The nation’s highest military leaders warned troops Tuesday not to harass gays who emerge from the closet as the ban on coming out officially ended.
But they also said the U.S. armed forces cannot legally extend the benefits of straight couples to homosexual partners, as gay rights groups demand.
“With regards to the possibility of harassment, look, we have a zero tolerance with regards to harassment,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters as he celebrated what he called the “historic day.”
“My hope is that the command structure operating with the standard disciplines that are in place will implement those disciplines and will ensure that harassment doesn’t take place and that all behavior is consistent with the discipline and the best interests of our military,” Mr. Panetta said.
Various gay advocacy groups have demanded the right to marry while in the military. They also want spousal benefits.
But Adm. Mike Mullen, in his last press conference as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents that from happening.
The law, which was signed by President Clinton and which the Obama administration has stopped defending in court, defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
“I mean, we follow the law here,” Adm. Mullen said when asked about housing and health benefits for the partners of gay troops. “DOMA, that law restricts some of the issues that you talk about. And we’re going to follow that law as long as it exists.”
In a boost to the gay rights movement, Adm. Mullen forcefully endorsed the repeal of the ban in testimony before Congress last year. He was the only Joint Chiefs of Staff member to do so at that time.
Adm. Mullen retires this month, and will be succeeded as chairman by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates put in a place a methodical approach to end the ban on Sept. 20, eight months after President Obama signed repeal legislation.
First, roughly 2.3 million active and reserve forces received indoctrination on ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as the ban was called, and guidance on what to do in certain situations, such as seeing two male service members kissing.
Then the Pentagon certified that open gays would not harm combat readiness, a promise that some pro-military groups dispute.
“The American military exists for only one purpose — to fight and win wars,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Yet [Sept. 20], the U.S. military becomes a tool in reshaping social attitudes regarding human sexuality. Using the military to advance a liberal social agenda will only do harm to the military’s ability to fulfill its mission.”
Mr. Panetta said that will not happen.
“As of 12:01 a.m. this morning, we have the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ pursuant to the law that was passed by the Congress last December,” Mr. Panetta said. “Thanks to this change, I believe we move closer to achieving the goal at the foundation of the values that America’s all about — equality, equal opportunity and dignity for all Americans.”
While the Pentagon took a relatively low-key tone, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), which led the repeal campaign, announced a series of celebratory parties in all 50 states.
“Today marks the official end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and is an historic milestone along the journey to achieving LGBT [lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender] equality in America’s military,” said the group’s director, Aubrey Sarvis.
“Thanks to veterans, active duty, leaders, allies and supporters everywhere, this is a monumental day for our service members and our nation. Indeed, we have taken a tremendous leap forward for LGBT equality in the military.”
J.D. Smith, an alias for a Air Force officer who founded Outserve magazine for gay military people, came out of the closet. He is 25-year-old 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, who told the New York Times that he now can take his boyfriend to parties.
Gary Ross, a Navy lieutenant, chose the stroke of midnight to marry his civilian partner, Dan Swezy, in Vermont, which allows such unions.