A new United States Congress will be sworn in later today. In the November election, the Democratic party seized control of both the House and Senate. PinkNews.co.uk’s Tony Grew considers whether the 110th Congress will be the one to finally allow gays and lesbians to serve in the US military.

It seems America is finally coming to terms with the fact that there are gay people in their Armed Forces, whether they ask or not.

The much-maligned compromise policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” whereby military authorities promise not to ask servicemen and women if they are gay, as long as those same soldiers, sailors, marines, air force and coast guard personnel promise not to tell if they are, is rightly judged a failure by all but the most pig-headed commentators.

In the 13 years since the policy was hatched, tens of thousands of committed members of America’s armed forces have been discharged for homosexuality. DADT was born out of a compromise – newly elected President Bill Clinton had promised to allow gay men and lesbians to serve their country.

Congress and the Pentagon were implacably opposed – it would ruin morale and lead to indiscipline in the ranks. Gays would prissy up the whole place, and lesbians would mess up the cohesion of units.

Ever since 1993, when the bastard compromise was conceived, the position of gay and lesbian service personnel has been precarious. It only takes one spiteful enemy to report you for ‘acting’ or ‘speaking’ gay and your military career will end in recrimination and the shame of a dishonourable discharge.

Currently around 25 servicemen and women every week are drummed out of the services in this way. Many thousands more live their lives in fear, not of Iraqi or Afghanistani insurgents, but of their fellow soldiers.

While the UK, Israel, France and even Russia have come to realise that a desire to serve one’s country can sometimes be stronger than a desire to sleep with every man or woman in sight, the US remains stuck in a rut, half in and half out, unwilling to admit that gays and lesbians exist in their military.

Consider our troops in the Gulf, in coherent and efficient units made all the more strong and cohesive because all our soldiers and sailors, nurses and doctors, support staff and commanders can be honest with themselves and with their colleagues about who they are.

Fighting beside them are soldiers and sailors just are brave, just as committed, yet forced to hide, to lie and to evade, just so they can hold on to their jobs.

Things are changing though, and rapidly, not least opinion in the US military itself.

A poll published last month showed that 73% of people currently serving in the US Armed Forces are comfortable with lesbians and gays.

Nearly one in four (23%) of service members reported knowing for sure that someone in their unit is lesbian or gay, including 21% of those in combat units.

The American public are coming round to the idea as well. Opinion polls in 2005 and 2006 found that a large majority of Americans (79% and 60% respectively) have no problem with openly gay people serving.

Then there is the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who implemented DADT. General John Shalikashvili, who retired in 1997, used to be of the opinion that openly gay and lesbian personnel would hurt troop morale and undermine the cohesion of combat units.

Now he has changed his mind. In an article for The New York Times earlier this week, Gen Shalikashvili said that conversations with gay service members, “showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers.”

Shalikashvili urged Congress to “welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job.”

Within 24 hours, a former US Defence Secretary publicly questioned the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.

William Cohen, a Republican who served from 1997 – 2001 under Bill Clinton, told CNN that the current policy is discriminatory and not reflective of current American public opinion.

“It’s time to start thinking about it and starting to discuss it,” he told presenter Wolf Blitzen.

“I think what we’re hearing from within the military is what we’re hearing from within society, that we’re becoming a much more open, tolerant society for diverse opinions and orientation,” he added.

For the resurgent Democratic Party, majorities in both branches of Congress means control of the legislative agenda and the all important committees of the House and Senate. Later today the 110th Congress will be sworn in.

For the first time since 1995, the Democratic Party will be in charge of the legislative branch of the government.

Control of the House Armed Services Committee means control of the US policy towards military recruitment, and the Dems are already being urged to re-examine America’s ban on openly gay and lesbian personnel.

The new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, represents California’s 8th District, which covers most of San Francisco.

She is, unsurprisingly, very supportive of gay rights. Today she will become the first woman ever to hold the Speakership, second in the line of succession to the Presidency, after Vice President Cheney, two heartbeats away from the Oval Office.

Attempts were made last year to bring forward legislation to repeal the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, led by three Republican Representatives among them out gay man Jim Kolbe.

120 Representatives sponsored the bill. Two newly-elected Democratic Congressmen from Pennsylvania, Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak, are decorated Iraq War veterans who have spoken out again DADT.

The US military is in the middle of a recruitment crisis, with troops fighting two foreign wars and President Bush set to send yet more soldiers to Iraq.

C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defence Network, said this week, “The dominos propping up ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ are falling, and they are falling quickly.

“It is clear that prominent military leaders question the wisdom of maintaining the ban.

“As three service members continue to lose their jobs every day, our armed forces are experiencing a significant talent drain. Those who know our military best now realise that the ban is not only unjust, but also unproductive.”

It may be too late for the tens of thousands of Americans who happened to be gay or lesbian but despite that had the impudence to think they could serve their country. For those who remain in the front line, there is hope that one day they could have the respect and freedom given to their fellow soldiers in the British Army.

2007 could be the year that America finally grows up and realises that gay soldiers can fight and die just as well as their heterosexual counterparts.