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Clinton Forges Ahead On Gays-in-Military Front

But discord could put new administration into political quicksand

IF nothing else, the uproar over President Clinton's proposal to allow gays and lesbians in the military reveals this: In the United States, the rights of homosexuals remains an unresolved and highly divisive social issue.

The discord has been such that Clinton's quick signing of abortion directives has been all but lost in the noise.

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Per presidential edict, the "gag rule" banning abortion counseling at federally funded clinics has been lifted, as have federal limits on the use of fetal tissue in medical research. Abortion has long been the benchmark for domestic policy controversy in Washington, but these changes have sparked far less response from Congress than has the proposal on gays and lesbians in the armed services.

Politics is part of the reason for the debate. Republicans have helped push the issue to the top of Clinton's agenda earlier than he wanted, by moving to codify the current prohibition against gays in the military into law.

But the Clinton administration also perhaps underestimated the resistance it would encounter from the military and the public at large.

While polls on the issue vary, a number show a relatively even split between supporters of allowing homosexuals in the armed services and opponents.

The uproar "is an amazing thing, an amazing power play. It has really taken the lid off this issue," says Paula Ettelbrick, legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay and lesbian legal rights group.

At this writing the White House was planning to forge ahead with its two-step implementation plan for lifting the restrictions. The first step calls for an immediate end to asking recruits about their sexual orientation, as well as a halt to the discharge of homosexual military personnel.

The second step would formally change the policy via executive order. Presidential spokesman George Stephanopoulos said Wednesday that the formal change would come with a stringent "code of conduct" detailing what gays could and could not do once they joined the armed services.

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Implementation of this second step has been delayed at least six months to allow time for consultation with the military and Congress, and to allow Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to hold extensive hearings on the subject.

To the consternation of the Clinton administration, Mr. Nunn has emerged as the most vocal and effective opponent of one of the first big policy moves of a president of his own party. In an appearance on the Senate floor Wednesday, Nunn ticked off a whole list of items he said were of concern, such as whether same-sex couples could receive full military benefits, and whether they could attend formal military functions together.

Nunn says his hearings will listen to "not just the top brass but those who really have to live with these policies, in the enlisted ranks and in the young officer ranks."

Gay-rights activists say they are glad that Clinton is moving ahead, but many say they, too, have concerns about how a code of conduct might govern gay behavior in the ranks. Their worry is that officials may draw up something that applies to them unequally.

Many say they are appalled by the hostility the proposed changes have unleashed. "This has revealed how deeply homophobic people are," Ms. Ettelbrick says.

In some ways, gay-rights groups see the right to freely enter the military as symbolic of a right to freely enter society at large. Though the legal record is somewhat mixed, the fact is that US courts on the whole do not consider homosexuals a special group meriting protection under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The lifting of the military ban would not immediately change that. But it could have profound long-term effects. "In a political sense it would probably contribute to changes in the law. It could mean changes in the attitude of society, ultimately," says Charles Bumer, a constitutional law expert at the Military Law Task Force in San Diego, a group that represents gay and lesbian service members threatened with expulsion.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin has told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that one reason they need to move on this issue now is that eventually the courts will overturn the ban.

Gay activists say that is not entirely true. There are a number of outstanding challenges to the military exclusion, and some courts have handed down sympathetic rulings. The 9th US Circuit of Appeals in San Francisco, for instance, has held that the military must muster more evidence to prove that allowing gays in their midst would arm readiness. But the Supreme Court is widely thought to be a blockade to legal reversal.

"I don't think we should look to the courts for an answer to this question, anyway," says Kathleen Gilberd, Military Law Task Force co-chair.

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