Steffan blames ignorance for military gay ban

February 10, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Former Naval Academy midshipman Joseph Steffan told a college audience last night that the argument about homosexuals in the armed forces mirrors the debate over racial integration of the military in the 1940s. And the problem then was the same as it is now, he said: ignorance and hatred.

Mr. Steffan, 28, who was discharged from the academy in 1987 for admitting he was a homosexual, told nearly 400 people at Anne Arundel Community College that the military ban against gay men and women is the last remaining government sanctioned discrimination against a minority group.

"We are fighting against this concept of hatred," said Mr. Steffan, who sued the government in federal court to gain reinstatement in the Navy and to overturn the military's policy on homosexuals. The case, dismissed by a federal district judge in 1991, is pending before a U.S. appeals court in the District of Columbia.

Most of Mr. Steffan's 90-minute appearance was taken up with his account of his years at the academy. By his fourth year, he had risen to the rank of battalion commander, with responsibility for 800 midshipmen, a sixth of the brigade. He told how he was twice chosen to sing the national anthem at the nationally televised Army-Navy football game.

"The commandant felt I was the kind of person he wanted representing the academy," Mr. Steffan told his audience at the Pascal Center for Performing Arts.

Mr. Steffan, now a second-year law student at the University of Connecticut in Hartford, told his audience how, in his second year in Annapolis, he fought against the realization of his attraction to othermen. For Mr. Steffan, who grew up in a church-going Roman Catholic family in a small farming town in northern Minnesota, the thought that he might be a homosexual was loathsome.

"No matter how hard I struggled to deny what I was feeling, I wasn't changing," he said.

Some time after he told two close friends that he was gay, the Naval Investigative Service began checking rumors about Mr. Steffan's sexual orientation. Six weeks short of graduation, he was compelled to acknowledge to the commandant that he was a homosexual, although he was never involved in homosexual activity. On the basis of the admission alone, he was discharged.

The same officers who elevated him to battalion commander dropped his rank in military performance from A to F, because the rules say homosexuality is "incompatible" with military service.

"Nothing about me had changed," said Mr. Steffan. "The only thing that changed was their perception of what I was."

This perception, he said, is founded in ignorance, as were attitudes that prevailed before President Harry S. Truman signed the order in 1948 to integrate the armed forces. Mr. Steffan read from a 1941 Navy memorandum that said "hiring Negroes as anything but mess attendants" would lead to "disruptive and undermining conditions" among the troops.

He said he foresees no flood of homosexuals joining the military if and when the policy changes. Homosexuals have been in the armed forces and always will be, he said.

"Changing this policy is not about changing the military," Mr. Steffan said. "It's not about change. It's about denial. It's about a male hierarchy protecting the image of its own masculinity."

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