Clinton offers truce on gays

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BATTERED by a week of intensive wrangling with Congress, President Clinton yesterday offered a compromise strategy to begin dismantling the ban on homosexuals in the US military, delaying the final order for six months.

In his first press conference as President, Mr Clinton said a decree to rescind the ban would be prepared for delivery on 15 July. But the military is to stop asking new recruits to state their sexual preference, and proceedings against avowed homosexuals already serving will be suspended.

The six-month delay, agreed after days of tortuous negotiation with Democratic congressional leaders, notably Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee who opposed an immediate end to the ban, is meant to give Congress time to hold extensive hearings on the issue.

In a conspicuous concession to the military, meanwhile, Mr Clinton accepted that commanding officers will still be free to reassign serving gays to less important positions while the proceedings against them are interrupted.

By agreeing to the truce, Mr Clinton will hope to turn attention back to tackling the economy and health care reform. There is no guarantee, however, that his problems on the gay matter will easily go away or will even have been settled after the six months.

In a sign that a showdown may still be unavoidable, Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas said Mr Clinton had 'decided to ignore the overwhelming majority of the American people, military experts, veterans' groups and the advice of Senate Republicans and many Democrats'. Senator Nunn praised the President's announcement but restated his own position in support of the ban.

Asked whether the decree ending the ban would be issued on 15 July come what may, Mr Clinton replied only: 'That is my position. My position is that I still embrace the principle and I think it should be done.'

Mr Clinton admitted to disappointment that a campaign pledge to repeal the ban immediately could not be met but said the compromise still represented a 'dramatic step forward'. He added: 'The issue is whether men and women who can and have served with real distinction should be exclude from military service solely on the basis of their status. And I believe they should not.'

The President's position appeared strengthened by a ruling delivered late on Thursday by a California federal judge in favour of Keith Meinhold, a Naval Petty Officer, discharged last August after admitting on national television that he was gay. Judge Terry Hatter ruled that the ban violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws, and ordered that Officer Meinhold be permanently reinstated.

In his comments, Mr Clinton said the ruling 'strengthens my hand'. In previous cases, the armed forces have appealed against such rulings through the Justice Department. Officials said an appeal was most unlikely in this instance. Last week, Mr Clinton's Defence Secretary, Les Aspin, warned the military that even if the President did not lift the ban, the courts would quickly act against it.

Specifically, Judge Hatter rejected the argument of the military that presence of gays in the ranks constitutes a threat to discipline and levels of morale. 'These justifications are baseless and very similar to the reasons offered to keep the military segregated in the 1940s,' he concluded.

Mr Meinhold, who has become something of a national spokesman for gays on this issue, was ecstatic about the ruling, and said he now wanted to get back to his duty and end his role as America's 'gay sailor'. A 12-year veteran of the Navy, he said that when he heard the judgment, 'I think I jumped high enough that my head hurts because I hit the ceiling.'

On the other side, Retired General Norman Schwarzkopf, still immensely popular after his leadership in the 1991 Gulf war, added his voice to those defending the ban. 'We have always discriminated and surrendered civil rights as members of the armed forces,' he said, adding that he was 'astounded that the new administration, with all of the problems of the country has, that they chose to focus on this problem'.

(Photograph omitted)