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Powell signals acceptance of gay compromise

Published Oct. 9, 2005

At a lunch for the honorary degree recipients on Harvard's commencement day, Gen. Colin Powell was asked to say a few words to the guests. When he finished, a woman who has been critical of the military said to a friend: "I'm going to start Pacifists for Powell."

In 24 hours in Cambridge, Powell all but charmed birds from the trees. When he spoke extemporaneously, he was thoughtful, gracious, direct, easy. Then he delivered a formal speech to thousands, including protesters on the issue of gays in the military, and got a standing ovation.

Watching Powell turn audiences from skepticism to admiration, one had to think that after his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff next September he will sooner or later run for public office.

The visit had another notable aspect. Powell gave the clearest signal yet that a meaningful compromise on the gay issue is now acceptable to the military leadership _ and is likely to happen.

Because he had said long ago that "open homosexuality would have a very negative effect on military morale and discipline," many at Harvard were critical of the decision to award him an honorary degree. He disarmed some when at lunch he praised the dignity of the protesters.

During the commencement ceremony a speaker on behalf of graduate students, Bhaswati Bhattacharya, deplored the fact that gay men and lesbians "have not been freely allowed to serve in the armed forces because they are different." When she finished, Powell stood up and shook her hand.

He spoke about the Cold War and what its end means for this country. He praised President Clinton warmly for pledging help to Russia "in the spirit of Truman and Marshall." He said the emotions of Vietnam had dissipated, and "the armed forces are again at one with the people." Then, somewhat surprisingly, he directly addressed the gay issue.

"We took on racism," he said of the armed forces. "We took on drugs. We took on Tailhook. We will do the same, my friends, with the very difficult issue of homosexuals in the military.

"The controversy involves two pressing interests: the interest of gay and lesbian Americans who want the privilege of serving, and on the other hand concern for cohesion in the military and the right to privacy.

"The president has given us clear direction to reconcile those interests, and I believe we are near a solution."

What was striking in that statement was not only the prediction that a solution was near. It was the way Powell defined the issue, with respect for the interest of gays and lesbians who want to serve.

Powell's words reflected, I believe, a real change in the political outlook on the issue. Despite the angry words of recent months, there has been movement away from prejudice and fear.

First, the official ban on gay service has come to look more and more anachronistic. Former Sen. Barry Goldwater has just called the policy "un-American discrimination." Israel, whose military we admire, has removed its last limits on homosexuals in the forces.

Second, anyone willing to open his mind even a little must know by now that many gays and lesbians have served well, and are serving, in the U.S. forces. The individual stories that have been broadcast to the country mock the notion that gays are unsuitable for service.

Third, efforts by the services to ferret out gays and lesbians and discharge them have become embarrassing _ "senseless" moves to destroy the careers of proven military assets, as Goldwater put it.

At a minimum, then, it seems that there can be agreement on stopping witch hunts in the services.

A formula for compromise might prohibit only public displays of sexuality _ as sexual harassment is prohibited. It would probably not satisfy the gay movement, but it would be a major step. And with the backing of Colin Powell, it would surely get the necessary political support.

New York Times News Service