WASHINGTON – Sixteen years after Bill Clinton tried to end restrictions on gays in the military, the US armed forces under Barack Obama may be forced to give homosexuals the same welcome as non-gays.
Under president Clinton, the policy that once saw homosexuals discharged from US military service evolved to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," allowing gays to remain in the military so long as they did not reveal their sexual orientation.
Obama has pledged to overhaul current law.
"The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve. Discrimination should be prohibited," reads an entry on the president-elect's transition website.
Shortly after taking the oath of office in 1993, Clinton originally moved for an outright ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation in the military.
That step, for better or worse, prompted an outcry among top military brass, along with many Republicans and a significant segment of the public.
Clinton quickly came up with his "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise, allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they did not speak about their sexual orientation.
The law however still has seen a large number of dismissals of gay service members. Since its enactment, some 12,500 soldiers have been sent packing for acknowledging their homosexuality or after being outed as gay.
Those booted included some 800 key jobs such as Arabic translators, medical staff, pilots and intelligence personnel, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SDLN), a group which is fighting to end all restrictions on military service based on sexual orientation.
Backers of reform said the move toward loosening restriction reflects a change in societal attitudes.
"There has been a sea change in the way this issue is viewed, especially in light of our national security needs," said Democratic lawmaker Ellen Tauscher.
"We shouldn't be forcing good men and women out of military service," Tauscher told AFP.
The lawmaker is the lead sponsor in the House of Representatives of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA) which would replace "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
"The momentum for repeal has already begun. This summer we held first hearing on this issue in 15 years and recent public surveys show 75 percent of Americans believe (homosexual) men and women should be able to serve openly," the California lawmaker continued.
"My bill to repeal the policy last year had 148 co-sponsors in the House. I will reintroduce this legislation in the coming Congress," Tauscher added.
Even a group of some 100 retired generals and admirals recently appealed for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to be scrapped.
"As is the case with Great Britain, Israel, and other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality," the former military brass wrote in their November 2008 letter.
Still, many in the traditionally conservative military community continue to have misgivings.
A poll of some 2,000 active duty military taken in December by the US media group Military Times found that 58 percent opposed the policy of non-discrimination against homosexuals. Twenty-nine percent said they approved the change.
But that lack of support should not impede getting rid of the law, opponents said.
"There will always be some people who will prefer the status quo, but people who preferred segregated units (banned in the US military in 1948) didn't leave the military by and large," notes Aubrey Sarvis, director of the SDLN.
Obama will have to be firm in his commitment to ending discrimination against gays in the military, he warned, despite a full agenda of burgeoning crises.
"Of course, the economy has to be the first priority, but it's a matter of developing a plan on how to move forward successfully," said Sarvis, who predicted a new law within the year.
"I take the president-elect on his word," he said. "I think he'll do it."
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