin came up with a second compromise. The executive order was back-but it would be postponed for up to six months, and Aspin himself would draft it after extensive consultations with the services. He cleared the plan with Clinton and his advisers and took it back to the JCS the day after the Inauguration. He met the chiefs in "the tank"-the soundproof chamber on the Pentagon's second floor where the JCS meet twice a week-and the result was a stormy, two-hour debate. Aspin said Clinton was determined to lift the ban on gays; the chiefs restated their opposition. The chiefs then asked, informally, for a private meeting with Clinton, and the White House agreed to a meeting this week. "We know their druthers," an Aspin aide said later. "But our hope is that a solution can be found that the military people may grit their teeth over, but that can at least end discrimination based on sexual orientation alone. Sexual conduct is another matter."
This distinction is critical: it masks the deepest and most controversial issue in the debate over gays in the military. In essence, it means the Joint Chiefs (and many other ranking officers) are willing to scrap the regulations banning gays in the services, but they are not willing to support a change in the section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that makes sodomy a crime. Gays would be tolerated as soldiers, in other words, so long as they kept their sex lives absolutely private-which isn't always easy in a barracks. Gay-rights activists say the brass's fears border on the hysterical. If homosexuality is made legal for the military, they say, gays will have no difficulty in keeping sex off post-and if they don't, offenders can be disciplined for inappropriate conduct just as straights would be. "I haven't worked for 30 years to give gays the right to be celibate," said Frank Kameny, a guru of the gay-liberation movement.
But it isn't that simple. The Joint Chiefs speak for an enterprise that was never intended to be an agent of social change. Although many officers recognize that the time for change has come, they are concerned for morale and discipline and for what the brass calls "unit cohesion." Unit cohesion means the ability of men and women of sharply differing social backgrounds to live and work together; commanders are almost obsessed by it. Racial integration took many years, and the services are still grappling to absorb the expanding role of women. Add gay rights to these concerns and large difficulties may follow: no commander wants to cope with friction between straights and gays. "You have to remember that we bring in some of the youngest and least tolerant in our society, just by the nature of our business," a senior navy official says. "The venting of these emotions could be disastrous. The military is capable of doing anything the leadership decides-but not without a lot of education."
The further problem is political. Only Congress can change the UCMJ-which means the Clinton administration would have to risk a political donnybrook to give gays what some are demanding. This outcome-a pitched battle on Capitol Hill-is exactly what Aspin is trying to avoid. Public support is fragile at best, angry veterans are mobilizing and some on the religious right are trying to fan the flames of popular antagonism toward Clinton's plan. According to White House sources, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell has already warned the new administration that a nonbinding resolution in favor of the current ban on gays would pass the Senate 70-30. By negotiating less sweeping change with the Joint Chiefs, an Aspin aide said last week, "we avoid a vote in Congress and a political train wreck for the new president." But a train wreck could still happen unless Clinton is able to bridge the attitudinal Grand Canyon that lies between gay activists and tradition-minded military leaders-and unless all sides in the controversy learn to master their fears of each other.
Since imposing its ban on homosexuals in 1942, the U.S. military has "separated" tens of thousands of men and women because of sexual orientation--more than 900 in 1991 alone.