A journey of changes for gay ex-midshipman Steffan still fighting his dismissal ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

February 05, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

To the guards at the Naval Academy gates he was just another civilian, strolling the grounds on a cold evening last October. Joseph Steffan had returned to walk the campus alone with his thoughts, having traveled so far in the nine years since he first entered those gates to pursue a Navy career.

Joseph Steffan, once the all-American blue-eyed boy brimming with idealism and abiding faith in God, country and the military way, had changed. Now he was Joseph Steffan, the gay ex-midshipmen suing in federal court to end the military ban on homosexuals, a walking challenge to much that is held dear at the academy and back in his little hometown of Warren, Minn.

He had come to Annapolis last fall to tape another in a parade of interviews, this one with a television crew from "20/20." Barred from the campus, the camera crew rented a yacht, dropped anchor in Annapolis Harbor just beyond the academy sea wall, and did the shot there.

When the day's work was done, Mr. Steffan took some time alone at dusk with his memories of academy life.

"It was quite nice to just walk around and think about the time I spent there," said Mr. Steffan, 28. "I really have come an incredible distance."

He made the remarks in a telephone interview yesterday, one of probably 500 interviews he has done in the nearly six years since he was discharged from the academy for being a homosexual.

He has told and retold his story on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, and in his book, "Honor Bound," published last year.

On Tuesday evening, he will tell it again, finding himself more in demand than ever as a national debate rages over President Clinton's announced plan to change the military policy on gays.

After an appearance in Bridgeport, Conn., he will fly in to speak at the Anne Arundel Community College's Pascal Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m.

He laughed when it was suggested that the interviews have come to resemble the recitations he had to bark on command of upper class members in his first year at the academy.

Like so many other plebes, he never thought he'd make it through that first year of arduous physical training, classwork and constant drilling in the corridors and the cafeteria on an endless list of trivia: military ranks, insignia, famous naval sayings, even the hometowns of each of his company mates.

He made it through the first year, and the second and the third. He rose to the top of the class of 1987, being named in his fourth and final year a battalion commander in charge of 800 midshipmen, one sixth of the entire brigade. Twice he sang the National Anthem at the nationally televised Army-Navy football game.

Mr. Steffan had followed the academy's Honor Concept, "based on the tenet that personal honor is an absolute -- you either have honor or you do not," as he wrote in his book. He followed the edict right up to that spring afternoon in 1987 when he found himself seated before the commandant of midshipmen, Capt. Howard Habermeyer.

He was weeks shy of graduation, of his naval officer's commission, of beginning a career in the submarine service.

"Are you willing to state at this time that you are a homosexual?" the captain asked.

"Yes sir, I am," Mr. Steffan replied.

Mr. Steffan became one of some 1,600 men and women discharged by the military annually for homosexuality. He never even received an academy diploma. After a Navy investigation, he was discharged on the basis of his own admission, for his status not his conduct, as he had never engaged in a sexual relationship at the academy.

With his admission, Mr. Steffan, Mr. White Male American, said he began "to feel what it's like to go from one of the most favored groups to the least favored groups in society."

Life would never be the same. He has gone from Republican to Democrat, from church-going Catholic to falling away from religion, from belief to skepticism on the wisdom of military judgment.

"I don't hate the military," he said, "I hate what happened to me because of the ignorance perpetuated by the military."

The change was really set in motion in his second year at the academy, as Mr. Steffan fought to deny his feelings for other men, then struggled to accept himself as he was. The boy raised in a Catholic, Republican home in the heartland had always hated homosexuals.

"I had hated them all my life," he wrote. No one wanted less to be gay than he did.

But in that bastion of male ego on the Severn River, of all places, he came to terms with himself.

Now a second-year student at the University of Connecticut Law School in Hartford, he is working against the military's anti-gay policy. His suit, dismissed by a U.S. Circuit Court judge in 1991, has moved to the federal appeals court. Mr. Steffan is seeking reinstatement, his degree and the end of the military's anti-gay policy. He says the policy represents not concern about morale, discipline or military order, but prejudice.

"The reality is that gay people have been there," said Mr. Steffan. "We always have been, we always will be," he said.

"The military is as gay today as it ever will be," Mr. Steffan said.

He pointed out that of the 16 nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, only the United States and Britain maintain a ban against homosexuals.

Mr. Steffan rejected the notion that conflicts surely will arise if gay and straight soldiers live together in close quarters. The image of the sex-starved homosexual making moves in the group shower is just another stereotype.

"It really is a gut argument," he said. "It appeals to people emotionally."

By telling his story at the community college, he hopes to help allay that prejudice, a hatred that he himself harbored in Warren, Minn.

More than a legal argument, he said, "having someone walk in your footsteps through that discrimination is a much more powerful message."

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