The U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell'' policy was approved in 1993 as a compromise. Early in his first term, President Bill Clinton attempted to end the ban against homosexuals in the armed services. But religious zealots and many Pentagon leaders objected, resulting in a mushy rule that told gays and lesbians: Stay in the closet and everything will be fine.
The revised policy was and is discriminatory. Rooted in prejudice, it forces people to either lie or keep quiet to keep their jobs, making it one of the last bastions of legal American bigotry. It should be wiped from the books.
To that end, President Obama and his top military leaders are working on the repeal. During his State of the Union address last month, Obama promised to work with Congress and the military this year to overturn the law.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Congress to overturn the gag order. A Republican who also served in the George W. Bush Cabinet, Gates told the panel that he has called for a review on how -- not whether -- to repeal the ban in the coming months.
The policy should be dumped because it violates equal rights laws and hurts the military. According to the Service Members Legal Defense Network, more than 13,000 men and women have been expelled from service since 1994 due to sexual orientation -- 644 in the last year. Among those dismissed were 730 mission-critical soldiers and more than 65 Arabic and Farsi linguists. Surely U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan were damaged when those with critical skills were removed from service.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and several other Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee oppose the change. They argue that it's not a good time to even study changing the policy when the nation is involved in two wars and faces a continuing threat of terrorism. McCain expressed disappointment in Gates' position and said, "Has this policy been ideal? No. But it has been effective.''
Those opposing the overturn of "don't ask, don't tell'' often say allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military will have a negative impact on "unit cohesion,'' even though surveys of troops commissioned by the Pentagon have soundly debunked that theory and gays serve effectively without restrictions in Britain, Canada and other countries.
The "unit cohesion'' argument is nonsense. Exactly how has drumming thousands of people out of the armed services helped America's all-volunteer military? What has been ''effective'' about forcing good soldiers out for being truthful about one aspect of their lives?
In 2003, on the 10th anniversary of ''don't ask,'' three retired military officers, including two brigadier generals and a rear admiral, announced they were gay. Together they sharply criticized the bigoted policy they had been forced to follow while serving. And last year, an Air Force colonel called the rule a ''costly failure'' and rejected the notion that unit cohesion would suffer if gay service members were open about their sexuality.
Though he could have done it sooner, Obama has laid the groundwork for repeal. The congressional testimony of his military leaders should give momentum to the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a House bill that would undo the 1993 law. Iraq war veteran Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., is leading the effort to get it passed and now has more than 180 cosponsors. The upcoming adoption of the Defense Department's budget would also provide an opportunity for repeal.
Attitudes toward gays in the military have changed since the early 1990s, and tolerance and acceptance have grown. According to Gallup, 69 percent of Americans -- including 58 percent of poll respondents who identified themselves as conservatives -- favor allowing openly gay men and women to serve their country.
The momentum is building and the time is right for Congress to abolish "don't ask, don't tell'' and end discrimination in our military.