Openly gay William White, chief operating officer of Manhattan's Intrepid Museum Foundation, is being touted by top retired military leaders and some Democrats in Congress to be the next secretary of the Navy, reports the Washington Times. If appointed, White would be the first openly gay person to run one of the three armed forces.

White's qualifications for the job include his work at the Intrepid, where he has accumulated extensive contacts in the armed forces, and his years as fundraiser for the Intrepid Museum Foundation. In 1996, he was awarded the Meritorious Public Service Award for his work with the Navy.

Several high-ranking retired military leaders say he is an ideal candidate.

“He would be phenomenal,” said retired General Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001.

But even the mention of an openly gay candidate to a top military position is drawing fire. Under then-President Clinton's policy known as “don't ask, don't tell” gay military personnel are not allowed to serve openly. Gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces must remain closeted and celibate under the policy or face expulsion. The armed forces has discharged about 12,5000 soldiers since the policy went into effect in 1993.

“It's a matter of judgment, and I think that would be very poor judgment on the part of the commander in chief,” said Center for Military Readiness President Elaine Donnelly, who testified before Congress earlier this year in support of retaining the prohibition. “It would be very demoralizing for the troops.”

The secretary position, however, is a civilian job and does not fall under the restrictions of the gay ban.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he would like to repeal the gay ban but would wait to build “consensus” on the issue.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian rights advocate, said the appointment would be a “concrete demonstration” of Obama's commitment to serving all Americans.

The secretary of the Navy was a cabinet position until 1947, when the White House placed all three armed forces – the newly created Air Force, Army and Navy – under the control of the secretary of defense.

A spokesman for White, 41, said: “Mr. White has no comment on this matter. He considers it truly the highest privilege to be of service to the brave men and women of our armed forces, and their families, through his work with the Intrepid.”

General Shelton praised White's work as “legendary.”