The US military is accepting openly gay recruits for the first time ever, even as it tries in the courts to slow the movement to abolish its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
At least three service members discharged for being gay began the process to re-enlist after the Pentagon’s Tuesday announcement, and several others said they plan to try to rejoin this week.
A federal judge in California who overturned the 17-year-old policy last week rejected the government’s latest effort on Tuesday to halt her order telling the military to stop enforcing the law.
Before her ruling, government lawyers told US District Judge Virginia Phillips they would appeal if she rejected their request.
The movement to overturn the 1993 law gained speed when US President Barack Obama campaigned for its repeal. The effort stalled in Congress this fall, and found new life last month when Phillips declared it unconstitutional.
Under the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the military cannot inquire into service members’ sexual orientation and punish them for it as long as they keep it to themselves.
“Gay people have been fighting for equality in the military since the 1960s,” said Aaron Belkin, executive director of the Palm Center, a think tank on gays and the military at the University of California Santa Barbara. “It took a lot to get to this day.”
The Defense Department has said it would comply with Phillips’ order and had frozen any discharge cases. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said recruiters had been given top-level guidance to accept applicants who say they are gay.
Recruiters also have been told to inform potential recruits that the moratorium on enforcement of the policy could be reversed at any time, if the ruling is appealed or the court grants a stay, she said.
Gay rights groups were continuing to tell service members to avoid revealing that they are gay, fearing they could find themselves in trouble should the law be reinstated.
“What people aren’t really getting is that the discretion and caution that gay troops are showing now is exactly the same standard of conduct that they will adhere to when the ban is lifted permanently,” Belkin said. “Yes, a few will try to become celebrities.”
An Air Force officer and co-founder of a gay service member support group called OutServe said financial considerations are playing a big role in gay service members staying quiet.
“The military has financially trapped us,” he said, noting that he could owe the military about US$200,000 if he were to be dismissed.
The officer, who asked not to be identified for fear of being discharged, said he’s hearing increasingly about heterosexual service members approaching gay colleagues and telling them they can come out now.
He also said more gay service members are coming out to their peers who are friends, while keeping it secret from leadership. He said he has come out to two peers in the last few days.
An opponent of the judge’s ruling said confusion that has come up is exactly what Pentagon officials feared and shows the need for her to immediately freeze her order while the government appeals.
“It’s only logical that a stay should be granted to avoid the confusion that is already occurring with reports that the Pentagon is telling recruiters to begin accepting homosexual applicants,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group.
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