WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is being harmed by prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly, a congressional panel was told Wednesday, the first time lawmakers have examined the "don't ask, don't tell" policy since the law was passed in 1993.
Opponents of the policy told a House Armed Services subcommittee that it is hurting the military by barring the enlistment of otherwise qualified people and requiring the discharge of highly trained personnel who have publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation.
Several recent polls show that Americans are significantly more accepting of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, has said he would work to repeal the law. His expected Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has said the policy should be maintained.
Democratic lawmakers called the subcommittee hearing a long-overdue session to begin the process of dismantling the policy. Legislation to do so was initially introduced in 2005, but the Republican control of Congress at the time ensured it would fail. The bill was reintroduced last year.
"We have figured out how to deal with racial integration and gender discrimination," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), the bill's sponsor. "This is the last frontier."
As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, Bill Clinton vowed to end a long-standing ban on gays and lesbians in the military. He repeated that pledge within days of his inauguration but came under intense pressure from religious groups, social conservatives and military leaders.
"Clinton got blindsided," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Michael D. Palm Center, a UC Santa Barbara think tank that supports ending the policy. "He underestimated military opposition, the strength of the Christian right to block him and the magnitude of the ideological split in his own party."
The resulting compromise -- "don't ask, don't tell" -- discouraged the military from actively investigating suspicions of homosexuality while allowing gays and lesbians to serve as long as they kept their sexual orientation private. Under the policy, overt homosexual behavior remained grounds for discharge.
Ever since "don't ask, don't tell" took effect in early 1994, more than 12,000 personnel have been discharged under its provisions, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. The number of annual discharges peaked at 1,273 in 2001; the figure for 2007 was about half that.
During Wednesday's hearing, Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes repeal of the policy, said that allowing gays to serve openly would drive away more individuals who don't want to serve with gays than the number of service members discharged under "don't ask, don't tell."
A repeal "would impose new, unneeded burdens of sexual tension on men and women serving in high-pressure working conditions, far from home, that are unlike any occupation in the civilian world," she said.
The panel also heard from retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, who lost his right leg after stepping on a land mine in Iraq. While there, he said, he told his buddies that he was gay, and that his admission didn't erode "unit cohesion" -- an argument used by opponents of gays in the military.
"The land mine may have put an end to my military career, but it didn't put an end to my secret," he said. "That would come years later, when I realized that I had fought and nearly died to secure rights for others that I myself was not free to enjoy."