The Military: A Renewed War Over 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

With the democrats in control of Congress, some activists are hoping they'll add a controversial issue to their to-do list: revisiting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Gay servicemembers have sought a policy change for years. Now, says Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, gay vets hope they might make some progress at a time when the military can't afford to turn away the willing and able. Last year the Pentagon discharged 742 service members for homosexuality, according to SLDN.

But making a change won't be easy: gay-rights advocates have seen a troubling signal from the Pentagon. Massachusetts Rep. Martin Meehan and the American Psychiatric Association complained last June when they learned the military's disability policy classified homosexuality as a mental disorder--something the APA stopped doing in 1973. Then the Pentagon quietly reclassified it in July. Last week Meehan and the APA complained once more: homosexuality has now been grouped with other "conditions, circumstances and defects" like bed-wetting, repeated venereal-disease infections and obesity. The reclassification is "even worse," says Aaron Belkin, who studies gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Now [homosexuality] is explicitly deemed to be a defect." Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith says the Defense Department does "not think homosexuality is a mental illness" and says the classification could be re-examined.

The gay question has long been a political quagmire. Since Bill Clinton waded into the controversy in 1993, more than two dozen former senior military officers have denounced "don't ask," including Gen. Wesley Clark and Gen. Claudia Kennedy. "We have a much friendlier environment now," says Ralls, citing a more accepting attitude by the "Will & Grace" generation. Gay British soldiers serve alongside Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, sharing quarters. In Congress, Meehan has already introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act to replace "don't ask" with a nondiscrimination policy. He has 122 bipartisan co-sponsors and hopes for hearings on the topic. Though GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter--a backer of "don't ask"--is on his way out as House Armed Services chair, his Democratic replacement, Rep. Ike Skelton, supports the current policy, too. And as the Pentagon's recent reclassification showed, there is still a long war ahead.