As the U.S. military readied for war overseas, one of its most nettlesome personnel policies has been under escalating criticism at home.
Ten years after President Clinton proposed it, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy remains in place -- an awkward compromise that allows gay men and lesbians to serve in uniform as long as they keep quiet about their sexual orientation.
Some people yearn to reinstate the prior policy, which made clear that homosexuals were not welcome. From the opposite flank, there is greater pressure than ever to allow gays to serve openly; gay-rights groups argue that the military's war readiness is undercut by a policy that alienates gay soldiers or forces them from the ranks.
The Bush administration and the Pentagon say there are no imminent plans to abandon "don't ask, don't tell."
"As Winston Churchill said of democracy, it's the worst system possible except for any other," said Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who helped devise the policy. "The military says it's working OK; it's the best option available. I think it's here indefinitely."
Timed to coincide with the military buildup around Iraq, the campaign against the policy has included these initiatives:
* Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization, issued a report denouncing "don't ask, don't tell," urging President Bush to repudiate it and assailing the military as "a bastion of officially sanctioned discrimination against homosexuals."
* Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gays and lesbians in the military, launched a "Freedom to Serve" campaign aimed at overturning the policy. The network also reported an upsurge of requests for advice and support from gay service members deployed near Iraq.
* The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group, compiled first-person accounts from dozens of gay and lesbian veterans describing the challenges of serving dutifully in an unwelcoming environment.
"I loved the Navy -- it was good to me, but I was very bitter my last few years," said one veteran, Nick Marulli, who served from 1977 to '97. "It was difficult having to live in two worlds."
To guard against a discharge that would jeopardize his pension, Marulli avoided telling even close friends in the service that he was gay. He is convinced that gays could serve openly, without problems, if political and military leaders backed the change.
"The military is about discipline; it's about the example set by leaders," said Marulli, 44, now a computer instructor from Crofton, Md. "If the command says, 'This is our policy; you're going to live by it and respect it,' people would jump in line and say, 'Yes, sir.' "
The Pentagon considers the policy a mandate from Congress and says its duty is to implement it.
"There are no plans to change or modify the policy at this time," the Defense Department said in a statement. "The department continues to work tirelessly to administer that law in a manner that is both fair and consistent ... treating all service members with dignity and respect."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the policy in a recent interview with teenage reporters for the magazine Teen Ink.
Although most forms of discrimination against gays are wrong, Powell said, "I think it's a different matter with respect to the military because you're essentially told who you're going to live with, who you're going to sleep next to."
Clinton referred to "don't ask, don't tell" as an "honorable compromise," but it was a difficult one, emerging after vehement opposition forced him to abandon a 1992 campaign pledge to allow gays to serve openly.
Under the policy, gays and lesbians are supposed to keep quiet about their sexual orientation, while enjoying freedom from harassment or unprovoked investigations. They can be discharged for speaking publicly about being gay or engaging in homosexual acts.
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army colonel and military analyst, believes that gays should be excluded from the armed forces on grounds that their presence can make heterosexual soldiers uncomfortable. But he says the administration's low-profile approach -- letting the policy remain intact -- makes sense.
"Politically, they're doing what they have to do -- be quiet about it in the midst of the war on terror" and the war with Iraq, Maginnis said.
However, groups that want gays to serve openly cite national security and the Iraq war as reasons to make the change. For example, there was an outcry from gay-rights supporters when the military confirmed in November that nine Army linguists, including six trained to speak Arabic, had been dismissed because they were gay.
C. Dixon Osburn, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network executive director, estimated that at least 7,500 gays and lesbians were already deployed in the Middle East.
"They're willing to put their lives on the line to defend freedom when they're denied freedom at home," he said. "They can't talk to their loved ones on the phone; they can't embrace them when they get on aircraft carriers to sail off to war."
Such arguments irk Elaine Donnelly, president of an advocacy group called the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes liberalization of military personnel policies. She says the military should ask recruits if they are gay and exclude those who say they are.
"Gay activists and their allies in the media are trying to wrap their radical agenda in the flag of 'national security' and 'military necessity,' " Donnelly said in a recent policy statement. "In the interests of national security, social engineering must be brought to an end."
Since the policy was implemented, more than 8,500 service members have been discharged under its provisions, according to the Pentagon.
In some cases, the discharges were involuntary and followed contentious investigations. In many cases, gays and lesbians initiated the discharge process, complaining of harassment or the stress of concealing their sexual orientation.
"I was under immense scrutiny just for not having a boyfriend," said Lara Ballard, an Army artillery officer from 1991-95. "People don't realize how much deception is entailed -- you need to come up with a constant acting performance."
Ballard, 33, a Tennessee native who is now a government lawyer in Washington, disagrees with military commanders' assertions that cohesion and morale would suffer if gays served openly.
"A lot of things can affect cohesion -- you can have neo-Nazis, born-again Christians and witchcraft practitioners in one unit," but the soldiers still cooperate, she said. "They're professional; they can learn to get along."
Michael Kilmer, 32, triggered his discharge from a Seattle-based Coast Guard unit in 2001 when, on the verge of becoming an officer, he decided to disclose that he was gay. He wanted the promotion, but on his terms. "Unfortunately, the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy does not permit me to serve the Coast Guard with integrity," he wrote to his commanders.
"I really thought I had a chance at changing the policy," said Kilmer, who earned numerous commendations during a 14-year career. "But I have no ill feelings against the Coast Guard. If they allowed us to serve, I'd go back."
The Pentagon has pledged to expand training aimed at eliminating anti-gay harassment, but Osburn called the efforts insufficient. "It's hard to implement a policy fairly that, at its root, is base discrimination," he said.
Osburn is convinced that gays will someday be allowed to serve openly, as they do in most NATO countries, but says the change could be 10 years away.
A supporter of the goal, Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) noted that the military gradually overcame resistance to full participation by blacks and women.
"Progress came slowly and haltingly, but they were accepted and embraced eventually, and we have a better military and better society because of it," Dayton said. "The same thing should happen with gays and lesbians."