Ex by-the-book mid now a gay advocate Joe Steffan's fight to return to Navy a symbol for gays

February 04, 1993|By New York Times News Service

He is every mother's dream for her daughter to marry: an ex-midshipman, handsome as can be, with a principled intelligence and a diffident way. But there is a hitch: he's gay. And therein lies the story of Joseph Steffan, his battle with himself and his battle with the Navy.

These are hectic days for the 28-year-old Mr. Steffan. As the fight over homosexuals and the military rages on, he is in demand. Everyone, it seems, wants to hear how he was kicked out of Annapolis for being gay just a week before graduation in 1987. One minute, it's the networks; the next, the news weeklies, all asking about his lawsuit to be reinstated in the Navy. It was dismissed in late 1991 in Federal District Court in Washington and is being appealed.

All the while, he tours the country, speaking at colleges about gay men and lesbians in the military and promoting his book, "Honor Bound," now in its second printing.

In two recent conversations in Greenwich Village -- one in that granddaddy of New York gay bars, Julius', and the other in a cafe -- the former Navy man, now law student, seemed to vacillate. He was at times the conservative Minnesota son of Scandinavian stock, at other times the fighter for gay rights.

So great is the burden he carries of being a symbol and so practiced is he at telling his story that he can seem programmed, more like a walking news release than a man who had his life torn apart. Because he is afraid of undercutting his lawsuit against the government, he said, he portrays himself as purer than pure, refusing even to answer whether he has a boyfriend.

His replies are careful, a mix of natural Midwestern reserve and lobbyist's savvy. He is, in short, the perfect symbol for this fight, the understated, well-scrubbed boy next door. No one will ever label Joe Steffan a screaming queen.

"If you think I'm straight now," he added, "you should have seen me at the [Naval] Academy."

Still, a wry humor shone through. He was outraged at the military's stereotyped portrayal of homosexuals as sexual predators waiting to pounce in barracks and showers. He pointed out that beginning with elementary school, gay men and lesbians showered with their classmates, learning when it was OK to feel sexual and when it was not. Then he let go with a very un-Steffan-like line:

"Heterosexual men," he said, "have an annoying habit of overestimating their own attractiveness."

At Julius', there were flashes of recognition from the crowd: a shake of the hand, a pat on the back. One man sat nearby staring, and at first it wasn't clear if he was watching or cruising. Then he, too, came over. "We're with you," he said.

Mr. Steffan took it in stride. But he admitted that there were times when the burden was too great. "Fairly often, actually," he said, adding: "There's this constant sort of tension: 'Am I too devoted to this issue? Should I just be getting on with my life?' But I'm drawn back because I realize how much it will mean when this policy changes."

But will it change? President Clinton, in the face of fierce congressional and military opposition, delayed for at least six months his plan to end the ban on homosexuals in the armed services.

"I'm discouraged," Mr. Steffan said. "In terms of the tenor of the debate, we've lost ground. I've come to appreciate the power of hatred. We're being portrayed as inherently immoral disease carriers unable to control their sexuality. I think people realize it's wrong to kick gay people out of the military. But they have been made afraid."

In his lawsuit, Mr. Steffan is seeking reinstatement into the Navy as an officer.

"I think what's going on in the military," he said, "is denial and perpetuating the myth that the military is the last bastion of white male heterosexuality. . . This male arrogant elitism that the military is an institution for a few, for one small segment of our society."

Those are tough words from someone who was as by-the-book Navy as they come, ranking in the top 10 of his Naval Academy class. But then, his whole life has flipped upside down. Once a Republican, he is now a staunch Democrat. A former Roman Catholic choir boy, he now eschews religion. A deep-in-his-soul Midwesterner, he has moved to Hartford, Conn., where he studies law at the University of Connecticut. A one-time "Yes, sir!" military man, he led a recent successful fight to ban military recruiters at the law school.

For the most part, he repressed his homosexuality at the Academy, joining in with the other midshipmen in making anti-gay jokes. But more and more, Mr. Steffan realized he was gay. Word leaked out that he was gay and he was expelled. When all was known, he said, fellow midshipmen treated him with respect. One even apologized for any offensive comments he might have made about homosexuality.

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