SAN DIEGO — The military is accepting openly gay recruits for the first time in the nation's history, even as it tries in the courts to slow the movement to abolish its "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
At least two service members discharged for being gay began the process to re-enlist after the Pentagon's Tuesday announcement.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in California who overturned the 17-year policy last week rejected the government's latest effort to halt her order telling the military to stop enforcing the law. Government lawyers will likely appeal.
With the recruiting announcement, the barriers built by an institution long resistant and sometimes hostile to gays had come down. The movement to overturn the 1993 Clinton-era law gained speed when President Obama campaigned on its repeal. The effort stalled in Congress this fall, and found new life last month when U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips declared it unconstitutional.
"Gay people have been fighting for equality in the military since the 1960s," said Aaron Belkin, executive director of the Palm Center, a think tank on gays and the military at the University of California Santa Barbara. "It took a lot to get to this day."
The Defense Department has said it would comply with Phillips' order and had frozen any discharge cases. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said recruiters had been given top-level guidance to accept applicants who say they are gay.
AP interviews found some recruiters following the order and others saying they had not heard of the announcement.
Recruiters also have been told to inform potential recruits that the moratorium on enforcement of the policy could be reversed at any time, if the ruling is appealed or the court grants a stay, she said.
Gay-rights groups were continuing to tell service members to avoid revealing that they are gay, fearing they could find themselves in trouble should the law be reinstated.
"What people aren't really getting is that the discretion and caution that gay troops are showing now is exactly the same standard of conduct that they will adhere to when the ban is lifted permanently," Belkin said. "Yes, a few will try to become celebrities."
An Air Force officer and co-founder of a gay service member support group called OutServe said financial considerations are playing a big role in gay service members staying quiet.
"The military has financially trapped us," he said, noting that he could owe the military about $200,000 if he were to be dismissed.
The officer, who asked not to be identified for fear of being discharged, said he's hearing increasingly about heterosexual service members approaching gay colleagues and telling them they can come out now.
He also said more gay service members are coming out to their peers who are friends, while keeping it secret from leadership. He said he has come out to two peers in the last few days.
Confusion over ruling
An opponent of the judge's ruling said confusion that has come up is exactly what Pentagon officials feared and shows the need for her to immediately freeze her order while the government appeals.
"It's only logical that a stay should be granted to avoid the confusion that is already occurring with reports that the Pentagon is telling recruiters to begin accepting homosexual applicants," said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a social conservative advocacy group based in Washington that supports the policy.
The uncertain status of the law has caused much confusion within an institution that has historically discriminated against gays. Before the 1993 law, the military banned gays entirely and declared them incompatible with military service.
Douglas Smith, spokesman for U.S. Army Recruiting Command based at Fort Knox, Ky., said that even before the ruling recruiters did not ask applicants about their sexual orientation. The difference now is that recruiters will process those who say they are gay.
"If they were to self-admit that they are gay and want to enlist, we will process them," Smith said, adding that the enlistment process takes time. "U.S. Army Recruiting Command is going to follow the law, whatever the law is."