Obama cautious on policy change for gays

March 19, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Mar 19 – Gay rights advocates welcomed US support for a United Nations declaration decriminalizing homosexuality but expected no quick action by President Barack Obama to lift a ban on gays serving openly in the US military.

The United States had opposed the UN measure under former president George W. Bush but joined 66 other countries on Wednesday in backing the declaration proposed by France.

Although the State Department said the measure had no legal consequences for the United States, opponents of the US military’s ban on openly gay members viewed the move as an encouraging sign.

"The move is welcome, this is helpful on many fronts. This was long overdue," said Paul DeMiglio of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).

"This is a positive sign that the Obama administration is willing to work towards equality for gay people," said DeMiglio.

In 1993, former president Bill Clinton backed a controversial policy usually abbreviated as "don’t ask, don’t tell," which is designed to allow gays to remain in the military so long as they do not reveal their sexual orientation.

Although Obama has said he wants to end the limits on gays in the military, it could be some time before the policy is changed, DeMiglio said.

"The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ issue is a little different because it requires the president to work with Congress," where some lawmakers oppose changing the policy, he said.

The law has led to numerous dismissals of gay service members, with about 12,500 soldiers sent packing for acknowledging their homosexuality or after being outed as gay.

Those kicked out included about 800 with vital jobs such as Arabic translators, medical staff, pilots and intelligence personnel, according to the SDLN, which has fought to end restrictions on military service based on sexual orientation.

The issue has been overshadowed by other priorities as Obama struggles to rescue a troubled economy and confront a growing insurgency in Afghanistan.

When asked about a policy review on gays in the military, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Wednesday he "had one brief conversation with the president about it at this point."

"It’s a subject that (top military officer) Admiral (Mike) Mullen and I are discussing in terms of what to do next and how to move forward. Those discussions are still ongoing," Gates said.

Obama’s aides are anxious to avoid ex-president Clinton’s experience when he ended up bogged down in a damaging battle over the issue, sapping his influence early in his first term.

A California lawmaker, Ellen Tauscher, introduced legislation earlier this month in the House of Representatives requiring the military to drop its policy.

The Senate version of the bill has yet to be introduced, and SLDN activists say that it may not appear until the summer.

Tauscher meanwhile will not remain in the House to push for the bill as she announced she has accepted a State Department post.

Conservative groups say they oppose any change to the military’s policy and have vowed to fight any attempt to rescind it.

"The complete acceptance of homosexual conduct would have a negative effect on the armed forces. We’d lose a lot of good people and we can’t afford that," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.

Repealing the rule would be "conducive of sexual misconduct," she told AFP.


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