Background: Bill Clinton pledged while campaigning for president to overturn the ban on gays in the military. But after taking office in 1993, he found strong resistance from senior members of the military and conservatives in Congress. As a compromise, Congress passed a law which forbids gays and lesbians from disclosing their sexual orientation or engaging in homosexual acts. But military officials are not allowed to investigate or question sexual orientations of military members. The policy has become known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".
Who's in Favor: Gay rights groups have led the charge for a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." They argue gays and lesbians should have the right to serve openly in the military. And they have been increasingly supported by veterans - most recently former Secretary of State Colin Powell - who believe the military is losing qualified personnel because of the policy on gays. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, almost 13,000 service members have been discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" since 1994. That includes Arabic translators and other specialists the military needs for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Who's Opposed: Conservative groups most prominently oppose a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." They argue gays and lesbians serving openly in the military would damage unit cohesion. Some military veterans have also expressed concern about how other military members will react to having gay men or lesbians in their unit.
"Repealing the 1993 law would be tantamount to forcing female soldiers to cohabit with men in intimate quarters, on all military bases and ships at sea, on a 24/7 basis," Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness, told Congress in 2008. "Stated in gender-neutral terms, forced cohabitation in military conditions that offer little or no privacy would force persons to live with persons who might be sexually attracted to them."
Where It Stands: President Obama said while campaigning in 2008 that he would repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." After taking office, the Obama administration began studying the issue. But it has not come up for a vote in Congress. While many Democrats support the repeal, neither the White House nor congressional leaders want to expend the political capital to move the issue forward, because it would likely spurn a major political debate. Obama officials have said they are concerned debate over gays in the military would overshadow their foreign policy goals and hurt the president's relationship with military leaders.
The Military Readiness Enhancement Act (HR 1283), which would repeal the ban and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, was introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2009, and has gained prominent support from Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq War veteran. Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said in late September that he expected a similar bill to be introduced soon.
Some gay rights groups have suggested Obama could instruct the military to suspend enforcement of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But the White House has said the proper place to change the issue is through congressional legislation.