It was a milestone for gay and lesbian rights when the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified Tuesday before Congress in favor of abolishing the military's unjust "don't ask, don't tell" policy. It's impossible to overestimate the significance, symbolic and otherwise, of Adm. Michael G. Mullen's simple but eloquent words: "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
Ideally, Mullen would have contented himself with that comment as he challenged Congress to dismantle the hypocritical and homophobic policy it adopted 16 years ago, under which gays and lesbians may serve in the armed forces only if they keep their sexual orientation secret. Instead, however, Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates announced that they were going to conduct a study in which members of the military would be surveyed about how abolition of the policy should be implemented. It could take as long as a year to complete.
The study is as much a political strategy as an exercise in fact-finding, and it is driven by the reality that only Congress, not President Obama, has the authority to nullify the statute on which "don't ask, don't tell" is predicated. Evidently the administration sees the study as a kind of encirclement strategy, one that will show that attitudes in the military toward homosexuality have changed and thus isolate and put renewed pressure on congressional defenders of "don't ask, don't tell." (While the study is underway, rules likely would be revised to make it harder to discharge gay service members on the basis of third-party reports.)
If all this gamesmanship is necessary to attain equality for gays in the military, so be it. But there should be no misunderstanding about the underlying issue: It is wrong to hound gay men and women out of the armed services, and it is equally wrong to demand that they pretend to be something they are not.
There is a die-hard contingent of members of Congress who are still bedeviled by nightmares of straight soldiers sharing barracks and showers with gay comrades. But their vague, outdated concerns are not substantiated by facts. Others purport to respect the contributions of gays and lesbians to the nation's defense, but nevertheless cling illogically to "don't ask, don't tell." The lead exponent of this view on Tuesday was a cranky Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who brandished a statement of opposition he said was signed by 1,000 retired officers.
Our fear is that implacable opponents of gays in the military won't be placated by the results of the study, and will use the intervening year to foment public opposition. We wish there were more "tell" in the administration's approach and less "ask."