A Top Gun Navy aviator symbolizes sophisticated campaign for gays His was the face to destroy a myth

April 13, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

The Naval aviator from Virginia Beach was looking for some advice before telling his fellow officers that he was gay. The handful of veterans gathered in Washington was looking for the right strategy to promote removal of the ban on gays in the military.

They met last spring at a conference held within blocks of the White House. When Lt. Tracy W. J. Thorne offered to help fight the ban, the gay veterans saw in the wholesome-looking, Top Gun-type navigator a face that perhaps could convince a nation of the justness of their cause.

Within weeks of that April meeting, federal legislation was introduced to end the ban on gays in the military. That same day, Lieutenant Thorne appeared on national television to challenge a policy he saw as "based in bigotry and hatred."

And a national debate had begun.

The confluence of players -- an aviator acting out of personal conviction and a cadre of activist gay and lesbian veterans working on behalf of thousands -- sparked a high-profile "outing" of an issue the veterans had been pursuing for years.

The fact that it coincided with a presidential campaign carried the issue to a point where today the president of the United States is pitted against some of the most powerful men in Congress, the military establishment and many of America's influential religious groups.

"You put a face on it and then people start to think. That's what Tracy Thorne did," said Alan G. Stephens, a former Army captain from Baltimore and spokesman for the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America. "This was an extremely important civil rights issue where a thousand people a year were being discriminated against and nobody gave a damn."

But President Clinton's election and his continued pledge to lift the ban gave momentum to that fight.

"If Bush was elected, we would not be here today," said Karen Stupski, a gay veteran from Baltimore County who is participating in a national bus tour to promote overturning the ban.

What began as a volunteer grass-roots effort to end decades of institutionalized discrimination of gays in the military has evolved into an organized campaign complete with paid staff, high-powered lobbyists, political and media consultants, even a

pollster.

For months, volunteers worked on the military ban issue with support from the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the gay veterans association. Then, with an advocate in the White House, those same groups, along with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the America Way and others, decided to put forth one concerted effort.

In February, that effort, now named The Campaign For Military Service, moved into a three-story brownstone in Washington, the same building where civil rights advocates drafted important legislation in the 1960s.

From a suite of offices there, the campaign has organized its onslaught on the ban, including a national bus tour of activists who have introduced Americans in cities from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Gainesville, Fla., to gay servicemen like Lieutenant Thorne.

"We are going all across the country, taking our stories to the American people, talking about our service," said Tanya L. Domi, a former Army captain from Silver Spring who is on the bus.

The "Tour of Duty" bus stops in Baltimore April 22. It finishes its trip at the April 25 march on Washington for gay rights, which organizers hope will do for gays and lesbians what the 1963 March on Washington did for black rights.

"We believe this march is the unfinished chapter of civil rights in ,, America," said Robert Bray, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"We are expecting 1 million people . . . One of the reasons they are all coming in is the galvanizing effect of the ban against gays in the military."

Where once only gay veterans or activists ensconced in other careers were willing to speak out on the ban, now active duty military -- soldiers and aviators, Marines and sailors -- are adding their voices to the debate and forfeiting their careers.

"Each of these people are perfect for what Madison Avenue would ask for to debunk stereotypes," said David B. Vershure, an aide to Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colorado, who introduced the bill to outlaw the ban on gays in the military. "The burden of proof on us has been to show [they're] good soldiers. That wasn't hard to do."

Not with people like Marine Sgt. Justin C. Elzie, voted Marine of the Year in 1989 by his battalion while stationed in Okinawa, and Navy Reserve Lt. Zoe Dunning, a Naval Academy graduate now attending Stanford business school.

After serving in silence for years, each publicly declared their homosexuality within days of President Clinton's inaugural.

Both are in the process of being discharged.

Proponents and opponents of the ban agree that the parade of exemplary gay servicemen and women appearing on TV and in the newspapers has raised doubt about the stereotype that gays are unfit for military service.

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