With his future at stake, Lt. Dan Choi hopped a train from New York to catch Tuesdays Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on repealing the militarys dont ask, dont tell policy on gays serving in the armed forces.
I thought that if they were going to talk about whether I should be fired or not, I should show up, said Choi, a West Point graduate and Arabic linguist who is facing discharge from the New York Army National Guard after revealing last year on national television that he is gay.
He was among the policys opponents and proponents who packed the hearing, which marked the start of what is expected to be an intense year of lobbying on the emotional issue.
At the hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced he was commencing a yearlong study on how to end the policy as well as ushering in less onerous enforcement of it. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Senators he supported letting gays serve openly. It would be the right thing to do, he said.
Both men, however, acknowledged that it will be up to Congress to undo the policy a challenging task considering it is an election year and the polarization that has led to gridlock in other areas such as health care reform.
As a result, both sides are marshaling their forces for the legislative battle ahead. To make his case against repealing the policy, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member on the committee, cited a letter from 1,100 retired military officers supporting the 1993 law that bars gays from serving openly.
Conservative religious groups are also weighing in. Five Orthodox Jewish men left Monsey, N.Y., at 3:30 a.m. to make the noon hearing to express their objections to changing the policy.
We believe this is a pernicious assault on religious liberties, said Rabbi Noson Leiter of Torah Jews for Decency.
Meanwhile, in the back of the room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a representative from the Traditional Values Coalition handed out a release that said, We dont need someone sitting in a foxhole concerned about whether or not the night will turn into date night for someone sitting beside him.
But representatives from gay rights and military groups huddled with reporters after the hearing to assert that the nation is ready to embrace change.
Jon Soltz, co-founder of VoteVets.org, said a younger generation of soldiers is comfortable with serving alongside gays. He also predicted the debate would be far less divisive than the 1993 deliberations in part because Mullen, the top military official, supports gays right to serve openly. In 1993, the top military brass opposed gays serving openly.
Even with the change in attitudes, gay rights groups are preparing national campaigns and lobbying strategies on Capitol Hill to ensure the policy is changed.
I think this will be a make or break year for dont ask, dont tell, said Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, a group that supports gays in the military.
The biggest challenge will be in the Senate, where legislation is more easily blocked by the minority party.