The US House of Representatives has voted to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that for 17 years has forced gays in the military to conceal their sexual identity.
The 250-175 vote propels the issue to the Senate for what could be the last chance for now to end the 1993 law that forbids recruiters from asking about sexual orientation while prohibiting soldiers from acknowledging that they are gay.
It is “the only law in the country that requires people to be dishonest or be fired if they choose to be honest”, said Democrat Jared Polis.
Democratic leaders in the Senate say they are committed to bringing the bill to the floor before Congress adjourns for the year. They are challenged by opposition from some Republicans and a daunting agenda that includes finishing work on legislation to finance the government and to ratify a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
Failure to overturn the policy on gays this year could relegate the issue to the back burner next year when Republicans take over the House and gain strength in the Senate. They are far less supportive of allowing openly gay individuals to serve in the military.
“Now is the time for us to act,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and “close the door on a fundamental unfairness in our nation”.
Many Republicans, led by Senator John McCain, argue that it would be a mistake for the military to undergo a major cultural change while the nation is fighting two wars.
Implementing any new policy should begin “when our singular focus is no longer on combat operations or preparing units for combat”, said Howard “Buck” McKeon, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
The issue also has split the military. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and other senior military leaders support lifting the restrictions on gay service, pointing to a recent Pentagon study that showed most people in uniform do not object to serving with gays. The head of the Marine Corps, Commandant General James Amos, repeated his opposition this week, however, saying that lifting the ban during wartime could cost lives. “I don’t want to lose any marines to the distraction,” he said.
The White House, in issuing a statement in support of the repeal, stressed that the change would go into effect only after the president, the Defence Secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that implementation is consistent with military readiness, recruiting and retention and unit cohesion.