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The practical effect of President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy on gays in the military will be minimal. There will be less lying and fewer capricious discharges, but it won't create a more hospitable atmosphere for homosexuals.

The bottom line is that as of Oct. 1, being a homosexual is no longer grounds for dismissal from military service but practicing homosexuality is. Clinton said Monday this is a "sensible" policy.While Americans are evenly divided on the military's ban on service by homosexuals, they believe in fair play. That, Clinton says, is what he's trying to accomplish when he says conduct, not status, is the determining factor.

Thus, Clinton's 6-month-old policy of not asking recruits about their sexual orientation will continue. Congress could step in to restore the questioning, but that's unlikely. Homosexuals eager to serve in the military will no longer have to lie to get in.

Also, the capricious practice of discharging some suspected homosexuals and not others will end.

But homosexuals who vigorously announce their sexual preference while in the military could be subject to discharge.

Even the homosexual who quietly confides in a bunkmate that he or she is gay is taking a risk. While Clinton said that the statement "I am a homosexual" is permitted, that person still could be forced to prove his or her conduct is above the military's reproach.

However, the notorious witchhunts, often staged by such outfits as the Naval Investigative Service, should end. That means, for example, that military police are to stop waiting for military personnel coming and going from gay churches or bars.

While Congress will consider bills to either restore the total ban or lift it completely, the issue won't be settled for years until there's a pattern to how lawsuits are settled.

Harassment against known or suspected gays won't disappear overnight, although it may diminish if officers severely punish it.

A gay soldier or sailor who abides by all rules while on duty but engages in homosexual behavior while on leave or off base is taking a risk because that violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Clinton said his policy is a "major step forward" in respecting individual rights and an "honorable compromise" that will not diminish the U.S. armed forces' reputation as the best fighting force in the world. But it is by no means the recognition that homosexuality is a legitimate lifestyle that gay rights advocates sought.