Gay serviceman faces dilemma at Fort Meade Clinton's decision fails to ease fears about going public

January 30, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Staff Writer

When the army recruiter asked Tom if he was a homosexual, the young man from central Illinois tried to answer honestly and said, "I don't know."

The recruiter was so eager to sign him up that he told Tom: "Don't worry about it."

Late last summer, after 10 years of recurring sexual longings for other men, a wrenching inner struggle to convince himself he was bisexual and a marriage to an old girlfriend, Tom decided he was, in fact, a homosexual.

"A huge burden was lifted, and then a huge burden came down on me -- the fear I might get found out," said Tom, a senior noncommissioned officer working for the National Security Agency at Fort Meade.

Now that President Clinton has suspended discharges of avowed homosexuals simply because of their sexual orientation, Tom, who spoke only on the condition that his identity be protected, has another painful decision to make: whether to tell fellow soldiers he's gay.

Thousands of other homosexuals in the military face the same dilemma. Many are jamming the phone lines of gay rights activists and lawyers this week to seek advice on what to do.

Most are being urged to wait several months until Mr. Clinton and Congress resolve their differences, or even longer if military leaders do little to battle intolerance and the threat of anti-gay violence and harassment within the military ranks increases.

Gregory King, of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, said his group has been discouraging callers from disclosing their homosexuality to others in the military until the chain of command is ordered to stop all forms of harassment against gays.

"We think there's a significant risk of violence, not only illustrated by the Schindler case, but by other reports of violence we've received," he said, referring to Seaman Allen R. Schindler, who was killed at a U.S. naval base in Japan on Oct. 27, a month after publicly acknowledging he was a homosexual. The Navy says "all possible motives," including homophobia, are being investigated.

Miriam Ben-Shalom, a former Army Reserve sergeant who heads the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America, predicted that few gays would identify themselves no matter how the policy dispute is resolved. "The whole idea is to let gays serve without fear and so that no one will point a finger and threaten them," she said. "If I were a sergeant again, I wouldn't be walking around saying, 'Hi, I'm a dyke.'"

During a long conversation at his home off the Army base, Tom's attempts to weigh the risks and benefits of disclosing his sexual orientation were overwhelmed by a rush of conflicting emotions -- delight over the prospect of leading an "honest" life, anger over the expulsion of close friends and disgust over what he called the Army's "Gestapo" tactics to cleanse the service of homosexuals.

At one moment he sounded tough and defiant, saying he might risk going public about his homosexuality or "do an Ollie North in my uniform, testifying before [Sen. Sam] Nunn's committee" on the armed services. "I want to show them I don't have earrings, don't have spiked hair," Tom said. "I just might put it all on the table and if they put me out, then they put me out."

But Tom can't shake his fear of becoming another martyr, one more gay serviceman who sacrificed a military career to stand up for his convictions only to become another statistic or short-lived media celebrity. He wondered aloud if the Army still might investigate and try to expel him if Mr. Clinton ultimately stops short of a wholesale repeal of the ban on gays.

"The legal advice I'm still getting is to say nothing, admit nothing," said Tom, who continues to talk to his family and several gay rights groups in Washington for more advice.

He reached this point of indecision after a long identity crisis that simmered during boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., intensified during his first Army tour in Germany and and reached the boiling point after arriving at Fort Meade in 1991 and getting married last summer.

Within months of his marriage, he found he could no longer fool himself about his sexual identity, Tom said. It was a gradual realization that he was gay, not something sparked by a dramatic event, a romance.

Tom said he dated women throughout his 20s and did not act on his impulses toward gay men he encountered, choosing instead to examine his thoughts and feelings. "There's a lot of, 'Why " he said. "And at that time I thought maybe I'm just bi [sexual]."

The struggle affected his work and disrupted his sleep. He sought out religious people and books on Eastern philosophies, thinking they could explain what he was feeling.

"I came to the conclusion that I must be bi(sexual). I must be!" he declared, recounting how he fought the idea of being gay. "I would compare it to how a lot of people react when they find out they have a terminal disease, because in this country, being gay is a socially terminal disease. A lot of people reject you and you're discriminated against."

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