Outside editorial: Change policy on gay soldiers

Posted: Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sometimes promises are hard to keep. Especially those made by politicians in the heat of an election.

But President Obama should live up to his campaign pledge to stop the military from discriminating against gays and lesbians.

It's understandable that Obama may be reluctant to tackle this issue now, given other pressing priorities - fighting two wars, and trying to right the sagging economy.

But the president promised to reopen the debate over homosexuals in the military and settle, let's hope once and for all, the question of whether openly gay men and women can serve in uniform.

White House officials insist Obama remains committed to repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. But they have been vague on the timing, causing some angst among gay-rights advocates.

Obama should make his case to Congress as soon as possible, and push legislation that would welcome anyone - regardless of sexual orientation - who wants to serve his or her country. It is time to repeal a failed policy.

President Bill Clinton tried unsuccessfully to stop the military from dismissing gays from the military. But he was forced to compromise and accept the 1993 law that allows gays to serve, as long as they keep silent about their homosexuality.

For years, supporters of that policy have maintained a narrow-minded view that allowing openly gay personnel in the military would undermine morale, discipline, and unit camaraderie.

But there has been little evidence of that in countries that allow openly gay soldiers and sailors. Most Americans are not buying that argument. Neither are most U.S. troops, who have shown a growing tolerance.

A Quinnipiac University national poll last month found that a majority of American voters believe that the ban on openly gay men and women in the military should be repealed.

At a time when our military has been stretched thin, valuable troops are being discharged because of their sexual orientation. Among the dismissed are high-ranking officers and Arabic translators and interpreters - the very kind of experts vitally needed in the war against terror.

Even the government has acknowledged that the military's anti-gay policy is costly. A 2005 audit put a $95 million price tag on replacing nearly 10,000 gays expelled from the service

As part of a plan to challenge the law, Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate who speaks Arabic, recently announced that he was gay. Supporters want Obama to act immediately to stop the military from dismissing soldiers like Choi. But the White House has no plans to intervene in the case, and says it instead wants to focus on passing legislation repealing the policy.

Until then, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" stands, and the Obama administration plans to continue to defend it as the law.

It is not in the nation's best interest to continue to expel mentally and physically fit men and women who say they want to put their lives on the line - in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever they are needed - to protect this country. Times have changed, and so have attitudes about gay soldiers and sailors. It's time for the military to be brought up to speed.

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