CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The political debate over lifting the ban on gays in the military has very real consequences for Marine Sgt. Justin Elzie.
Today -- at Camp Lejeune, southeast of here near North Carolina's coast -- a five-member board of his peers will recommend whether the 30-year-old Marine should be discharged for announcing that he is a homosexual.
It is the first step in an administrative process that ultimately may end in Washington, in the hands of President Clinton.
The military's decision to pursue the case, despite the national debate that has gone on since Mr. Clinton announced his intention to lift the ban, hasn't kept the trim, mustachioed Marine quiet.
He spoke here last night as part of the University of North Carolina's Lesbian and Gay Awareness Week. A town councilman presented him with the key to the city of Chapel Hill and invoked the Marine motto, "Semper fidelis" -- "always faithful."
"I've got nothing to hide; I have an outstanding career behind me," said Sergeant Elzie, voted "Marine of the Year" while stationed in Okinawa in 1989. "If they recommend discharge, they are only embarrassing themselves. My record is clear."
When the Marine announced on national television in late January that he was a homosexual, the declaration violated the military's long-standing ban on gays within its ranks.
The prohibition is a policy that influential senators and military leaders have argued must remain in place if U.S. armed forces are to defend their country effectively.
Hearings, chaired by Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who supports the ban, opened in Washington Monday amid charges by gay rights activists and fund-raisers that Mr. Clinton was pulling back from his pledge to lift the ban.
The president, who agreed to put off a decision until July 15, suggested last week he might entertain a recommendation to keep gays out of certain military jobs.
As the Pentagon studies ways to lift the ban against gays, the military has agreed not to ask recruits their sexual orientation. However, disciplinary proceedings are beginning against against personnel who identify themselves as gay or who are caught in a homosexual encounter, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
Sergeant Elzie, a Wyoming farm boy who joined the Marines 10 years ago, faces his first hearing today. If the Lejeune administrative review board recommends discharge, his case will be forwarded to the secretary of the Navy.
But the cases of military personnel like Sergeant Elzie, who have only identified themselves as gay and not been caught in a compromising act, will be reviewed by the attorney general and held until the president makes a final decision on lifting the ban, a Pentagon spokesman said.
A supply chief stationed at Camp Lejeune for the past year, Sergeant Elzie has served on security details at U.S. embassies in Finland and Egypt and consistently received outstanding evaluations, including a recent one that stated he would make an "excellent career Marine."
He told about 50 people at the university that although he is open about his sexual orientation, "I don't take my homosexuality to work with me. I conduct myself professionally."
Even though the military is no longer asking recruits about their sexual preference, Sergeant Elzie said, investigations of suspected homosexuals are still under way and lists are being kept.
But Sergeant Elzie said he stands by his decision to speak out.
"I came out to make a positive difference, to try and dispel a lot of the stereotypical and the cultural myths," he said. "And I don't regret it one bit."