Reporting from Washington and Riverside, Calif. — Military officials said Tuesday they have begun accepting applications from openly gay and lesbian recruits, creating a dilemma for many homosexuals who long have wanted to join the armed forces but worry their status will be jeopardized if the controversial "don't ask, don't tell'' policy is reimposed.
Also Tuesday, a federal judge in Riverside, Calif., refused to set aside her injunction halting enforcement of the policy, which she had ruled unconstitutional.
Obama administration lawyers are expected to file a formal appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to stop her ban and allow the Pentagon to continue its internal review of the policy.
With the policy at this point legally no longer in force, the Pentagon announced that recruiters have begun taking applications from men and women who say they are gay or lesbian. "Recruiters have been given guidance, and they will process applications for applicants who admit they are openly gay or lesbian," said Cynthia O. Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Yet Smith noted that recruiters have been told to remind applicants that the court injunction could quickly be reversed. If that occurred, she said, statements by recruits that they are homosexual could be used to reject them immediately or discharge them if they had been accepted into the service.
Under the "don't ask, don't tell" law, enacted in 1993 during the Clinton administration, recruits have not been asked about their sexual orientation when they seek to enlist — a policy that the Pentagon said would remain in effect while the litigation continues, she said.
But also under the law, anyone who freely states that he or she is a homosexual is removed from the ranks of the military.
Last week, Clifford L. Stanley, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, reminded recruiters in a memo not to ask service members or applicants about their sexual orientation.
Many advocates, including Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, urged would-be recruits to proceed carefully.
"During this interim period of uncertainty," Sarvis said, "service members must not come out and recruits should use caution if choosing to sign up. The bottom line: If you come out now, it can be used against you in the future by the Pentagon.''
One of the first to take the opportunity to enlist was former Army Lt. Dan Choi, a Tustin, Calif., native and Iraq war veteran who came out on the Rachel Maddow Show on cable TV in March 2009. The West Point graduate was discharged earlier this year for being gay.
Choi, 29, made an event of his reenlistment, tweeting his movements as he strolled through midtown Manhattan to the Times Square recruiting station. There, he rapped on the glass door, entered and asked to enlist in the Marines.
They said he was too old, so Choi filled out papers to reenlist in the Army. "We're still in a war, and soldiers are needed," Choi said. "I have a newfound faith in our government that at least one branch is on the side of the Constitution, is on the side of the people."
In Los Angeles, Army recruiters were abiding by the Pentagon's new directive, but they did not report a groundswell of new recruits. "Right now, we can't ask but they can tell,'' said Fernando Sanjurjo, spokesman for the Army's Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion. "We're going to do whatever we're told to do and drive on. But no influx yet.''
Sanjurjo added that potential recruits are being told that the "don't ask don't tell" policy could be reinstated at any time by the appellate courts.
Aaron Belkin, director of Palm Center, a think tank on gays and the military at UC Santa Barbara, called the military's announcement on accepting gay recruits a "stunt" because many legal experts expect the appellate court to reinstate the ban while they review the case.
"For the first time in 65 years we've had a week where gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military, and we haven't seen any negative reports of any consequences,'' Belkin said.
Meanwhile, supporters of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, such as the conservative Family Research Council, said "homosexuals are desperate'' to get into the military, but the government should continue to fight in the courts and on Capitol Hill to keep the ban in place.
"With Democrats likely to lose control of Congress in the upcoming election,'' the council said, "they see the window for imposing their radical social agenda on the armed forces closing fast. But that is no reason for tossing out legislative debate, administrative review and judicial restraint.''
They added that the law should remain in force until at least next year, when the new Congress will receive the Pentagon's internal review and can hold hearings into the issue
Serrano and Cloud reported from Washington, and Willon reported from Riverside.
Staff writers Tina Susman in New York and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.