The number of gay and lesbian service members discharged under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy has dropped by almost half since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and is at its lowest level since the Defense Department began keeping such figures in 1997.
Significant declines have occurred in every branch of the armed forces, according to statistics released yesterday by the Pentagon. The Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy discharged fewer gay men and lesbians in 2004 than in any year since the Pentagon began tallying the number of its "homosexual separations" eight years ago. The Army's discharges represented the lowest number of discharges in five years.
Overall, the total number of service members discharged under the policy on gays in the military has dropped from a high of 1,227 in 2001 to 653 in 2004.
A Defense Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the statistics, referring questions to the individual services. Representatives for the services said they were hard pressed to single out a specific reason for the decline.
"Obviously, it's a very controversial issue," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the personnel office in the Army, which, in relation to the total size of each of the services, had the highest proportion of gays departing last year. "I just got the figures," he said, "and I don't know why" they fell.
Gay rights organizations said the decline is easy to explain: Pressed for personnel since the battle against terrorism began, the military needs to keep its numbers up and is not discharging gays as it once did.
It may be more subtle than that, however, said Charles Moskos, professor emeritus of military sociology at Northwestern University and an architect of the "don't ask, don't tell" concept.
He said the vast majority of dismissals for violations of "don't ask, don't tell" come when service members volunteer their sexual orientation to their superiors. Less than 20 percent of the discharges resulted from personnel being caught with a member of the same sex in a compromising position or from investigations of their conduct.
A central reason for the decline may be that gays are not telling of their sexual orientation as frequently since 2001 -- or that military authorities are not releasing them from service, Moskos said in an interview.
He said that given the current stress on military services, individuals who say they are gay may not be immediately granted an honorable discharge.
"It may be that if someone tells . . . they don't let them go now," Moskos said. Declaring one's homosexuality is still "the easiest way to get out with an honorable discharge," he said, adding that "being a conscientious objector is a big hassle."
Military historians have recorded drops in the discharges of gays during war time dating to World War II, when the Pentagon officially adopted a ban on homosexual personnel.
"What has traditionally happened is that there is a decline during a war and then a spike in discharges right after," said Sharon Alexander, a lawyer for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gay men and lesbians in the military. "We noticed that during the Persian Gulf, the number of discharges was practically nonexistent and then it shot way up."
Groups that advocate for the abolishment of "don't ask, don't tell" said the new figures point out the hypocrisy of the military's position that homosexuals are bad for morale, given that gay men and lesbians are less likely to be discharged in times of war, when troops are needed most.
"Our general view is that these discharges show that we just don't need 'don't ask, don't tell,' " Alexander said. The numbers are down because, in a time of war, we need the best and the brightest that we can get. And the best and brightest include gay soldiers."
But, at a time when Arabic and Farsi translators are needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military continues to discharge gay linguists, Alexander said. "Twenty linguists have been discharged in the last five years, and I'd say that one discharge under 'don't ask, don't tell' is one too many at this point," she said.
In December, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department, Cook v. Rumsfeld, in federal court in Massachusetts on behalf of 12 lesbian and gay veterans seeking reinstatement in the armed forces. Each of the plaintiffs was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," and three served in direct support of operations in the Middle East.
One of the plaintiffs, Jen Kopfstein, 29, is a 1999 graduate of the Naval Academy. She said in an interview that she served openly as a lesbian officer for two years and four months before she was finally discharged. At her discharge hearing, she said, her commanding officer defended her service.
"He didn't want to have to discharge me," said Kopfstein, who was first based in San Diego, where she now works for a defense contractor. She was on a ship in the Arabian Sea when she notified her commanding officer of her homosexuality. "I didn't want to have to lie about myself," she said. "He thought I was trying to get out, which was definitely not the case. He requested that they do a substantial investigation. They didn't respond for a year."
Bridget J. Wilson, a San Diego lawyer whose practice is devoted in part to representing troops, said that the military has a habit of overlooking a service member's sexual orientation when it sees fit.
"The new policy is not significantly different than the old policy," Wilson said. "It was always that some soldiers would be discharged if it was found out that they were gay, and others were not. It depends on who you are and where you serve, who your commander is, how much someone needs you or likes you."