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President Obama hosted a White House reception this afternoon to honor the achievements of gays and lesbians. The White House gathering is little comfort to gay rights activists who supported Mr. Obama's campaign. Many of them now see him as dragging his feet on key promises. Those promises include his pledge to end the policy on gays in the military, known as don't ask, don't tell.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Over the weekend, about 265 people gathered in a grassy square in downtown Washington. Their numbers were no accident.
Commander ZOE DUNNING (U.S. Navy, Retired): We are here today to represent the 265 service members who have been discharged since Obama took office.
HORSLEY: Retired Navy Commander Zoe Dunning is growing impatient with the president's inaction on gays in the military. Standing beside a statue of the Civil War admiral, David Farragut, Dunning's message was essentially: Damn the politics, full speed ahead.
Cmdr. DUNNING: 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. Woo.
(Soundbite of cheering)
HORSLEY: The demonstrators marched a few blocks to the White House, where each one dropped a numbered red and blue button into a bucket.
Unidentified Man: 263, 264, 265. 265 too many.
(Soundbite of booing)
HORSLEY: A 1993 law bans gays from serving in the military, but the don't ask, don't tell compromise allows gay service members to stay in uniform, so long as they keep their identity a secret. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it's up to Congress to change the law, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed that position last week.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): The administration believes that this requires a durable legislative solution and is pursuing that in Congress.
HORSLEY: Congress, meanwhile, is waiting for the White House to take the lead. Last week, Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant Defense secretary in the Reagan administration, suggested a way to break the logjam. He said Mr. Obama should use his executive power to halt the discharges, at least until Congress can act.
Mr. LAWRENCE KORB (Former Assistant Defense Secretary): Everybody knows there will be some resistance to it, you'll have to spend some political capital. So nobody seems to want to go first, which is basically what's happened every time we try to deal with these difficult social issues.
HORSLEY: Korb, who's now at the Center for American Progress, says attitudes have changed since former President Clinton stumbled over this issue 16 years ago. Elaine Donnelly disagrees. She heads a nonprofit group called the Center for Military Readiness.
Ms. ELAINE DONNELLY (Center for Military Readiness): Yes, culture has changed, but military culture has not changed. That law is just as valid now as it ever was, and we don't make policy based on popular culture or marching in the streets or party favors.
HORSLEY: Donnelly notes that more than a 1,000 retired military leaders have signed a letter defending the ban on gays in uniform. She warns, repealing it would drive far more people out of the military than the law itself has.
Cmdr. DONNELLY: 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.
HORSLEY: 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, Korb says, the services came around.
Mr. KORB: One of the great things about the military is that they will follow orders and eventually they realize that these changes that have been almost forced on them are basically good for them.
HORSLEY: Lieutenant Dan Choi is a West Point graduate, an Iraqi war veteran and an Arabic speaker. He's also gay. And this spring he challenged the don't ask, don't tell policy head on.
Lieutenant DAN CHOI: I like to tell people that, you know, I really haven't come out to that many people. I told my mom, my dad, my sister and Rachel Maddow.
HORSLEY: Two months after his declaration on Maddow's national television program, the army began the process of kicking Choi out. He insists he's encountered no bad feelings from the members of his own unit.
Lt. CHOI: Everybody changes together, sleeps right next to each other, showers together, not an issue. No problems.
HORSLEY: Choi faces a disciplinary hearing tomorrow. He could become the 266th service member discharged for being gay since President Obama took office.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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