President caught in no man's land: Clinton's pledge on gays in the forces helped get him elected. Now it is knocking him off-course. Patrick Cockburn reports from Washington

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The Independent Online
AT THE end of the Second World War, the comic Lenny Bruce wanted to leave the US Navy as quickly as possible. He had a tailor make him a skirt and matching top in which he continued his duties. He was, as he had planned, detained and discharged, later claiming to have avoided being charged with unnatural practices by producing his medical records, showing that he had contracted venereal disease more times than any other man in the navy.

Bruce was fortunate that his stunt happened in the Forties, when the US military adopted a more relaxed attitude towards homosexuals. For most of the past 40 years, the Pentagon has ruthlessly hunted down and expelled gays from the armed forces, with the approval of much of the political establishment. In attempting to live up to a campaign promise to end the ban, Bill Clinton is facing the first crisis of his new administration.

In the Forties, the military was prepared to relax anti-gay regulations whenever it needed recruits or could not afford to lose trained men. The test of acceptability was whether or not the soldier, sailor or airman had committed any overt homosexual acts. In the Korean war years, the navy sharply reduced the discharge of gay sailors until the truce was signed in 1953. Naval commanders then celebrated peace with the discharge of 1,353 sailors for homosexual offences.

The Vietnam war brought a renewed tolerance, which ended when the war did. In the decade up to 1990, 16,500 officers and men were forced out because they were accused of being homosexuals. The Pentagon spent dollars 500m investigating the sexual inclinations of its men, some of whom were dismissed and deprived of pension rights.

Official discrimination against homosexuals encouraged a mood of intolerance and, at times, violence. In what has become a cause celebre, Seaman Allen Schindler, who was openly homosexual, was murdered near the US naval base at Sasebo, Japan, last October, his body so badly mutilated that his mother could barely identify it.

The military was always going to oppose dropping the ban, but President Clinton's promise turned it into a political crisis because of the actions of three key political leaders. A week ago Les Aspin, the new Secretary of Defense, appeared on Sunday morning television and went out of his way to underline the opposition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ending the ban. He said there was a strong chance that Congress would defeat the measure unless Mr Clinton compromised and moved cautiously.

Barney Frank, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who is homosexual, said: 'Les fuelled that opposition by saying, 'Oh look, I'm here and I'm bleeding and I'm groggy. Punch me.'

The following day, General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did just that. Just before the inauguration, General Powell had told students at the US Naval Academy that if they found the lifting of the ban on gays 'completely unacceptable, and it strikes at the heart of your moral beliefs, then I think you have to resign'. Last Monday, General Powell and the five other members of the Joint Chiefs formally expressed their opposition to Mr Clinton.

By then it was clear that the only way a compromise could be arranged - postponement of the executive order to lift the ban - was through Senator Sam Nunn, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. By Friday, after frequent delays, a rattled-looking Mr Clinton announced that the senator had agreed to an end to some of the measures against homosexuals: new recruits would not be asked their sexual preferences, and proceedings against gays already serving would be suspended. A presidential decree officially rescinding the ban is promised in July.

Mr Clinton's staff argues that, once there was vocal congressional opposition to lifting the ban on gays, a political storm was inevitable. But the dispute also shows what one observer called 'our constant ability to get side-tracked into cultural-lifestyle rows'.

Even after Friday's compromise, the White House may be optimistic in thinking the issue will die down. Senate hearings on the ban could further embarrass Mr Clinton while the religious right, badly battered in the elections last year, is again mobilising to protect the armed forces.

Mr Clinton can have foreseen little of this when he first said he would end discrimination against gays in the armed forces, while adressing the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in October 1991. He was already under pressure from Paul Tsongas, another Democratic candidate, who had staked out a more liberal position than his. In the north-eastern states, a firm stand on gay rights was an electoral asset.

There is no reason to suppose Mr Clinton was cynical in his pledge at the Kennedy School. Two of his close friends died of Aids. He got money and support from gay groups, but there is no politically powerful gay organisation spanning the country and capable of mobilising mass support. The political dangers of associating with gays always outweighed the advantages. All last year, the Republicans toyed with the idea of making Mr Clinton's support for gays a central issue in the election.

