In a move that initially suggested gay Army soldiers had some leeway to speak openly about their military experience, Army Secretary John M. McHugh told reporters last Wednesday that he would not initiate discharge procedures against soldiers who have told him they are gay.
"What I am trying to do is show the troops that, 'Yes,' it's okay to talk about this," said the former Republican congressman from upstate New York, appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as secretary of the Army.
But a day later, on April 1, McHugh issued a press release saying that he had misspoken and that some of his comments "required further comment." As McHugh explained, "I was incorrect when I stated that Secretary Gates had placed a moratorium on discharges of homosexual service members," adding, "There is no moratorium of the law, and neither Secretary Gates nor I would support one."
The Army Secretary's initial remarks came the day before during a March 31 breakfast meeting with Pentagon reporters, according to multiple reports from mainstream print outlets, including The Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, Reuters and the Washington Post, among others.
"What the secretary has placed a moratorium on is going forward on discharges," McHugh said, referring to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who last week announced changes in the enforcement of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell ( DADT ) ." The new guidelines in effect raise the bar significantly for gay-related discharges under the current policybut do not prohibit them outright.
"It is not so stated, but I think a reasonable assumption" that [ I ] need not process discharges, McHugh explained.
The Army secretary also said he had heard from active duty soldiers who acknowledged being gay. And yet McHugh said he took no disciplinary action against them. Under DADTeven with the new guidelinesa service member's saying he is gay is a clear violation of the 17-year policy and grounds for a discharge proceeding to be initiated.
Still, "It would be counterproductive in trying to pursue [ Defense Secretary Gates ] and ultimately the president's policy objective to take disciplinary action against someone who has spoken openly and honestly," McHugh said.
In his remarks, McHugh said also that he assumed his experience of hearing from gay troops was similar to others in positions of military leadership.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, some senators and congressmen, serving on the House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services Committee in fact advocate a full service-wide moratorium on discharges while the working group completes its review of the gay ban and how to repeal it.
But Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and other Pentagon top brass oppose a broader moratorium right now. And on April 1, McHugh made clear his views are in accord with the defense secretary and military leadership.
Not surprisingly, Secretary McHugh's comments caused confusion and raised concerns insofar as some media outlets reported McHugh's remarks as if there were a blanket "de facto" moratorium on DADT-related Army discharges.
That misperception prompted the head of one national repeal-the-ban advocacy organization to call for clarification and further media scrutiny.
"It is my impression from reading Secretary McHugh's comments that he doesn't intend there to be an Army-wide moratorium on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' discharges," said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Servicemembers United, the nation's largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans.
"But rather," he added, [ McHugh ] does not plan to pursue the discharge of anyone who has in effect come out to him during the course of his own personal engagement of Army personnel on this policy issue."
In speaking out, Nicholson voiced concerns about currently serving active duty troops. Some soldiers "may very likely come across this coverage at some point," he said, "and get the mistaken impression that it is okay to serve openly in the Army now."
Legal experts also urged discretion. Diane Mazur, who serves as co-director of the University of California Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Palm Center, affirmed Nicholson's warning at the same she provided a brief cautionary legal analysis. "The way the law currently stands," Mazur wrote in a memo, "service members do not have protection from later enforcement of the policy."
The University of Florida law professor added, "There are ways legally to make that happen and to give Secretary McHugh and others the ability to stand by their word; but right now, if a service member 'tells' during the review process, or if a straight service member 'outs' a lesbian or gay colleague, a 'don't ask, don't tell' discharge can still commence."
The Palm Center is a think tank that since 1998 has done research and published on the topics of gender, sexuality and the military.
It was Feb. 2 when Gates commissioned a working group to undertake the yearlong study of DADT. Led by Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of the U. S. Army Europe, and Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon's chief legal counsel, the working group's final report is due Dec. 1.
As Gates has directed, the study group is to solicit views of gay and lesbian troops on active duty. But under the current version of DADT, they are required by law to keep homosexual orientations secret. That requirement indeed frustrates the study for both gay troops who acknowledge their sexual orientation, as well as military leadership seeking candid feedback.
Accordingly, Ham has already indicated that the working group may need to hire a third-party polling organization in seeking opinions of gays in uniform. "These groups have some pretty masterful ways of reaching out to what they call hidden groups in larger communities," he told the Washington Post recently.
But some lawmakers question the need for outside pollsters. "To me, doesn't a moratorium make sense for no other reason than you can solicit information [ from gay and lesbian service members ] without having to hire third party contractors who are not subject to 'don't ask, don't tell," said U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., in a recent telephone interview. Tsongas serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
"A [ total ] moratorium would eliminate the need for third parties," she said, simplifying a process that is "far more complicated than need be."
Enacted by Congress and signed into law by then President Bill Clinton, DADT was designed to allow gay men, lesbians and bisexual people to serve in the armed forces, but only if they remained quiet about their sexual orientation. But nearly 14,000 service members have been discharged for homosexual conduct under the policy since 1993.
Last year alone more than 400 service members were discharged under DADT. While hard numbers are nearly impossible to ascertain, one estimate suggests that 66,000 military personnelor 2 percent of the armed forces are gay.