A new poll of Americans has revealed that nearly half do not support the current US military policy of barring openly gay people from serving.

The Harris Interactive survey, conducted last month, found that 55% of the 2,337 people questioned felt openly gay, bisexual or lesbian personnel should be allowed to serve, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Only 18% of respondents felt that gay people should not be allowed to be in the Armed Forces at all.

46% said they opposed the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, but allows those who remain in the closet to do so.

The findings follow the change of heart over the issue by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Shalikashvili, who wrote in the New York Times last month that he had changed his mind about gays in the military after speaking to gay and lesbian troops.

John Shalikashvili was chairman from 1993 – 1997, and it was during his tenure that the controversial policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was introduced.

At the time he argued that had argued that openly gay and lesbian personnel would hurt troop morale and undermine the cohesion of combat units.

President Bill Clinton had promised to open the military to openly gay and lesbian people during his successful 1992 campaign for President, but caved into pressure from the Army – the compromise was the current policy.

The general, who retired in 1997, 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.”

The retired general’s comments were backed by a Republican politician who was in charge of the US Armed Forces for four years.

William Cohen served as Defence Secretary from 1997 – 2001 under Democrat President Bill Clinton.

19% of Americans who took part in the Harris poll said that gays could serve if they kept their sexual orientation secret.

18 percent said they shouldn’t be allowed to serve at all.

726 soldiers were dismissed in 2005 for being gay under the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, according to official Pentagon figures.

It remains illegal to be a member of the US Armed Forces and be gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Since 1993, 11,082 members of the Marines, Navy, Army, Coast Guard and Air Force have been discharged.