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Les Aspin Supports Allowing Homosexuals in Military if They Keep Orientation Private

By John Lancaster
And Ann Devroy

The Washington Post


Defense Secretary Les Aspin has thrown his support behind a compromise proposal that would allow homosexuals to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation private, defense officials said Tuesday.

The proposal would end the practices of questioning recruits about their sexual orientation and aggressively rooting out homosexuals solely on the basis of sexual status.

At the same time, it would prohibit military personnel from "declaring" their homosexuality or engaging in homosexual conduct on or off base. In that respect, the proposal marks a retreat from President Clinton's pledge to end discrimination against homosexuals and reflects intense opposition to lifting the ban from senior military leaders and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

A senior administration official said Tuesday that Clinton had not yet seen the proposal and "wants to hear the secretary explain the implementation, how this would work in the real world." The official added, however, that Clinton's pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military was "not necessarily incompatible" with the language of Aspin's proposal.

Aspin is tentatively scheduled to present the recommendation to the White House on Friday, provided that negotiations over the shape of the budget bill do not interfere, the official said.

Word of the pending proposal -- versions of which were reported over the weekend by Scripps Howard News Service and Tuesday in The Washington Times -- prompted outrage from gay rights advocates who called it a betrayal of Clinton's pledge.

"Given the nature of the information about the supposed direction the secretary is pursuing, I find it alarming, and it's totally unacceptable from our standpoint," said Tanya Domi, a former Army captain who now works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "It's just another rendition of an old policy. It's the same discrimination, just a new twist."

Pentagon officials, for their part, initially tried to play down the stories, with Pentagon chief spokesman Vernon A. Guidry Jr. describing The Washington Times report as "flatly wrong." As the day wore on, however, defense officials acknowledged that Aspin was, in fact, supporting a policy along the lines of the ones that had been reported.

Aspin, in particular, has worried in recent months that following through on Clinton's pledge could cause an unacceptable rift with military leaders and has searched for a compromise they can support. A defense official reflecting the views of the military service chiefs said Aspin's proposal would appear to meet that test.

Under the proposal, the armed forces would be barred from asking recruits about their sexual orientation -- a practice that already has been suspended by the Clinton administration -- or conducting investigations into the sexual orientation of gay service personnel, according to a defense official reading from a draft of the proposal.

The proposed policy also would assert that "sexual orientation will be a personal, private matter," the official said.

But the proposal stops well short of Clinton's explicit campaign pledge to sign an executive order ending discrimination against homosexuals in the military. Gay men and lesbians would still be expelled for "declaring" their homosexuality, for example, or engaging in any form of homosexual conduct on or off base.

Among other things, the proposal asserts that "homosexual conduct is inconsistent with high standards of combat effectiveness and unit cohesion," the defense official quoted the draft as saying. As a practical matter, the official said, the policy would mean that gay men and lesbians could still be investigated for homosexual conduct, but not if they were "outed" by a fellow service member.

The official added that some details remain to be worked out, among them what would constitute a "declaration" of homosexuality. Defense officials have said in the past, for example, that the new policy may make a distinction between a soldier who discusses his sexuality with a comrade and one who does the same thing on a television interview program.

Another defense official who asked not to be identified said that Aspin is still wrestling with two versions of the proposal. One -- the "working group" version -- would bar homosexual military personnel from discussing their sexual orientation in any way. The other -- dubbed "working group, plus" -- would allow such discussions but prohibit public declarations through the news media or other outlets, the official said.

The first proposal is heavily favored by military leaders and closely resembles the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise first advanced by Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the leading congressional opponent of allowing overt homosexuals in the military. Rudy DeLeon, Aspin's special assistant, briefed Nunn on the Pentagon's evolving policy last Friday; Nunn said through a spokesman Tuesday he had no comment on the proposal.

An administration official said Tuesday that Clinton "has to be convinced that simply being gay" will not bar a person from serving in the military. If the Pentagon's proposal meets that test, the official added, the president's pledge would be fulfilled.