Shortly after Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he attempted to push the U.S. military to openly accept the reality that it had gays and lesbians in its ranks. Colin Powell, then Clinton’s top general, and Sam Nunn, the powerful Democratic Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, nixed the effort by arguing that coming out of the closet on this not-so-secret secret would undermine “unit cohesion” in the armed forces. By courageously taking up this hot button issue soon after taking office, Clinton, already having incurred the scorn of the military for avoiding being shanghaied into the fruitless Vietnam quagmire, was criticized for being naïve and going down to an early defeat—thus quickly piercing the aura of invincibility that new presidents covet.

Could the same happen to Barack Obama? Obama has cautiously advocated an eventual end to the bizarre compromise policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that Clinton was forced to reach with the military back in the early nineties. That policy prevented the military from conducting active witch-hunts to eradicate gays and lesbians from its ranks but at the same time made such troops hide their sexual orientation to avoid being ejected from the armed services.

Even the compromise law has led to 12,500 qualified “out-of-the-closet” gays and lesbians being kicked out of the military—even when their specialized skills were sorely needed during wartime and, before the economic downturn, when some of the armed forces were short of troops because the ongoing quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan discouraged people from joining up.

During the decade-and-a-half since Powell’s and Nunn’s blockage of Clinton’s reform effort, however, social attitudes in the United States toward gays and lesbians have matured and become more accepting. Even more important, compared to 44 percent in 1993, about three-fourths of the American people support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. Similar numbers hold even among today’s armed services personnel.

The argument of undermining “unit cohesion,” which racists similarly used to oppose Harry Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces in the late 1940s, has also been exposed as a canard as it applies to gays and lesbians. Even Powell and Nunn have abandoned it and have advocated a revisiting of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—perhaps out of guilt that their policy has been so unfair and counterproductive to both the armed forces and gays and lesbians.

In reality, however, the non-acceptance of gays and lesbians in society and in the military is ultimately rooted in the conservative religious view that homosexuality is immoral. Yet the Declaration of Independence, laying out the principles of the new country, decreed that everyone should be treated as equal (it’s taking a long time to achieve this in practice), and the First Amendment to the Constitution is supposed to insure a separation of church and state.

Less philosophically, Bob Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, and Mike Mullen, Obama’s top military advisor, also seem to favor a change in the law—probably because they realize that desperately needed skilled people are voluntarily leaving or are being kicked out of an unwelcoming military environment. In other words, the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy is handicapping the military at the very time it is trying to fight two long wars.

Obama has only cautiously endorsed an eventual end to the policy, in consultation with his top defense team, largely because Bill Clinton’s early and gutsy stand on this controversial social issue harmed his entire presidential agenda. But Obama needs to take advantage of the fact that social attitudes toward gays and lesbians have become more accepting in the intervening years. For the moment, Obama is timidly hiding behind his defense advisors, but he himself needs to come out of the closet and openly and forcefully endorse immediate equal rights for gays and lesbians serving in the military. The military is harmed more by having second-class citizens in its ranks than by any imagined ill effects on unit cohesion. The military will adapt to gays and lesbians just as it adapted to African-Americans. Foreign militaries, including Britain, have successfully integrated openly gay and lesbian individuals into their ranks.

When Harry Truman courageously integrated the military, he was leading American society toward equality among the races. In this instance, Obama only has to follow society’s more accepting views toward another disadvantaged group. He should have the political courage to immediately advocate a change in the law.