Impatience Grows Over 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

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The 'Don't Ask' Debate

The Center for American Progress offers a blueprint for repealing the ban while the Center for Military Readiness continues to support keeping openly gay individuals out of the military.

President Obama hosted a White House reception Monday honoring the contributions of gay and lesbian Americans, four decades after the Stonewall riots launched the modern gay rights movement.

The White House gathering is little comfort to gay rights activists who supported Obama, but who now see him as dragging his feet on key promises. One of those is his pledge to end the Clinton-era policy on gays in the military known as "don't ask, don't tell."

Over the weekend, about 265 people gathered in a grassy square in downtown Washington. The number was no accident.

"We are here today to represent the 265 service members who have been discharged since Obama took office," said retired Navy Cmdr. Zoe Dunning.

Standing with a bullhorn next to a statue of Civil War Adm. David Farragut — who famously said, "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead" — Dunning's message to President Obama was essentially, "Damn the politics; full speed ahead."

"He needs to take a stand, step up and tell Congress and the Pentagon this is what he wants, and he wants it as soon as possible," she said.

Since 1993, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy has allowed gay service members to stay in uniform, so long as they keep their sexuality a secret.

It is an uneasy compromise that pleases almost no one, but so far the administration has made no obvious moves to change it.

"The administration believes that this requires a durable legislative solution and is pursuing that in Congress," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week.

Congress, meanwhile, is waiting for the Obama administration to take the lead.

Last week, the Obama-friendly Center for American Progress released a road map aimed at breaking the logjam. It calls for the president to use his executive power to halt the discharges, at least until Congress can act.

"Everybody knows there will be some resistance to it. You'll have to spend some political capital," said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the center who also served as assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration.

Public acceptance of gays in the military has grown considerably since former President Clinton was tripped up by the issue 16 years ago. Nevertheless, the critics have not been silenced.

"Yes, culture has changed. But military culture has not changed. That law is just as valid now as it ever was," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the nonprofit Center for Military Readiness. "We don't make policy based on popular culture or marching in the streets or party favors."

More than 1,000 retired military leaders have signed a letter defending the ban on gays in uniform. Donnelly warns that repealing the ban would drive far more people out of the military than the law itself has.

"Even if we lost just a few thousand of our best people, to lose that many people would be a devastating blow to the all-volunteer force," she said.

Korb admits the military has a conservative culture, but he notes similar arguments were made against integrating blacks and women into the armed forces. In time, the services came around.

"One of the great things about the military is they will follow orders," Korb said. "And eventually, they realize these changes that have been almost forced on them are basically good for them."

Lt. Dan Choi is a West Point graduate, an Iraqi war veteran and an Arabic speaker. He is also gay, and this spring he challenged the "don't ask, don't tell" policy head-on.

"I like to tell people I really haven't come out to that many people. I told my mom, my dad, my sister and Rachel Maddow," Choi said. Two months after his declaration on Maddow's national television program, the Army began the process of kicking Choi out. He said the only complaints have come from higher-ups, and that he has encountered no ill will from members of his own New York National Guard unit.

"Everybody changes together, sleeps right next to each other, showers together. Not an issue. No problems," he said.

Choi faces a disciplinary hearing on Tuesday. He could become the 266th service member discharged for being gay since President Obama took office.



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