Some gay members of the military were shocked that outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace repeated his personal belief that homosexuality is immoral during congressional testimony Wednesday.
Yet many of them were encouraged by Pace's statement that he was open to changing the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military and by his acknowledgement that thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers have honorably served in the military.
"My upbringing is one that says that sex between anyone other than a man or woman inside the bonds of marriage is a sin," he said during the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing as protesters booed and called him a bigot.
Seeking to clarify comments he made last spring about the immorality of homosexuality, Pace emphasized, "Are there wonderful Americans who happen to be homosexual serving in the military? Yes."
Jason Knight, the gay sailor discharged last spring after he wrote a letter to Stars & Stripes denouncing Pace's earlier comments, was encouraged by the general's latest remarks. "I definitely think it's a step in the right direction," he told ABCNEWS.com. "He seems to value the gay and lesbian community that is currently serving."
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
But Knight was distressed that Pace repeated his personal beliefs. "Like the first time, that is his opinion and as a senior military leader he shouldn't be stressing his own views."
Knight was so upset by Pace's comments last March that he wrote the military newspaper and was soon discharged. Ironically, Knight was already discharged for his homosexuality back in 2005 but the reason wasn't included in his records and he was recalled and sent to Kuwait.
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy should be scrapped, Knight said, especially in light of the fact that he was open about his homosexuality. "All of my peers knew, my superiors knew and they were all supportive and friendly," Knight said. "A lot of people in the military value conduct over orientation -- they really could care less about whether you're gay or straight."
Antonio Agnone, a 27-year-old former captain in the Marine Corps who received his discharge from active duty in April, was surprised that Pace repeated his personal beliefs. "I was actually shocked that he stumbled back into that area of questioning," he said. "When he talks about morality, that doesn't have any place. His personal beliefs shouldn't be what he's relying on a day-to-day basis. He broke regulations; he's not supposed to voice his personal opinion."
Agnone said that he wasn't openly gay in the military but that many of his soldiers knew about his orientation and that he never experienced discrimination. "Marines serving under me say that they knew and that they would deploy again with me in a minute," Agnone said.
Sea Change in Opinion
One of the factors driving his decision to leave the military was his concern that if he was injured or killed, he couldn't be sure that the military would inform his partner. After Pace made his earlier comments, Agnone said that he heard from plenty of soldiers, gay and straight, in Iraq and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina who were upset about the general's beliefs.
Pace's belief that homosexuality is immoral and that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve in the military may seem like a contradiction, but it is not unusual. A majority of Republicans, regular churchgoers and even people with negative attitudes toward homosexuality think gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, reported the Boston Globe in 2005. A CNN poll in May 2007 found that almost 80 percent of Americans believe people who are openly gay or lesbian should be allowed to serve in the military.
But most members of the military seem more tolerant than Pace.
About 73 percent of military personnel are comfortable with lesbians and gays, according to a Zogby poll in December 2006. That represents an enormous change from 1993 when President Clinton first instituted "don't ask, don't tell."
"Back then, about 16 percent of the military said gays should serve -- that is a massive change in less than 15 years," said Aaron Belkin, the director of the Michael D. Palm Center, which tracks such data.
Pace's successor, Adm. Michael Mullen, seems open to revising "don't ask, don't tell." Before his nomination, he told the Brookings Institution, "It's time to revisit that policy… the American people ought to raise that issue and we'll have the debate."
And in the midst of the war in Iraq, the Pentagon seems less concerned about the sexuality of its soldiers. The number of "don't ask, don't tell" discharges has nose-dived from 1,273 in 2001 to 612 in 2006. Overall, an estimated 65,000 gays and lesbians serve in the military, which represents about 2.5 to 3 percent of the total armed forces, according to an estimate by the Urban Institute.
"The pattern is the same in every single war since World War II," said Belkin. "Once the bullets start flying, the discharges fall dramatically."