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Military begins accepting openly gay applicants

Pentagon says it has frozen discharge cases

US District Court Judge Phillips rejected the government’s effort to delay her order that halted enforcement of the policy. US District Court Judge Phillips rejected the government’s effort to delay her order that halted enforcement of the policy.
By Anne Flaherty and Julie Watson
Associated Press / October 20, 2010

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SAN DIEGO — The military is accepting openly gay recruits for the first time in the nation’s history.

The historic move follows a series of decisions by US District Court Judge Virginia Phillips, who ruled last month that the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ law targeting openly gay service members violates their equal protection and First Amendment rights. Yesterday, Phillips rejected the government’s effort to delay her order that halted enforcement of the 17-year policy.

Government lawyers are expected to appeal her decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.

In the meantime, the Defense Department has said it will comply with Phillips’s order and had frozen discharge cases. Cynthia Smith, Pentagon spokeswoman, said recruiters had been given top-level guidance to accept applicants who say they are gay.

At least two service members discharged for being gay began the process to reenlist after the Pentagon’s announcement yesterday.

Recruiters also have been told to inform potential recruits that the moratorium on enforcement of the policy could be reversed at any time, if the ruling is appealed or the court grants a stay, she said.

Still, supporters of gay rights hailed the military’s decision.

“Gay people have been fighting for equality in the military since the 1960s,’’ said Aaron Belkin, executive director of the Palm Center, a think tank on gays and the military at the University of California Santa Barbara. “It took a lot to get to this day.’’

An Air Force officer and cofounder of a gay service member support group, OutServe, said he’s hearing increasingly about heterosexual service members approaching gay colleagues and telling them they can come out now.

He also said more gay service members are coming out to their peers who are friends, while keeping their orientation secret from leadership. He said he has come out to two peers in the past few days.

“People are coming out informally in their units,’’ said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “Discussions are happening right now.’’

An opponent of the judge’s ruling said the confusion is exactly what Pentagon officials feared and shows the need for the courts to freeze her order immediately while the government appeals.

“It’s only logical that a stay should be granted to avoid the confusion that is already occurring with reports that the Pentagon is telling recruiters to begin accepting homosexual applicants,’’ said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group based in Washington that supports the policy.

Before the 1993 law, the military banned gays entirely and declared them incompatible with military service.

There have been instances in which gays have served, with the knowledge of their colleagues.

Twenty-nine nations, including Israel, Canada, Germany, and Sweden, allow openly gay troops, according to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay-rights group and plaintiff in the lawsuit before Phillips.

The Pentagon guidance to recruiters was given after Dan Woods, the group’s lawyer, sent a letter last week warning the Justice Department that Army recruiters who turned away Omar Lopez in Austin, Texas, may have caused the government to violate Phillips’s injunction.

Woods wrote that the government could be subject to a citation for contempt.

The White House has insisted its actions in court do not diminish President Obama’s efforts to repeal the ban. In their request for a stay, government lawyers argue Phillips’s order would be disruptive to troops serving at a time of war.

They say the military needs time to prepare new regulations and train and educate service members about the change.

Phillips has said her order does not prohibit the Pentagon from implementing those measures.

The message, however, had not reached some recruiting stations.