Battling the ban on gays in the military Former ROTC cadet decided to make waves

March 17, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Jim Holobaugh has gone from poster boy to . . . poster boy.

In 1987, the ROTC cadet was the stuff of a recruiter's dreams. With his straight A's in all his military science classes and a milk-fed, Midwestern sort of handsomeness, he was selected to appear in a national ROTC recruiting ad. Today, as intelligent and presentable as ever, he still seems the perfect spokesman -- this time, though, as an openly gay man fighting the ban on homosexuals in the military.

Mr. Holobaugh, in town to promote his new book, "Torn Allegiances: The Story of a Gay Cadet," is part of a growing group to come out of the military closet and put a human face on the controversy over gays in the armed forces. That a number of them are high achievers -- consider Joseph Steffan, for example, a battalion commander at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis -- may not be coincidental, Mr. Holobaugh says.

"Gay people represent all backgrounds. The only reason there may be a correlation is that, when you're in the closet, you work really hard at winning people's approval," says Mr. Holobaugh, 27.

Like Mr. Steffan, Mr. Holobaugh came from a conservative, small-town background. Growing up in the Ozarks town of Ava, Mo., Mr. Holobaugh had what he considers a normal youth, including dates with young women. As a "Reagan youth," he says, he joined ROTC as a way to serve his country as well as help pay for college. He received a ROTC scholarship, which would pay his tuition in exchange for active or reserve duty after graduation, and went to the University of Missouri at Rolla in pursuit of an engineering degree. He transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, where he graduated in 1990.

Mr. Holobaugh, currently working on a graduate degree in management at Yale University, says he began to realize he was gay in college. After meeting and falling in love with a medical student -- now a doctor and still his companion -- he decided to tell ROTC officials that he was gay. As a result, he was "disenrolled" from the program and ordered to repay the scholarship money, estimated at $35,000.

"One of the concerns in the military is not making waves," Mr. Holobaugh says. At one point he considered repaying the scholarship and not making a public fuss. "But this policy is such a waste. The fact that Congress is spending so much time and energy on it is a waste of time."

Mr. Holobaugh initially asked the Army to terminate his scholarship since he did not think it would commission him as an officer upon graduation knowing he was gay. But then, he decided to fight, enlisting the help of attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union and speaking on college campuses and to the media. Many campuses, including his own, supported his fight, saying the ROTC ban on gays flew in the face of the universities' own non-discrimination principles.

"As I became more comfortable with being gay, once I was able to tell my father I was gay, I no longer care what other people think," Mr. Holobaugh says of his decision to go public. "It was difficult at the time, but now, looking back, no doubt it's been a net positive. It's a weight off my back."

The Army dropped its order that he repay the scholarship, although it continues to refuse to commission him. Mr. Holobaugh says should the ban on gays in the military be rescinded, he would love to serve as an officer; but, he adds, that's unlikely because he's been away from military training for several years now. He is attending business school full-time and expects to graduate from Yale next year, as well as promoting his book and his cause.

"I don't plan on making a career out of being a gay activist," he says. "I don't want to be a victim all my life, not that all gay activists are victims."

One of his lawyers, Marc Wolinsky of New York, credits Mr. Holobaugh with helping push the issue of gays in the military to the forefront. "I'm just a lawyer. Without people like Joe and Jim being able to stand up and fight, there's nothing a lawyer can do," says Mr. Wolinsky, who also represents Mr. Steffan. "They don't fit the stereotype of gays that most people have."

Mr. Steffan, 28, has sued the government to gain reinstatement in the Navy and overturn its policy on gays. The case was dismissed in 1991, but he has appealed that decision.

What will happen with gays in ROTC is linked, of course, to what happens with gays in the military in general. President Clinton in January ordered a six-month study of the issue, after which he would fulfill a campaign promise to lift the ban.

Army ROTC applicants are no longer asked if they are homosexual, says Maj. Robert Shepherd, spokesman for the U.S. Army ROTC Cadet Command in Fort Monroe, Va.

"That does not preclude [disciplinary] actions from being taken for homosexual actions," he says. "If nobody asks the question, though, and there are no other indicators in regards to conduct or behavior, it's kind of a moot point."

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