The "don't ask, don't tell" rule governing gays in the military has been in place for 15 years. But a growing number of Americans — including members of the armed services — disagree with the Pentagon policy.
Seventy-five percent of Americans surveyed in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month said they support allowing openly gay people to serve in the military. Among Republicans, the poll showed such support has doubled, from 32 percent 15 years ago to 64 percent today.
Congress held its first hearing on the topic last week, and the policy's future may hinge on who wins the White House in November.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama favors letting the estimated 65,000 gay service members serve openly rather than keep their sexual orientation a secret — as they are required to do under "don't ask, don't tell." Arizona Sen. John McCain, who voted for the rule in 1993, has said the policy works and should be left in place.
Obama: A Need For Repeal
Obama's campaign Web site quotes him as saying, "I believe that we need to repeal the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy." It also says the Democratic senator believes that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would not undermine the military's "efficacy."
In a July interview with The Military Times, Obama struck a conciliatory note, saying it was not something he wanted to shove down the military's throat. "But I do believe that at a time when we are short-handed, that everybody who is willing to lay down their lives on behalf of the United States, and can do so effectively, can perform critical functions, should have the opportunity to do so," he told the newspaper.
Obama has said he's not alone in supporting the issue and has pointed to an about-face by some of the officers most closely involved in drawing up the policy. He singled out Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman who said last year that the time had come to seriously reconsider a policy that's led to the expulsion of more than 12,000 gay service members.
"I think Gen. Shalikashvili's assessment is right that people's attitudes have evolved," Obama said in early July. "You've got our British counterparts and our Israeli counterparts without this policy, and nobody would suggest that they have had problems on the ground."
McCain: Policy Works
There's not a word about "don't ask, don't tell" on McCain's campaign Web site. But in a November 2006 interview on ABC's This Week, McCain pointed to that policy in affirming that he's pro-gay rights.
"In the respect that I believe that the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is working in the military, I don't know how you view that," the Republican senator said.
In April 2007, he wrote a letter to the Service Members Legal Defense Network that stated, "I remain opposed to the open expression of homosexuality in the U.S. military."
McCain also spoke about the policy last November at a Republican presidential debate sponsored by YouTube. When a gay retired general asked him about allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces, McCain had this response:
"All the time, I talk to our military leaders, beginning with our Joint Chiefs of Staff and our leaders in the field such as Gen. [David] Petraeus and Gen. [Raymond] Odierno and others who are designated leaders with the responsibility of the safety of the men and women under their command and their security and protect them as best they can," he said.
"Almost unanimously, they tell me that this present policy is working, that we have the best military in history, that we have the bravest, most professional, best prepared, and that this policy ought to be continued because it's working," he added.
The two candidates' stances on the issue are being watched particularly closely by at least one group of voters. A Harris poll this month found that among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans, 60 percent said they supported Obama compared with 14 percent who favored McCain.