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On Gay Issues, Obama Says "Don't Ask"

There's little love lost between Nathaniel Frank and Elaine Donnelly, two key players in the debate over gays in the military.

Frank is an advocate for repealing the so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy crafted under President Bill Clinton in 1993, which mandates that gay men and women cannot serve openly in the military.

Donnelly, by contrast, believes eliminating that policy would be a disaster. She argues that doing so would lead service members to abandon or be forced out of the military, harm unit cohesion, and, ultimately, "pretty much break the volunteer force."

Based on his political affiliation and campaign pledges, you might think President Obama is squarely on Frank's side. The president, who favors civil unions but not marriage for gay couples, promised to repeal the "don't ask" policy as well as the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA), another Clinton-era policy, which requires that the federal government not recognize "a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage."

Mr. Obama reportedly called DOMA "abhorrent" and said "don't ask" is a "counterproductive strategy" that "doesn't make us more safe."

And on Monday, he released a presidential proclamation in honor of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, And Transgender Pride Month 2009.

"As long as the promise of equality for all remains unfulfilled, all Americans are affected," he said. "If we can work together to advance the principles upon which our Nation was founded, every American will benefit. During LGBT Pride Month, I call upon the LGBT community, the Congress, and the American people to work together to promote equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

But four-and-a-half months into his presidency, Mr. Obama has not acted on his campaign promises on gay issues. Pressed on the lack of action on "don't ask," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs indicated that the administration is working with the military to end the policy in a responsible way. He also said that doing so requires a "legislative vehicle." (Legislation has been introduced in the House, but not the Senate, to change the law.)

Yet Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says there are no "immediate developments in the offing" to repeal the policy, adding that there have only been "initial conversations in their early stages" between the White House and military. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he would prefer to "push that one down the road a little bit." Joint Chiefs Chairman admiral Mike Mullen told ABC News on May 24th that he "would need some time, for a force that's under a great deal of stress…to look at implementing [a change in "don't ask" policy] in a very deliberate, measured way."

According to Frank, the author of "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America," Mr. Obama has the power to effectively end the policy through an executive order. On May 11th, the Palm Center think tank published a report co-authored by Frank arguing that the president can do so under stop-loss rules. (Donnelly, president of the Center For Military Readiness, disputes this conclusion and calls the report "pretentious and legally absurd.")

Though an executive order would not get the law off the books, Frank argues the president has the "clear authority" to suspend the practice of discharging openly gay service members.

And that is a practice that has continued under Mr. Obama. Perhaps the highest-profile recent discharge has been that of Lt. Dan Choi, a linguist fluent in Arabic who publicly announced his homosexuality in March. In April of last year, the president explicitly addressed the discharge of officers like Choi in an interview with The Advocate magazine.

"We're spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need," he said. Roughly 12,500 service members have been discharged under the "don't ask" policy since it was implemented, among them 800 "mission critical" troops.

The administration has indicated that it has not yet taken up "don't ask" because it has other immediate priorities, chief among them addressing the economy and health care. Gay rights groups have been somewhat sympathetic to that argument - like the White House, they're well aware of the political capital Mr. Clinton lost in the early days of his administration when he took up the issue.

But their patience is starting to wear thin. In California last week, gay rights groups demonstrated outside of a fundraiser attended by the president. "The president made a promise when he made his speech about hope," Rick Jacobs, one of the protest organizers, told the Los Angeles Times. "I bought that promise and I still buy that promise, but it's time for him to start fulfilling that promise for all Americans."

Frank's sentiments reflect that opinion.

"Obama may look back in ten years and say I wish I had done more, I wish I had said more," he said, referencing a recent court decision to uphold California's Proposition eight, which bans gay marriage. "The idea that the first African-American president would stay silent on what I think is the defining civil rights battle of our time - I think is surprising to many of us."

Polls suggest that Americans support the repeal of "don't ask" by a wide margin; a recent Gallup survey found that 69 percent favor allowing gays to serve openly, up from 43 percent in 1993, and a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll put that figure at 81 percent.

Donnelly dismisses such polls, saying that civilians "do not understand the forced intimacy and the conditions of little or no privacy that exist in the military." She points instead to a Military Times survey that found most soldiers oppose the repeal of the policy - and that 10 percent say they would leave the force if it were repealed.

Frank points out that the survey is not representative - the sample favors older and more conservative service members - and that virtually no British or Canadian soldiers left the military when those countries began allowing gay soldiers, despite promising to do so in wide numbers. He also points to a 2006 Zogby poll finding three-quarters of military personnel are comfortable with gays and lesbians. That survey found 26 percent support repeal of "don't ask" while 37 percent oppose repeal, with another 37 percent neutral or unsure.

"Everyone may not be comfortable," Frank said. "But the military is not about giving comfort to service members. It's about obedience to the chain of command. It's really not rocket science what needs to be done."

Donnelly, who says she "doesn't understand" homosexuality, argues that repealing "don't ask" would negatively impact recruiting, retention and readiness. She complains of expensive sensitivity training programs and an uptick in problems around sexual issues.

"Changes in civilian culture do not justify a radical and harmful change in the military culture because the military is unlike anything in the civilian world," she said.

"There is no right to be in the military," added Donnelly. "Some people are just not eligible."

She also suggested that repealing the policy would open the door to other thorny issues.

"What about the transgendered?" she asked. "What do we do about that? Pre- or post-surgery? If you treat it as a civil rights issue, anything goes."

There has been less discussion of DOMA during President Obama's first few months in office, though that could change thanks to a GLAD lawsuit challenging the law; the Obama administration will soon have to decide whether or not to defend the Constitutionality of the law.

A decision not to defend the legislation is far from assured; the administration still has an ambitious agenda, and concerns about derailing it linger. Notably, a pledge to repeal DOMA was removed from the White House Web site in April.

"It feels to a lot of us like a decision was made early on in the White House to not spend political capital on certain social issues that they feared would cost them too dearly," said Frank.
By Brian Montopoli