By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- A steady number of troops are being discharged from the US military for being gay, according to the latest Pentagon statistics, which show that 619 troops were kicked out last year under the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars homosexuals from serving openly in the ranks.
The figures, which are on par with the previous four years, are bound to spark a new outcry from gay rights advocates who have grown frustrated with President Obama's unwillingness so far to take steps to lift the ban, despite a campaign pledge to do so.
Of the discharges for the fiscal year that ended September 30, 410 were male and 209 were female, according to the figures obtained by the Globe from Pentagon personnel officials. That compares with a total of 627 discharges in fiscal year 2007; 612 in 2006; 726 in 2005; and 653 in 2004.
The new statistics come to light as the Obama administration comes under growing pressure to use his executive powers to place a moratorium on the discharges while he lobbies Congress to overturn the controversial 1993 law -- which was enacted as a compromise after then-President Bill Clinton set off a mutiny when he tried to allow gays to serve openly in uniform.
In recent weeks White House officials have declared that the president still intends to follow through on his campaign pledge, but said he will not intervene on current cases while the policy remains in place. At the same time, other administration officials have suggested a go-it-slow approach to ensure gays can be fully integrated into the ranks with as little disruption as possible.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates recently likened overturning the ban to integrating blacks into the ranks, a process that took five years. Meanwhile, Obama's national security adviser, James L. Jones, said earlier this month he didn't know if the ban would be lifted.
The cautious view was also expressed by Army General David Petraeus, who oversees the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when he told a questioner at Kansas State University last month that "Iím not sure we want to add something else to our plate right now."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters earlier today that only initial discussions about the policy have taken place and that there is no expectation at this point that the policy will be changed.
"I do not believe there are any plans under way in this building for some expected, but not articulated, anticipation that 'don't ask, don't tell' will be repealed," Morrell said.
But opponents of the current policy say that while they believe the military and the nation are ready to lift the ban, the longer the White House and Congress wait the more opposition will build. They cite a recent letter sent to the president by 1,000 retired admirals and generals organized by the right-wing Center for Military Readiness that urged him to maintain the ban or risk severely damaging troop morale.
Saying the issue has reached a "stalemate," Aubrey Sarvis, president of the Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network, the main group pushing to lift the ban, said "we are urging the president to speak up and lead on this initiative."
"We feel an urgency and are desperately trying to convey that to the White House," he said. "Every day service members continue to be discharged."
Sarvis' group believes based on their own sources in the military that the discharges have continued apace since Obama took office, estimating that as many as 200 have been kicked out sinc ehis was inagurated in January. Those numbers could not be verified.
Other leading gay rights advocates expressed disappointment with the new administration.
"For many people, for many reasons, the policy continues to be a very emotional issue," said Richard Socarides, a New York lawyer who served as an advisor on gay issues to Clinton. "It is the one area where the federal government is blatantly engaging in discriminatory conduct. For [Obama] to now be completely silent on this at best -- and at worst have Gates equivocating -- is very troubling to a lot of people."
Legislation to lift the ban has been proposed in the US House -- where Democrats enjoy a large majority -- but there remain deep doubts that the Senate would get on board. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts has sought unsuccessfully for months to find a Republican cosponsor for the bill in the upper chamber, a step considered crucial to garnering enough votes to change the law.
Until then, the Pentagon maintains it is simply following the law even though many of the discharges have been of soldiers with critical skills, including 94 linguists who have kicked out under the ban over the past decade.
"This law requires the Department of Defense to separate from the armed forces members who engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts; state they are homosexual or bisexual; or marry or attempt to marry a person of the same biological sex," said Cynthia Smith, a department spokeswoman.
More than 13,000 troops have been discharged for being gay since 1993.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.