Gays in the Military: Obama's 'Don't Ask' Dilemma

Admiral Mike Mullen likes to talk to the enlisted troops. On a recent tour of Iraq and Afghanistan, he gathers them around at each stop and tells them to pose any question they want, large or small. Mullen is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the armed forces. Though he orders the troops to stand at ease and flashes the smile of an amiable uncle, grunts don't easily relax around such senior brass and no hand goes up. "I've got all day," he says and waits till someone breaks the silence. In Afghanistan, a Marine asks about a salary issue. A soldier in Iraq wants to know if his tour will be extended. The exchanges are awkward, but they serve to extricate Mullen from the cycle of PowerPoint briefings. "I come out to see where they're living," he tells NEWSWEEK. "I come out to see what we're asking them to do."

In the next year, Mullen might have to ask troops to do something many will find even more uncomfortable: welcome openly gay men and women into their ranks. Such was the promise made by President-elect Obama in the 2008 campaign—gay-rights groups will hold him to it. To many civilians, the shift might seem natural. American attitudes toward homosexuality have evolved since 1993, the year Congress mandated that gays could serve so long as they hid their sexual orientation. The law, known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell, predates "Will & Grace," and for most Americans, even the Internet. A 2008 Washington Post–ABC News poll put public support for gays serving openly at 75 percent.

But the military has its own culture, more insular and more conservative than the broader population's. In a survey of active-duty service members released last week, 58 percent said they oppose any change in the military's policy toward gays. Up to 23 percent of troops might not re-enlist if the law is repealed, according to a Military Times poll. Mullen will have to act as kind of cultural mediator between his new boss and the old institution he has managed for more than a year. That will mean advising Obama on what changes the military can (and cannot) withstand and then obliging troops to accept them.

Mullen has a lifetime's experience bridging cultural divides. At 62, he is a churchgoing Catholic; his aides try to leave time on his schedule for mass every day (though he doesn't usually get to it). But he's not the product of a strictly conservative upbringing. Mullen grew up in liberal Hollywood in the 1950s and '60s. His father was a publicist whose list of clients included Ann Margret and Dennis Weaver. While his predecessor, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, let out more than once his opinion that homosexuality is immoral, Mullen won't discuss his personal views. Democratic Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher has held long talks on gays and the military with Mullen and other members of the joint staff. She says they understand how times have changed. "They don't want to find themselves crosswise with the new commander in chief."

Before offering his advice, Mullen wants time to study the issue and canvass opinions, not unlike what he does with other key issues. "I think I owe him [Obama] a very thorough review of the potential impact [of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell]," he says. From opponents of change, Mullen will hear that allowing gays to serve openly could harm unit cohesion; that conservative parents will never send their children to a "gay military"; that straight servicemen and women won't want to shower with gay recruits.

He will also hear about some hard-to-abide consequences of the policy. While fighting two wars and struggling to keep enlistment levels up, the military has expelled at least 4,000 gay service members in recent years and 12,500 since 1993. At a time when Arabic linguists are in huge demand, around 80 have been discharged since 2003 for violating Don't Ask, Don't Tell, according to gay-rights groups. Aubrey Sarvis, who heads the Service members Legal Defense Network, says he's been quietly approached by the State Department for names of the discharged translators. "If they're good enough for the State Department, why aren't they good enough for the military?

Whatever Mullen's findings, they will be couched only as recommendations to the incoming president, who will almost certainly have the support he needs in Congress to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. "The military leadership doesn't want to repeat what happened in '93," says Tauscher, when President Clinton tried to impose gay service on the military and members of the joint chiefs defied him openly. But Mullen will surely ask Obama to make his changes slowly and include the chiefs at every stage. Large institutions need time to adjust. Mullen has all day.