Discharged gay's suit reinstated against academy

December 12, 1990|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A former Naval Academy midshipman has won a second chance to pursue his constitutional challenge -- the first case of its kind -- to the forced resignation of military cadets solely because they are gay.

Joseph C. Steffan, 26, of Warren, Minn., is seeking to get his diploma and be commissioned as a Navy ensign three years after leaving the academy just weeks before his scheduled graduation. An administrative board had recommended that he be discharged because he admitted to being gay, so he resigned, believing he had no choice.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated his lawsuit, in a ruling last Friday, and Mr. Steffan's lawyers said yesterday they were preparing to move the case toward a trial.

A federal judge here had thrown out the challenge without a trial because Mr. Steffan refused to answer any questions about whether he had ever engaged in homosexual conduct while at the academy.

His lawsuit, filed two years ago this month, claimed that he was forced out of the academy merely for admitting that he was gay, not for any sexual activity. He contended that it was unconstitutional to end his career at Annapolis, and his future career as a naval officer, for nothing more than admitting homosexual preferences.

Any questions about his actual sexual conduct, Mr. Steffan argued, did not bear upon the academy's reason for ousting him: that is, the mere admission of being gay.

The Circuit Court said that the former midshipman was seeking reinstatement and his diploma on a basis "that does not put into issue the question" whether he had actually engaged in gay sex. If he was ousted merely for saying he was gay, and that is ultimately struck down as a basis for the academy's action, he would be entitled to be reinstated, the Circuit Court said.

It was during pretrial preparations of his case that his lawyers learned of a Defense Department study suggesting that gay members of the military were not a threat to its mission.

Mr. Steffan's ultimate chances of getting a court to strike down the Navy regulation that says gay persons are unfit to be at the academy remain in doubt, because of rulings in other federal courts in recent years authorizing the military to ban all gays from continued service or from entering service.

Still, his attorneys said they would press his case because none of the other rulings has involved dismissal of a military academy cadet.

Mr. Steffan has contended that, after a Naval Academy career for which his ratings "ranged from excellent to outstanding," he learned shortly before graduation and commissioning in 1987 that he was under investigation for alleged homosexuality.

When asked by the commandant of midshipmen, Capt. H. W. Habermyer Jr., he admitted his homosexuality. He was then found by two review panels to have "insufficient aptitude," because of his admission, to remain at the academy.

Mr. Steffan asked the Navy to erase his ouster and to reinstate him. When he got no response, he sued. U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch dismissed the lawsuit last year, as a sanction for failing to answer questions -- put to him by the academy's lawyers -- about sexual conduct.

The Circuit Court rejected yesterday a claim by Naval Academy lawyers that Mr. Steffan's mere admission of being gay was a strong indication that he had in fact engaged in gay sexual activity. That claim, the Circuit Court said, "finds no support" in the evidence in the case.

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