PRESIDENT CLINTON concedes that his "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays in the military is "out of whack," and Vice President Gore has joined Bill Bradley, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, in saying the neutral-sounding policy should be abandoned in favor of genuine neutrality: Homosexuality per se should not be a bar to military service. We think that's right, not to say long overdue.

"Don't ask, don't tell" was never more than a gloss. Mr. Clinton tried, to his credit, as no president had before and at considerable political cost, to achieve more. He lost; the resulting compromise requires both sides to engage in a form of hypocrisy. Gays must pretend they're not gay, and the military must pretend it doesn't care. The double pretense has made it possible for the politicians to largely avoid the issue.

But in fact, service members whose only offense is that somehow it has been learned that they are gay--whose service itself has in all respects been meritorious, and who have not done anything in contravention of military order or discipline--continue to be driven out of the service. Commanders have not been adequately instructed--or commanded--to use their discretion to look the other way.

A gay soldier was beaten to death last summer at Ft. Campbell, Ky. Defense Secretary William Cohen has ordered an investigation of whether gay service members are being harassed. But investigations have been conducted before, with scant apparent effect.

The right policy is to drop the notion that homosexuality is presumptive evidence of unfitness to serve. If homosexual service members engage in conduct that is illegal or subversive of discipline somehow defined, then disciplinary action should be taken against them--just as against heterosexual service members. That's all. There will be arguments around the margins of such a policy: What is subversive of discipline, etc.? That's true of all disciplinary questions.

The military will follow a non-discrimination order if it is handed down, and handed down with conviction. On other issues, including race, it has--compared with the society at large--a commendable record of having done so. This is not a defense issue so much as an issue of fundamental fairness on which compromise has been tried and failed. It's time--past time--just to do the right thing.