Gay policy, honor codes conflict Lying to conceal sexual orientation is grounds for dismissal at academies ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

July 21, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer Staff writer Rick Sia contributed to this article.

In the spring of 1987, several weeks before his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, Midshipman 1st Class Joseph Steffan was called into a conference room.

"I'd like your word, are you a homosexual?" asked the Navy captain.

"Yes, sir," replied Midshipman Steffan, who was soon discharged after a stellar four years in Annapolis, where he had risen to become a battalion commander.

The midshipman had not been accused of any homosexual conduct, but he was bound by the Honor Concept to answer the question truthfully. The concept states simply that midshipmen do not "lie, cheat or steal," and any violation could result in dismissal.

Under the policy announced this week by President Clinton, service members and recruits will no longer be asked about their sexual orientation. Only homosexual conduct -- ranging from a statement to sexual contact -- can result in dismissal.

Former military leaders and gay activists readily admit many gay service members will end up lying to protect themselves -- violating the academy's vaunted Honor Concept.

"What happens if you go to a gay bar and someone asks, 'Why did you go to a gay bar?' " wondered Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense, a gay legal and education organization. "You can't say, 'Because I'm gay.' "

But at the Naval Academy and the other service academies, lying also could end in dismissal.

"The Honor Concept at Annapolis is based on the tenet that personal honor is an absolute -- you either have honor or you do not," Mr. Steffan wrote in "Honor Bound: A Gay Naval Midshipman Fights to Serve His Country." By lying, he wrote, "I would have given up my honor, destroying everything it means to be a midshipman."

The new policy could add a new twist to an expression coined by the book of the same name: Catch-22.

"In order to stay in you have to lie. If you lie, we'll kick you out. It's a very circular type of thing," said Michael W. Gary, a 1985 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and founder of Service Academy Gay and Lesbian Alumni, which counts about 100 members from all service academies.

"I think it creates a lot of problems with the Honor Code," said Lt. Zoe Dunning, a 1985 Naval Academy graduate, who declared she was a lesbian at a January rally in support of a gay Navy petty officer. The 29-year-old officer is facing an honorable discharge from the Navy Reserve.

Service academy classes produce close-knit groups, they said, and there are constant questions about dating, the opposite sex and weekend activities. "You just tap dance around the issue. You find yourself making lies on top of lies," said Mr. Gary, who realized he was gay while a West Point cadet but didn't fully accept it until 1988. He left the military in 1990.

The new policy will further complicate the Honor Code, since the Pentagon guidelines say that associating with homosexuals, attending a gay rights parade or visiting a gay bar will not on its own spur an an investigation, said gay activists and others.

"Those are questions we'll have to ask ourselves. Will it be a problem?" acknowledged academy spokeswoman Karen Myers. "We're reviewing all Naval Academy policies to determine if they're in line with the new Department of Defense directive."

But during a Senate hearing yesterday, the Navy's top officer saw no need to change the service academy honor codes in light of the new policy.

"I don't see any reason why it should" be changed, said Admiral Frank B. Kelso II, a Naval Academy graduate and Chief of Naval Operations, in response to a question from Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a former Navy secretary.

Credible evidence of homosexual conduct would have to be gathered before any questioning of an academy student could begin, he said. The student would then have to answer the questions truthfully.

Numerous midshipmen interviewed on the streets of Annapolis yesterday said they would carry out the policy as officers. But several were confused by it. How could it bar a statement of homosexuality but allow attendance at a gay rights parade or a visit to a gay bar? And how would such a policy jibe with the Honor Code? All spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.

"It's touchy, that's why I don't think it's going to work," said one third-class midshipman from Connecticut. "When you look at it, it's a joke." Another third-class midshipman quickly noted that the Honor Code cannot be used against a midshipman, who could refuse to answer. "You'd say, 'I believe you're using the honor code against me,' " the midshipman from Florida said. Navy Cmdr. Bob Parsons, a 1971 academy graduate, agreed. "I think he can choose not to answer questions without compromising his honor," he said.

But such an answer, said Lieutenant Dunning, "raises the suspicion."

"You might as well just tell them you're gay," said Mr. Gary. "Realistically, you answer questions like that and they're going to find something to kick you out."

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