Frustrated by the lack of action to overturn the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Democrats in Congress are calling for at least temporary immunity so gay service members can testify at the Capitol about their experiences.
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, Florida Democrat, introduced a bill this week to grant immunity to troops who otherwise would run afoul of the policy, which bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. He and other advocates see it as at least a first step to pushing the issue forward.
"You can't expect a legitimate and informed debate over repeal if you keep gay troops in the closet," said Nathaniel Frank, a senior fellow at the Palm Center, which researches sexuality and the military and supports changing the policy.
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The don't ask, don't tell policy originated in the 1990s as a compromise. Homosexual soldiers were allowed to remain in the military, but only as long as they kept their sexuality private. Disclosure of homosexuality would be grounds for dismissal.
But since then, gay rights groups, many Democrats and some Republicans have argued that the policy serves no purpose and costs the military the services of key personnel, including linguists and intelligence analysts needed to fight the war on terrorism.
Opponents of gays serving in the military said the carve-out exemption that Democratic lawmakers are proposing is a sign of their frustration.
"They were looking for a hearing this year, and that's clearly not going to happen, and they don't know when it's going to happen next year," said Tom Sears, executive director of the Center for Military Readiness.
Still, he said, it's "a wake-up call to Republicans" that the debate on gays in the military is coming soon - possibly when Congress takes up its next annual defense authorization bill.
Mr. Hastings, the bill's chief sponsor, has bristled at the slow pace of action to end the military policy.
He has sent two letters to President Obama prodding him to show leadership on the issue, and Mr. Hastings introduced an amendment to a defense bill earlier this year to stop the policy, though he withdrew the amendment rather than force a vote. The congressman said the White House and some of his fellow members pressured him not to go forward at the time.
His bill would protect communications between troops and members of Congress by specifically adding an exemption for a service member to testify on the don't ask, don't tell policy without fear of punishment. It would apply to both gay and heterosexual service members.
He has garnered 30 co-sponsors, all Democrats, for his bill, and a spokeswoman said a gay Marine has called and asked to testify at any hearings - if he can be granted immunity.
The immunity bill has a tough road ahead.
Mr. Sears said he doubts the bill would get a good reception from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat.
Mr. Skelton's spokeswoman, Lara Battles, said the congressman "supports the current policy" and has not taken a public position on Mr. Hastings' bill.
Gay-rights advocates say more than 13,500 members of the armed forces have been dismissed under the policy since 1994.
Democrats have held hearings on gays in the military, including a July 2008 session before the military personnel subcommittee of the House, but no openly gay troops testified.
A Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the military's policy has been postponed until next year because the committee had to take up other business such as the mass shootings at Fort Hood, Texas. The committee's chairman said members were not ducking the debate.
Mr. Obama has faced criticism from gay-rights advocates for not moving faster on the issue, but he has told them he wants a solution from Congress so that it will be permanent.
He also has asked the Pentagon to examine what changing the policy would mean, and has made it clear where he expects that review to end up.
"I'm working with the Pentagon, its leadership, and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy," he told the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights group, in October. "I will end don't ask, don't tell. That's my commitment to you."
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