Battle of the Ban

March 1, 1993

Three days before his inauguration, Bill Clinton met with his aides to approve a strategy to allow declared homosexuals in the armed forces. Within the week, however, the plan, drafted by Defense Secretary designate Les Aspin, leaked to the press.

Public protest was immediate. It swept virtually everything else off the agenda in official Washington. Telephone calls-hundreds of thousands of them, overwhelmingly in disagreement with the President-swamped White House and Capitol Hill switchboards. Democratic leaders in Congress warned Mr. Clinton that legislative support for his plan would be thin.

The blow the Administration felt most was from Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee. In a ringing speech to the Senate, he recited a long list of unanswered questions about the effect on military readiness, morale, discipline, recruiting, and retention. He said he would hold hearings in March and that “the people who will be most directly affected,” men and women from the ranks of the armed forces, would have a chance to state their views.

President Clinton has modified his tactics. The ban on gays in the military remains in effect (although recruits will not be asked about their sexual orientation) for six months while “practical problems” are explored. By July 15, Secretary Aspin is to submit a draft executive order that would lift the ban. Mr. Clinton, demonstrably grieved by the compromise, declared, “I haven’t given up on my real goals.”

Military leaders have told the President that they believe removing the ban will do enormous damage to troop morale and unit integrity. Veterans groups, representing millions of people who have served in the military, have cautioned Mr. Clinton that he is building a disaster.

To a degree that nonveterans may not comprehend, military life is different from a civilian job. The government determines where the troops go, where they can reside, and, in many instances, with whom they share close quarters. Unlike civilian workers, they cannot quit and leave, no matter how intolerable they find the circumstances. “What accommodation, if any, should be made to a heterosexual who objects to rooming or sharing bathroom facilities with a homosexual?” Senator Nunn asked.

No one seriously doubts the importance of morale and unit integrity. It is also generally recognized that the cohesiveness of a military unit depends principally on the loyalty and regard that members have for each other. President Clinton seems ready to sacrifice these considerations for what he perceives as a greater good.

As President Clinton, Senator Nunn, and others remind us, homosexuals have served and are serving today in the armed forces. Few of them, however, insisted on announcing their orientation. It was not a big issue. Mr. Clinton’s determination to lift the ban is converting a lot of people from passive acceptance to active opposition. They aren’t sure where his policy is heading, and they don’t believe that he is sure either.

Mr. Clinton emphasizes that the only change he proposes is freedom for homosexuals to declare themselves. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) says that “there are not going to be gay pride parades on bases.” These assurances are not convincing.

Mr. Clinton insists that homosexual rights are fundamental and undeniable. If so, on what basis will he abridge them? If the right is that fundamental, then what precludes gay pride parades? How could homosexuals be prohibited from public displays of affection of the kind allowed for heterosexuals? If homosexual partnerships have legal standing-and in some jurisdictions they do-is there an entitlement to family housing

Gay rights activists sneer at questions like these, but a mainstream objective of the gay rights movement in society at large is the securing of precisely such rights. Furthermore, the real reason why many activists are attacking the military ban is to advance that broader gay movement, not to establish their right to bear arms in the nation’s defense. A January 14 Congressional Research Service report noted the “argument” that “recognition by a major federal institution, i.e., the military, would enhance and provide support for greater recognition of homosexuals’ rights.”

Admission to the armed forces is not automatic for all citizens. The Air Force, for example, accepts only about a third of those who seek enlistment. The services cannot–and do not–violate legitimate civil rights in deciding which applicants to turn away. In Mr. Clinton’s view, homosexual discrimination is on a par with racial discrimination. That, however, is a political assumption, not a principle that has been either established or accepted by the public.

To still the protest and avoid a defeat by Congress, Mr. Clinton will now study the kinds of questions posed by Senator Nunn, but he does not seem very interested in the answers. The new President has yet to demonstrate convincingly that defense and the armed forces count for much in his estimation.

Senator Nunn put it well: “When the interests of some individuals bear upon the cohesion and effectiveness of an institution on which our national security depends, we must move very cautiously.” If the President refuses to heed that warning, he is going to knock the armed forces for a very big loop for a very long time. Once the damage is done and apparent, the opportunity to avoid it will have passed.