WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A House panel weighed overturning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy Wednesday, the first time Congress has considered the rule since it was implemented 15 years ago.
The policy, adopted in 1993, allows gay and lesbian individuals to serve in the armed forces as long as they do not publicly engage in homosexual behavior. The law also prevents military leaders from asking a service member about his or her sexual orientation.
Congress implemented the "don't ask, don't tell" law after President Clinton backed away from a plan to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military. The armed forces' most senior officers resisted the plan, saying they feared that homosexuals would disrupt unit cohesion and morale.
The House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee was considering a bill by Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-California, that would repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 75 percent of respondents supported allowing gays to serve openly in the military, up from 62 percent in 2001 and 44 percent in 1993.
Rep. Susan Davis, the California Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said, "many Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian want to answer our nation's call to service, and allowing them to serve in an open and honest manner would uphold the ideals of military service."
During the hearing, two gay former service members -- former Navy Capt. Joan Dorrah and former Marine Sgt. Eric Alva -- testified against the current law, arguing that unit cohesion would not be hurt if homosexuals served openly.
Alva, a 13-year Marine veteran, was one of the first service members wounded in the Iraq war and lost a leg. He said his unit's ability to function was not hurt when other service members learned of his orientation.
"My being gay, and even many of my colleagues knowing about it, didn't damage unit cohesion," Alva said. "They still put their lives in my hands, and when I was injured, they risked those lives to save mine."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Vance Coleman, a black man who joined the Army when it was segregated, testified that the current treatment of gays and lesbians is similar to how African-Americans were treated before President Truman integrated the military in 1948.
"I know what it is like to be thought of as a second-class citizen, and I know what it is like to have your hard work dismissed because of what you are or what you look like," Coleman said.
Coleman said the nation's security was hurt because gay and lesbians were either dismissed from the service or were reluctant to join the military, noting that five dozen Arabic language experts have been dismissed.
" 'Don't ask, don't tell' hurts our military readiness," Coleman said. "It undermines our commitment to being a nation where we are all equal in the eyes of the law. And it ties the hands of commanders who want to welcome and retain America's best and brightest into the military fold."
But Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness said that allowing gays to serve openly in the military would be disruptive. She said service members often have to live in close quarters while on tour, which would open them to "inappropriate passive/aggressive actions common in the homosexual community, short of physical touching and assault."
"Such a policy would impose new, unneeded burdens of sexual tension on men and women serving in high pressure working conditions, far from home, that are unlike any occupation in the civilian world," Donnelly said.
Brian Jones, a retired sergeant major in the Army, also argued that allowing gays to serve publicly could hurt recruiting.
"Allowing homosexuality in the military would cause unnecessary sexual tension and disruptions to good order, morale, discipline and unit cohesion," Jones said. "This would erode the very qualities of military service that presently appeal to potential recruits."
Davis argued that the portions of the military code that cover sexual conduct of service members would also cover homosexual activity and that any inappropriate conduct by an openly gay individual would be punished by commanders.
Tauscher said she did not expect her bill repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy to pass this year because of opposition from the current administration, The Associated Press reported.
"We need a new president in order to get this passed," Tauscher said, referring to presumed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, the AP reported.
The presumed Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, supports keeping the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
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