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

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)

Suggested Topics
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Digital Content Officer - Central London - £33,000

£28000 - £33000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive (Digital Marketi...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform