OF THE COMPLEX issues awaiting Bill Clinton in the White House, few are as emotion-laden and controversial as the implementation of his campaign pledge to lift the military's ban on gays. An executive order would start the process. But that's the easy part. Changing hearts and minds will take longer. On this topic the government is venturing into the treacherous waters of personal identity and intimacy.
Whatever opinion one holds on homosexuality--that it is genetically dictated or a matter of choice--the fact remains that a large number of our fellow citizens consider themselves gay. And though a ban against homosexuals in the military was initiated 48 years ago, many gays and lesbians have served in the armed forces with distinction. The issue became politically explosive when the culture wars heated up: gays demanding recognition, their opponents seeking to restrict what they consider aberrant behavior. Perhaps much of the rest of the country wishes the issue had remained the closet.
The Navy established an 800-number by means of which charges of homosexuality could be anonymously reported. This was an open invitation for people to vent their hatred of gays, or to discredit an opponent, or (in some cases) to do what they honestly felt was consistent with military policy. The result has been a costly and wasteful dismissal of thousands of members of the armed forces from active duty and the creation of an atmosphere of distrust and fear within the military. In effect, our government institutionalized gay-bashing.
Clinton maintains that the military should concern itself with conduct, not sexual preference. He has noted that the Tailhook incident, in which women were repeatedly mauled and mistreated by male naval officers, represents the sort of sexual misconduct that should be identified and punished, regardless of the sexual orientation of those involved. Said Clinton: "I don't think [sexual] status alone, in the absence of some destructive behavior, should disqualify people." Sexuality should become an issue in the military only when it affects others or the efficiency of units. Exploitation of sexuality, not private consensual conduct, is what should be addressed in the military code of justice.
But reversing the ban on gays will not occur with the simple stroke of a pen. There is a strong belief in the military that the bonding that takes place in combat and in close living quarters will be undermined by the presence of people who are overtly gay. This opposition is understandable; it is rooted in a long tradition of the military as a macho endeavor.
But a similar tradition of racial segregation did not stop President Harry Truman from integrating the armed forces by executive order in 1947. Between 1947 and 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation is unconstitutional, the military began to make an enormous adjustment. The rate of adjustment was directly related to the attitude of the military personnel, especially unit leaders, and to the under environment in which the military operated. …