WASHINGTON – The Pentagon made it harder to boot gays out of the military Thursday, acting on its own while Congress considers President Barack Obama’s goal of lifting the ban on gays serving openly.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved new rules to ease enforcement of the 1993 congressional ban, saying the changes reflect “common sense and common decency.”
The new guidelines, meant to keep the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law from being used to launch witch hunts or settle grudges, represent the first significant step by the administration to address what Obama calls an injustice. The changes would tighten the rules for evidence when someone reports that a soldier is gay and put higher-ranking officers in charge of dismissal proceedings.
An estimated 13,000 people have been discharged under the law. Although most of the dismissals have been the result of gay service members outing themselves, advocates for repeal of the law say it has been used to drum out capable soldiers who never made their sexuality an issue.
Gates said the changes, effective immediately, are “an important improvement in the way the law is put into practice,” short of repealing it. The changes give “a greater measure of common sense and common decency for handling what are complex and difficult issues for all involved,” he told a Pentagon news conference.
Gay rights groups have long advocated for these changes, contending that the rules unfairly kept gay troops from seeking medical help or reporting domestic abuse for fear of being exposed and expelled.
Mike Almy, a former Air Force major who was fired in 2006 for being gay, says he believes he would have kept his job had these new guidelines been in effect at the time.
Almy was dismissed after a routine computer search turned up personal e-mails he wrote while deployed in Iraq. After the e-mails were given to his commander, he was handed discharge papers marked “homosexual admission” as the reason for leaving the service.
“It’s going to stop the most vile aspects of the law,” Almy said of the rules. But “it’s not a substitute for full repeal, which has to come from Congress.”
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support a repeal of the law but want to move slowly to ensure the changes won’t hurt the military’s effectiveness. Gates ordered a review, due Dec. 1, on how the military would implement a repeal, should Congress change the law.
The changes he announced apply to current as well as future cases. Pentagon officials said they were unsure how many people the new rules might affect.