A further reason for his stand on gays during the Democratic primaries was that he was being criticised for failure to do anything about the Arkansas sodomy law, the present version of which was put on the statute book when Mr Clinton was attorney-general of the state. During his 12 years as governor, it was used by police against homosexuals.

Governors of Southern states such as Arkansas have little enough power, but Mr Clinton could hardly use this argument in 1991, because he was emphasising that his gubernatorial experience was adequate preparation for the presidency. In any case, it was widely believed in Arkansas that any attempt to repeal the sodomy law was electoral suicide. A state senator, Dr Vic Snyder, who tried to have it repealed in 1991, said: 'Failure would be a polite word. I couldn't get another vote on the judiciary committee.'

In a few months Dr Snyder will try again, arguing that the law is used to intimidate homosexuals and its repeal 'will tell them they are full citizens'. It was not, he said, that the law was used much, but 'it was a licence for the most aggressive police officer to harass people'.

For Bill Clinton in 1991, however, the existence of such archaic legislation in his home state was damaging. He wanted to prove to the liberal north-eastern and West Coast voters that what he had achieved in Arkansas was relevant to the whole country. The sodomy law was an embarrassment: the sort of regressive custom, like lynching and incest, Northerners expect to find along the Mississippi.

'Arkansas is no more homophobic than any other state in the South,' said one Arkansan defensively. But even this is debatable. David Wannacker, publisher of Spectrum, the Little Rock alternative newspaper, was attacked by right-wing religious groups when he allowed local gays to put classified ads in his paper. 'They organised a boycott of advertisers and wrote to stores which placed ads with us, saying they were long-term customers who would now go elsewhere.' Mr Wannacker dropped the ads.

None of this was Mr Clinton's fault, but it impelled him towards his pledge to end the ban on gays in the military. He continually compared what he was going to do with the Civil Rights Act of 1965. But the latter was passed only because of President Lyndon Johnson's unparalleled control of Congress after his election victory over Barry Goldwater. Mr Clinton has nothing like the same authority, as Senator Sam Nunn swiftly demonstrated last week.

The flip-flops and mishaps affecting Mr Clinton during the past two weeks demonstrate another simple point: the Democrats have been out of power for 12 years and are inexperienced. In early January, Mr Clinton discovered he was not even going to have the outline of a health plan that he had promised to produce during his first 100 days.

None of this may matter if he can produce health-care and economic reform. It was his strength during the campaign to refuse to be diverted from his main economic message. The same may be true of of his present difficulties. The furore over Zoe Baird, his choice for attorney-general, who admitted employing illegal aliens in her household, blew up quickly but ended as soon as she withdrew.

The issue of gays in the military is more dangerous for the Clinton presidency. It brings him into conflict with the armed forces over an issue on which they can win public support. They may well prefer to fight him over gay rights than over cuts in the military budget. It is also an issue which unites the right, whose disunity last year was a reason why Mr Clinton gained power. Looking back, George Bush's advisers may think that if they had made Mr Clinton's support for gay rights central to last year's campaign, they would still be in the White House.

Preferences on parade

Australia: the policy of discrimination against homosexuals in the Australian Defence Force ended last November.

China: homosexuals are banned because, officially, the government does not admit that they exist.

Canada: last October, restrictions on homosexuals declared contrary to Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

France: conscripted army does not discriminate against homosexuals.

Germany: decided 10 years ago not to discriminate against homosexuals.

Britain: Ministry of Defence does not allow homosexuals within the military; it believes their enlistment would be damaging in a professional environment.

Israel: conscription at age of 18; no discrimination on sexual preference. Only those rated medically unfit are exempt from conscription.

Japan: enlistment of homosexuals is banned. .

Netherlands: does not discriminate. In 1991 the Dutch offered training and educational programmes to homosexuals in order to create an 'easier' atmosphere for them to come out.

New Zealand: no differentiation between heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Research by Ann Coston

(Photographs omitted)