WASHINGTON – Opponents of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military denounced it as cruel and unpatriotic Wednesday. Supporters insisted it was needed to maintain military morale, and raised the prospect of a rise of HIV infection among service members if gays are allowed to serve openly.
The heated exchanges came as Congress held its first hearing on "don't ask, don't tell" since its enactment 15 years ago.
Although legislation has been introduced to overturn the ban, the hearing wasn't an attempt to advance the bill, something supporters say can only happen if Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is elected president.
Republican Sen. John McCain supports "don't ask, don't tell."
Instead, "our purpose today is to begin a long-overdue review ... and to start a conversation about the real-life impact on our service members, their families and the operational readiness of our military," said Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee.
While there was plenty of conversation, consensus proved elusive and tempers flared as each side insisted on the moral soundness of their views.
The policy was intended to keep the military from asking recruits their sexual orientation, and to prevent servicemembers from declaring that they are gay or bisexual or engaging in homosexual activity.
Among the most arresting debates Wednesday came when Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., a first-term congressman and the only Iraq war veteran in Congress, accused a witness of implying that U.S. service members weren't professional enough to handle serving with homosexuals.
"You're saying you don't trust our military professionals to serve openly with people who might be different," Murphy said angrily to Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a nonprofit that says it promotes certain military personnel policies.
"I think that's an insult," Murphy said.
Donnelly denied that, insisting that "forced cohabitation" and resulting "sexual tension ... will hurt discipline and morale."
"People are human, people have sexual feelings and they're not perfect," she said. "Prejudice is wrong, but feelings about sexuality are different."
Donnelly contended that if the law were repealed the number of HIV-positive service members would probably increase.
Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., a Vietnam veteran and medical doctor, called that comment "so inappropriate" and suggested that Donnelly advocate for the military to recruit only lesbians, who he said have a low incidence of HIV.
The top Republican on the committee, Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., didn't stake out a position, but said that judgment on "don't ask, don't tell" must "ultimately rest on matters of military readiness morale good order and discipline."
Pentagon officials weren't invited to testify after committee members concluded they wouldn't say anything other than that they'd follow the law.
Asked Wednesday whether the Pentagon thinks it's appropriate to re-examine "don't ask, don't tell," Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said: "I would say only that 'don't ask, don't tell' remains the law of the land. And to my knowledge, the department is not advocating a change in policy."