Leading article: Gay rights in the disunited states

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The Independent Online

Fresh from his Nobel victory, Barack Obama took time out to assure the gay and lesbian community that he had not forgotten the support they lent him in the election. Specifically, the President pledged to end the Bush-era "don't ask don't tell" policy on gays in the military with one that supports the right of openly gay and lesbian people to serve in the US armed forces.

Mr Obama was right to grasp this particular nettle firmly. The policy was a foolish fudge, and it is absurd to insist that gays and lesbians can serve in the military only if they keep silent on the issue of their sexual orientation. Such ambiguity only invites confusion. What happens if you don't exactly "tell", but just hint? Claims that Americans of different sexual orientations enjoy equal citizenship will not be taken seriously while the armed forces retain a form of opt-out, as they do now. Something has to give.

President Obama offered his Washington audience no precise timeline by when he expects to scrap "don't ask, don't tell" – an omission that inevitably prompted claims that he means to delay taking action. The doubters hopefully will be proved wrong. America is in a state of growing legal chaos over gay and lesbian rights with some states allowing same-sex marriage, for example, while others do not. One state, California, has achieved the remarkable distinction of having allowed gays and lesbians to marry – only then to withdraw the privilege after five months. In such a mobile society as America's this is creating bizarre legal anomalies as same-sex couples move from state to state.

America's conservatives want to see this confusion ended on their own outdated terms, with all states rolling back whatever concessions they have made so far and slamming shut the closet doors. But history – to say nothing of modern morality – is against them. American society is moving steadily towards acceptance of the right of gays and lesbians to enjoy equal citizenship.

Mr Obama has a vital role to play in this struggle. He will determine whether gay and lesbian equality arrives quickly, or remains in this strange state of uncertainty, by acting on his pledge to end discrimination in the military. The sooner he does so, the better.