ON THE campaign trail and again earlier this month, President Obama promised to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy that imposes silence on gay men and lesbians in the military. It is past time for the president to translate his words into action. The Clinton-era law, which prohibits gay servicemen and women from disclosing their sexual orientation, represses those who serve their country and is a glaring symbol of the nation’s failure to ensure equal rights.
Early in his presidency, Obama indicated he would delay action on this policy until he consulted military officials and congressional leaders on how to go about it. But Obama is the commander in chief. He shouldn’t count on Congress to take the lead on the issue, and he shouldn’t wait for broad consensus to emerge before taking action. No amount of behind-the-scenes discussion will sway those who simply oppose the idea of letting gays and lesbians serve openly. In the meantime, the military continues to discharge qualified service members, many of whom have undergone specialized training at significant public expense.
The “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ catchphrase aside, the existing policy has been used as the basis for inquiries into the sexual orientation of thousands of people suspected to be gay. The military should be spending its energies elsewhere. Strong leadership is the best way to reform a hierarchical system, and that must come from the president.
When Obama renewed his promise recently, it was a reminder that he has yet to take action on what he himself saw as an injustice. The president needs to push for a quick end to “don’t ask, don’t tell.’’ His campaign is long over, but the battle for equal rights for gays and lesbians is far from it.