For nearly 50 years, it has been the U.S. military's official policy to exclude homosexuals from service. In November 1992, President - elect Clinton told Americans that he planned to lift the military's long - standing ban on gays and lesbians. Homosexual men and women, he said, should not be prevented from serving their country based on their sexual orientation. Soon after taking office in 1993, Clinton faced powerful military and congressional opposition to lifting the ban. General Colin Powell, then - chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Senator Sam Nunn, who was chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee between 1987 an 1994 and left Congress in 1996, announced that they would seek to block his attempts to lift the ban.
For the next six months, debate raged over what to do about the military's ban on gays and lesbians. Clinton's liberal supporters wanted him to follow through on his promise to lift the ban, urging the need to end discrimination against gays and lesbians. Conservatives, military leaders and some lawmakers of both parties argued that the presence of declared homosexuals in the armed forces would be detrimental to military readiness. They said that letting gays and lesbians serve would destroy all morale and erode good discipline and order. Ban opponents maintained that gay people were capable men and women who should be allowed to serve their county.
In July 1993, a compromise policy was struck between supporters and opponents of the ban. The compromise, known as "don't ask, don't tell," allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they did not proclaim their homosexuality or engage in Homosexual conduct. Under the policy, military commanders would not try to find out the sexual orientation of the personnel, and gay and lesbian personnel would not disclose their sexual orientation. The policy marked a change from past practice in that simply being homosexual was no longer a disqualifier for military service. Conservatives saw the change as a regrettable relaxation of the absolute ban on gay people. Liberals were dissatisfied because the new policy still allowed the military to oust gays and lesbians if they revealed their orientation.
While some liberals disagree with the policy, arguing that it punishes gays and lesbians for engaging in the same kinds of behavior that heterosexuals are free to engage in, they maintain that military leaders should at least abide by the policy and end their "witch hunts" for gay people. Many see the right to serve openly in the military as a fundamental civil right for gays and lesbians. Groups such as the Service members Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have supported gay service members in legal challenges to the policy. In 1997 SLDN documented 563 violations of the policy.
The Clinton administration and military leaders defend the current policy and the way it has been enforced. They argue that allowing gay people to serve openly would harm military readiness by destroying troops' morale and disrupting order and discipline. Policy defenders argue that the military is a special institution that holds itself to stricter rules than those observed by the rest of society. Because the armed forces must fulfill the crucial mission of defending the U.S. and its allies, they say, its leaders' views on how to achieve optimal readiness should be respected. Pentagon officials say that while they believe the current policy is working well, they will investigate cases of alleged abuse.
Gay people have not always been barred from military service, and in fact, have served in the nation's wars throughout its history. The military's official stance toward gays and lesbians has evolved over time, often in tandem with social change. In the 1920's and 1930's, homosexuality was treated as a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment. That attitude began to...