The Steffan Decision

November 23, 1993

The U.S. Naval Academy had no comment after gay midshipman Joseph C. Steffan won a court battle to get the diploma that was unfairly denied him six years ago. But you can bet there's talk aplenty behind the Academy gates about what this decision means for the military's policies against homosexuals, including "don't ask, don't tell."

Mr. Steffan was forced out of the Naval Academy in 1987, just six weeks before graduation, after confiding his sexual preferences to two classmates. As a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington recognized, his record was "untarnished by even a scintilla of misconduct." He was one of the 10 highest-ranking students at Annapolis, and he boasted a military performance rating of "A" at the time the Academy learned he was gay. The rating summarily was dropped to "F," and he was kicked out.

The federal appeals panel unanimously ruled the only way a fair-minded body could: by ordering the Pentagon to give Mr. Steffan his diploma and an officer's commission.

More than that, the court blasted every argument the military uses to justify treating gays differently. It denounced as unconstitutional the policy of expelling gays merely for admitting who they are. It said the Constitution does not allow discrimination against a group of persons simply because non-gay servicemen do not like them. It rejected the military's claim that it should be exempted from constitutional dictates.

This is the fifth federal court decision this year overturning military policies against gays. While the rules regarding gays have changed since Mr. Steffan and the other plaintiffs were expelled, they have not changed that much.

Gays still can be ousted for admitting to being homosexual -- regardless of conduct. Military commanders still can start a probe if a fellow soldier or sailor reports that someone is gay. Considering the strength of the military's resistance to lifting the ban on gays, "don't ask, don't tell" seemed a reasonable compromise.

Nonetheless, these court decisions cast the constitutionality of such a policy -- which continues to judge people by who they are rather than what they do -- into serious doubt.

The rulings also set up inescapable contradictions. The courts have ordered Mr. Steffan reinstated. Yet he is now openly gay; he has told. His presence simply cannot be reconciled with a policy that insists gays keep their identities a secret.

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